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Vetting Your Editorial Content

Posted on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 10:02 AM

Are editors and publishers doing enough to produce quality content?

By Meredith L. Dias

Times are tough for editorial quality. All too often in recent months, publications, websites, and newsrooms have scrambled to correct wildly erroneous content in their coverage of major news stories. In their mad dash to report first, some editors have failed to vet their content properly before posting. Make no mistake: Reporting first has its benefits. It establishes a publication as a go-to news source -- but only if that up-to-the-minute content is reliable and accurate.

The Manti Te'o Debacle

The recent Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax illustrates the need for thorough fact checking before publication. The college football star won widespread media sympathy after the tragic death of his girlfriend in September 2012. The truth of the matter sent the media and sports worlds into a tailspin. In a twist that David S. Klein of Advertising Age called "a massive failure of reporting, a de-pantsing of sports journalism," intrepid reporters from Deadspin.com revealed in January 2013 that the girlfriend never existed.

In the aftermath of the media disaster, more and more publishers are scrutinizing the editorial quality of their publications. A publication can only survive if readers and advertisers consider it credible, and thorough research is a vital contributor to that credibility. If publications are allowing content rife with factual errors to pass through the editorial sieve, they run the risk of driving away readers (who will seek more reliable content elsewhere) and advertisers (who will funnel dollars into publications more trusted by those readers). Our editor, William Dunkerley, agrees in a recent STRAT article: "It is less common to measure how believable and reliable a publication is generally perceived to be by readers," he says. "Yet that is a very important indicator of product quality."

So What Is Editorial Quality, Anyway?

The phrase "editorial quality" lends itself to all manner of subjective definitions. However, certain elements are universal in terms of editorial quality assurance: neutrality, research, fact checking, proper source attribution, and proofreading (among others). These elements ensure that the final editorial product doesn't compromise the publication's integrity. They allow a publication to stand tall among its competitors.

Dunkerley defines editorial quality thusly: "Quality is in the eyes of the beholder, the reader. Often, editorial departments measure reader satisfaction with individual articles, categories of content, and even gauge reaction to an issue as a whole."

Quality vs. Being "First"

Editors of news content face a dilemma: Should they spend time vetting content for accuracy, or should they post first and correct later to keep pace with their competitors? There are pros and cons to both approaches, but the latter opens the door for debacles like the Manti Te'o hoax.

Deadlines are tighter than ever in the 24-hour news cycle, and fact checking seems like an easy target when streamlining the editorial process. Breaking a big story first can certainly enhance's a publication's perceived quality; however, getting major facts wrong in hot pursuit of being "first" can destroy credibility with the very readers and advertisers that sustain said publication.

Editorial Quality Post-Recession

During the recession a few years ago, many newspapers and magazines were forced to downsize their editorial staffs. As Dunkerley states in his STRAT article, "Certainly at a time when everyone was scrambling to avoid losing even more revenue to the weak economy, it seemed easier to make do with one less editor than one less ad salesperson." To this day, many newsrooms are still operating on reduced cylinders.

Some publishers are finding now, however, that overall quality has taken a hit. Reduced editorial staffs have resulted in reduced ability to fact-check before an article goes public. The staff cuts of the recession may have helped to save the publications in the short term, but we're seeing now that these cuts may have helped create an environment in which short-staffed publications are forced to play fast and loose with the facts to stay competitive in a news world that never sleeps.

All publications, even the best ones with the most robust editorial staffs, make mistakes. It's bound to happen. However, shoddy coverage of major news stories has unearthed a possible editorial epidemic: sacrificing quality and accuracy for timeliness. Moving forward, publications must strike a balance between editorial integrity and promptness of reporting. After all, a breaking news story is only as valuable as it is true.

Meredith L. Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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