Whose responsibility is it anyway? Could survival of the fittest mean journalists reclaiming story ownership?

A comment from Sam Shepherd made me think about the significance of the PCC ruling today – that numerous UK publications had reported excessively on a man’s suicide, by going into too much detail.

I’d been thinking about the significance of the fact that the 12 publications had all based their copy on an news agency article (itself later revised). That defence simply didn’t hold water with the PCC. A good victory for Nick Davies’ fight against churnalism, perhaps.

But Shepherd was more perturbed by the fact that nine of the 12 perpetrators were online publications, as she wrote in a blog post:

“In lots of the cases in this adjudication, the original version didn’t make the paper. The offending detail was removed, by subs who know the rules.”

“The web DOES need subs,” she continues.

Andy Dickinson joins the debate, saying that he agrees with Shepherd, “but perhaps that’s one of the tough pills to swallow in these leaner times.”

“Perhaps we let the responsibility for that stuff slide. Time for individual journos to take back that skill?”

I think he’s got a point. The best that can come of these cost-cutting times is more individual responsibility for work. Yes, in every ideal news environment (though people like IFRA Newsplex’s Dietmar Schantin argue that the more subbing stages you have the more errors are introduced) we’d have things checked by more than one pair of eyes.

But … jobs are in short-supply and some kind of survival of the fittest has to take place. At the moment that seems to mean you need to be cheap, do multimedia and turn out copy quickly. Wouldn’t it be good if the journalists to rise to the top were also capable of making the same quick judgments as sub-editors? Is that really too much to ask?

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3 comments

  1. Sam Shepherd

    I’ve been thinking about this since I saw yours and Andy’s replies… I think realistically, in the long term we do need a new kind of journalist who IS master of all trades. But.
    In the newspaper business as it is, what journalist could claim to write copy is legally perfect, sticks exactly to the PCC code, and is so ‘tight and bright’ (copyright J.Foscolo) that it doesn’t need changing?
    If they’re not recent trainees they may well have been educated on the mantra ‘that’s what subs are for’.
    If they work in the regionals they’re often too busy (especially in today’s climate) banging things out to worry about legal or ethical niceties.
    I’m not saying that’s the way it should be, but in the system we have, subs have the time and the knowledge required.
    Most reporters don’t. In the future, this will be different. But everything will be different…

  2. Katie McGonagle

    These are interesting points and I agree that we need to be realistic about the resources that are available, but I think the downgrading of subs is a serious mistake which editors will come to regret. Aside from the legal and ethical functions they perform, subs are also a crucial second pair of eyes, able to pick up on mistakes or omissions which a reporter might have overlooked because they are too close to the story.

    I’m also not sure if this will get better in the future. Even if journalists are trained to perform every function in a newsroom, increasing pressure on time and resources means they will be that much more likely to make mistakes. With no one there to pick up on these before publication, the quality and accuracy of the product will surely be compromised.

  3. jtownend

    perhaps the answer is for journalists to know they have to be aware of the big issues and not to get overly complacent (or cynical) about subbing…

    but for the smaller mistakes (and for the removed, impartial second opinion on the occasions the journalists is just too involved in the story) there surely can be no replacement for a second pair of eyes – but perhaps we’ll move to an era where that might just be another reporter.

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