Standards

By Mary Ellen Slayter

The bloggers are coming!
The bloggers are coming!
And it looks like they all dropped their dictionaries.

Should copy editors pick them up?

From what I've seen purporting to be "citizen journalism" online, I sure hope so. Copy editing is at the heart of the discipline of verification that separates journalism from mere gossip, and yet I keep hearing that we're just a bunch of control freaks out to ruin the party. Far from bringing about the death of the blogosphere, thorough editing is what can save it from collapsing into inflammatory gibberish and what will make it possible for mainstream media companies to incorporate the best features of blogging into their brands.

But first we have to stop acting like blogs are different from any other "content delivery method," which the bloggers love reminding us that our boring old newspapers are after all. Blogs are not any different. Entertainment is one thing, but online journalism still relies on the same principles of accuracy, fairness and clarity that we strive for every day in the newspaper. Copy editors are a crucial part of that in print, and they will become more so online as the medium matures.

Second, we have to stop hiding behind language about liability. It doesn't matter if the courts rule that a blogger is responsible for his words, not the media company that publishes them. That is not a question of liability. It's one of credibility, our most valuable commodity. Regardless of what the fine print says, if your newspaper is hosting an amateur blog filled with libelous comments,horrid writing, unverified rumors and mundane nonsense, that content will be associated with your masthead, and it will damage it.

Third, we need to closely examine this assumption that people are eager to read the unfiltered reports of their fellow citizens without us pesky, biased journalists getting in the way, and that if we don't provide a means for people to do this in our publications, we will be crushed. This was a common thread in both of the Internet-oriented presentations at the American Copy Editors Society conference that I attended, and it's also come up in my online journalism class at the University of Maryland. I'm not convinced. There are abundant ways to acquire unfiltered, unverified local news directly from your neighbors, which have been around much longer than the Internet, and they've all failed to destroy newspapers. For instance, most people I know use the telephone. What professional journalists do that your Aunt Mabel who knows everyone is town doesn't is distill all this information, making educated judgments about what sources are trustworthy, which facts need to be triple-checked and how to get this information across clearly. Sometimes we fall short, but at least we're trying. Most bloggers aren't.

We absolutely should encourage more reader participation, and blogs can be a part of that, but that doesn't mean giving them carte blanche on our publications. We don't let readers control Page One, or even letters to the editor. Blogs incorporated into our online news arms should be no different.