JUDICIOUS EDITING: What are the best practices for editing responsibly?

(The original version of this entry was written by Matthew Scianitti)

The 2009 Supreme Court of Canada ruling Grant v. Torstar focused on a 1999 Toronto Star article that included comments from northern Ontario residents about the political friendships of a local businessman. The residents believed the businessman was using his friendships with provincial government officials to obtain land he wanted to design a golf course on. In its decision, Canada’s highest court set a precedent by creating the defamation defence Public Interest Responsible Communication (PIRC). A list of factors accompanied the brand new defence, and these factors needed to be met in order for a media outlet to secure the protection of PIRC. Some of the eight factors enumerated included: the seriousness of the allegation in a particular piece, the urgency of the subject matter and the status and reliability of sources. The sixth factor on the list, which judges whether the “inclusion of the defamatory statement was justifiable (para 118),” is quite interesting because it focuses on the decisions made during the editing process. As Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin states in the decision:

"As discussed earlier (paras. 108-9), it is for the jury to determine whether inclusion of a defamatory statement was necessary to communicating on a matter of public interest. Its view of the need to include a particular statement may be taken into account in deciding whether the communicator acted responsibly. In applying this factor, the jury should take into account that the decision to include a particular statement may involve a variety of considerations and engage editorial choice, which should be granted generous scope."

The interesting statement in that paragraph is, “the decision to include a particular statement may involve a variety of considerations and engage editorial choice…” This factor attempts to observe the practices and principles that influence an editor’s thought process when he or she is reflecting on the merits of including a inflammatory statement. And if this defamation defence is entitled “Public Interest Responsible Communication” perhaps it’s fair to title the editing involved “responsible editing.”
In sensitive circumstances, such as the decision to include or exclude a defamatory statement, editorial decisions are more than routine. A responsible editor needs to be thorough, critical and completely judicious. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to examine what some of Canada’s newspaper editors regard as the best practices for editing responsibly.

Judicious Editing: What are the Best Practices for Editing Responsibly?

Journalism is a profession that, unlike law or medicine, doesn't have a concrete set of standards. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel listed ten widely cited "Elements" of journalism, and the news values that underlie story selection are fairly universal. A variety of textbooks and style guides posit on the principles of journalism and the standards of particular newsroom roles, including writer, photographer and editor. With respect to editing, The Editorial Eye, by Jane T. Harrigan and Karen Brown Dunlap says the The Message, The Messengers and The Mission are the three main “Editorial Priorities” (5). Carl Sessions Stepp’s Editing for Today’s Newsroom sets out four factors editors must consider when making ethical decisions (193). And in The Art of Editing: In the age of convergence Brian S. Brooks and James L. Pinson devise a three-step process for editing a story (38) as well as a three-step process for acquiring answers to ethical questions (125, 127). What’s more, the role of a single editor is harder to define because in a newsroom there is a hierarchy of editors. (Brooks and Pinson attempt to map out the number of editors in a newspaper newsroom on page 33 of their book).

Each of these books, and others like them, provide practical frameworks, but the practices of responsible editing can’t be arranged into a rigid list of required steps like a medical or legal procedure. Editing is an a priori process: No two stories are exactly alike and an editor only grasp general rules and standards through editing hundreds of stories.

To contemplate the principles that editors consider important to responsible editing, this entry draws on the views of five interviewed Canadian editors: Graham Parley, city editor of the Toronto Star, Drew Gragg, managing editor of the Ottawa Citizen, Michelle Richardson, city editor of Montreal’s The Gazette, Kirk LaPointe, who was then managing editor of the Vancouver Sun (and is now ombud of CBC), and Jim Poling, managing editor of The Hamilton Spectator. Their various opinions can't be used to create one universally applicable list of principles. Most didn't know how to define "judicious editing." Instead, their collective opinions and experiences do reveal general principles and practices each considers important to responsible editing.

In describing factors in responsible editing, the interviewed editors referred made a variety of points that can be summarized under five headings: applying ethics and newsroom codes while editing; balancing a number of factors while editing; considering the public interest while editing; holding newsroom discussions about principles and practices; and considering legal perspectives when making decisions.

1) Applying Ethics and Newsroom Codes

In Editing for Today’s Newsroom, Carl Sessions Stepp insists that an editor needs to use his or her own feelings and perspectives to determine the ethical approach to a situation. “Your ethics begins with you.” Stepp writes. “Whether you are driven by idealism, or fear of getting caught, or a (very valid) concern about throwing away your job and reputation, you can fairly resolve a huge proportion of ethical problems by doing what you know is proper.”

Graham Parley, the city editor of the Toronto Star, relied on his own sense of fairness when he decided to spike (i.e. to kill) a story alleging Toronto mayoral candidate Rob Ford had helped a Toronto resident acquire prescription drugs illegally. Parley says an editor has to consider ethical issues often, and with most every story he edits, fairness is always paramount:

"Just because you can legally publish something doesn’t mean it’s fair…we could legally publish a number of the allegations made against candidates but we have no way of knowing whether the allegations are true and does the person affected have enough time to come back and rebut the mud that might be thrown at them…I think most of the issues that come before editors are fairness. Is it right to have an unnamed source in a story accusing somebody? Is it fair?" (Parley, Oct 19 2010).

Drew Gragg, managing editor of the Ottawa Citizen says he also wonders about the fairness of a story, but he also diligently applies a number of ethical and moral principles when he encounters difficult editorial decisions:

"The ethics of journalism are to be truthful, fair and not conflicting in your interests. Your interests have to be the interests of the reader to have fair unbiased and balanced information that is is also accurate, that is a key part of being fair…against that kind of backdrop we also have a duty to the people your writing about. You have a duty to your readers obviously to present them with trustworthy information. You also have a duty to anybody your writing about." (Gragg, Oct 20 2010).

Michelle Ricardson, city editor for Montreal’s The Gazette, says responsible editing requires answering ethical issues before the reporting stage, when editors assign stories to journalists. She says she decided to reassign a writer after that writer said he would be covering a story close to home and would likely be interviewing neighbours. “We decided that…although he would probably be impartial we didn’t want to take that risk (Oct 21 2010).” Kirk LaPointe, former managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, adds to that point by saying an editor must be able to anticipate ethical issues, particularly those that require sensitivity towards a person or an issue, and respecting rights of privacy:

You start with an understanding of the law as a boundary. You then follow from there into areas of community taste, particular sensitivity around certain subjects, sensitivity around certain peoples who might be part of your news gathering. You have to respect their position, their vulnerability, perhaps their inexperience. So there are also ethical considerations there in terms of invasion of or breach of privacy. There is a raft of issues involving the necessity for certain types of publicity and whether you can still tell your story without necessarily overly identifying aspects of someone’s personal information. (LaPointe, Oct 21 2010).

Jim Poling, managing editor of news for The Hamilton Spectator, says he never sees any ethical situation as black or white, and always applies three questions that he calls “The Trinity of Truth” to every story. “To help gauge the truth," he says. "I repeatedly ask myself three questions…Is it moral? Is it legal? Is it ethical? (Oct 22 2010)”

Indeed, the ethical principle(s) an editor adheres to can be said to be in line with the philosophical treatises of bygone thinkers. Parley’s search for fairness can adhere to Aristole’s Golden Mean (Aristotle: Ethics). Gragg’s consideration of duty echo Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics and the belief that every action has a moral seed precedes it (Kant: Fundamental principles of the Metaphysic of Morals). LaPointe’s concern for sensitivity, vulnerability and privacy sounds like he agrees with the principle of equal liberty (equal freedom for all) and the difference principle (benefits for the least advantaged) proposed in John Rawls “veil of ignorance (Rawls: A Theory of Justice, ch. III ["The original position"]).” No editor, however, subscribes strictly to one philosophers’ creed. Poling’s “Trinity of True” appears to be a mesh of Kant belief in duty and John Stuart Mill’s desire to see the greatest happiness for the greatest number (Mill: Utilitarianism).

Newsroom codes of ethics and codes of conduct also play an important role in responsible editing. At least one, and sometimes all four of the four tenets (Seek Truth and Report it, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable) of the (U.S.) Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics were referenced by the aforementioned editors, and according to all of them most newsrooms have a code of ethics. And if a newsroom doesn’t have a code for some season, Gragg, a member of the Ontario Press Council, says codes are easily available to journalists and editors online. The Ontario Press Council has several on its website. “Editors and journalists have to bear in mind (codes of ethics) when their discussing their approach to a story and when journalists are reporting a story," says Gragg. “I know it’s easy to lose track of all the high-minded ideals sometimes so those conversations are sometimes had with journalists in order to remind them of some of those standards (Oct 20 2010).”

What also helps editors keep the “high-minded ideals” in mind is balance, another principle of responsible editing.

2) The Importance of Balance

Editors are paid to make decisions. When deadline approaches and there are a number of sources, facts, interests and ethical issues to consider it's an editor’s job to make a final decision. According to Carolyn Dale and Time Pilgrim in Fearless Editing, balancing helps an editor make a decision (31). Moreover, Harrigan and Brown Dunlap offer particular questions that can assist an editor in examining every dimension of a story in order to make sure a piece is fair as well as accurate and grammatically correct (129). These questions include: “What are the other sides of the story?” and “How much space does each side get?” (129-130).

Sometimes, however, balancing a story forces an editor to “up the standard,” says Parley. Referring again to his decision to kill a story about Rob Ford allegedly agreeing to obtain prescription drugs for a citizen, Parley says responsible editing means making sure everyone who has a stake in the story gets a chance to articulate their point or their side. And, often, any of the aforementioned news values makes it imperative that an editor balance a story. Parley thought if he published a story accusing Ford of something illegal, without giving Ford a chance to respond, it might sway voters. "If we publish something there is almost no time for another candidate to come back to rebut it," Parley says. "The closer you get to the election date…you publish a story that is accusing someone of something the person being accused has almost no time to defend themselves before voters cast a vote." (Poling, Oct 19 2010).

Regardless of the subject matter, LaPointe says an editor has to be aware of a “tension of absolutes” when they balance a story. “So with that tension,” he says, “you're going to need to make some judgment on what weighs more and what weighs less." (Poling, Oct 21 2010).

What often weighs the heaviest, and demands the most attention, is the public interest.

3) Considering the Public Interest

No matter how many things a responsible editor is expected to be cognizant of, the public interest is always paramount. Harrigan and Brown Dunlap explain that if an editor is a member of the community then he or she has a sense of the community: “They have watched how citizens live their lives and have learned what issues confront them, as well as determined what interests (7).”

An editor’s knowledge of the community, however, can’t be limited to the things the community enjoys or desires most. An editor’s knowledge of a community must extend to those things that make it uncomfortable and the things it finds abhorrent. Dale and Pilgram bridge off from Harrigan and Brown Dunlap’s point and argue an editor has a responsibility to know the "Written Limits," the communities articulated boundaries, and "Unwritten Limits," concerns that have only been voiced (253). Furthermore, an editor has to be aware the definition of the public’s interest could mean different things to different individuals and groups in the community, the city, the province and the country.

Since an editor has to be aware of the different sizes of the public, Poling calls the public interest “movable,” and says large stories that have the potential to be inflammatory or controversial, like the trial of Colonel Russell Williams, forces editors to debate the public’s interest in the story:

Certainly we (newspapers) represent the public interest. That’s a big conversation…we’ve seen debates in newsroom about the Colonel Russell Williams case. Is it in the public interest to publish all the agonizing details? Or is it good enough to say he plead guilty he’s convicted and he’s going to jail? Is it cathartic for them to know exactly what he did and how he did it? Or is it just go enough to say ‘he’s guilty and he’s going away’ . (Poling, Oct 22 2010).

Certainly, when it comes to stories that pique the public’s interest, an editor cannot sit alone at his or her desk following through with autocratic, arbitrary actions (Stepp 21). An editor must join with other editors and journalists in discussing not only the public interest in a story, but also issues of ethics and balance. Conversation, therefore, is another principle of responsible editing.

4) Educating others and discussing issues in the newsroom

A newsroom is a collaborative environment, according to both Harrigan and Brown Dunlap (234-237) and Brooks and Pinson (386-392), and editors from every department have an obligation to make themselves accessible to journalists and other editors. Part of responsible editing, therefore, is both educating others in the newsroom and discussing issues with other editors and writers (Harrigan and Brown Dunlap 234-237 and Brooks and Pinson Dunlap 386-392).

An editor’s role as an educator is more proactive than reactive. Poling, for example, used to teach a course called “Journalism Ethics” in The Spectator newsroom as well with other newsrooms in Metroland, The Spectator’s parent company. Journalists, photographers, circulation staff, and advertising staff would take part. During these classroom sessions, Poling would bring up four scenarios that forced the group to identify the issues, debate ethical questions, balance interests, debate the public interest and, ultimately, make a judgment call. One of the four scenarios is:

"Your police reporter attends the daily cop briefing. Police say they are investigating the vicious beating of a man at popular downtown club/restaurant. The victim, whom police name, is a popular restaurant owner. He is Black. The man's face and throat were slashed with a beer bottle. He is unconscious in hospital. Police say they have leads and tell the public that this is an isolated incident and that the downtown core remains safe for visitors. They say they are investigating the beating as a hate crime. They say racism and gay bashing are two prime motives. Your news editor wants the story for the web. Now. What do you report? How do you report it?"

Conversations that deal with stories about to go to print are far more important then hypothetical situations in a classrooms, and like most editors, Michelle Richardson conducts discussions about hot new items on a daily basis.

Recently, Richardson and some of the The Gazette’s staff debated the importance of revealing names linked to a sexual abuse case. The discussion was extensive and included a number of editors and journalists. “To me a larger discussion needs to be had with other editors about: Are we comfortable naming these people?… Is naming them going to be more harmful or is it beneficial to telling the story and getting that information out there?" (Oct 21 2010) Richardson says that even though conversations like this don’t happen on a daily basis, when they do usually the interests of three parties are taken into consideration: the opinion of the editor, the opinion of the reporter and the opinion of the lawyer. (Oct 21 2010).

5) The Legal Perspective

Lawyers provide advice to help journalists and editors avoid the courtroom, but not every story requires an editor to be aware of legal implications. Still, a lawyer's opinion in a newsroom is indispensable.

Bert Bruser is a veteran media lawyer who provides counsel for the Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper. He knows editors make vital decisions everyday, and when thinking about the principles of responsible editing, he believes that ethics, balance, discussion and the public interest are all significant principles. He singles out public interest as cardinal because it helps an editor judge a story's potential worth to a reader.

When discussing how an editor determines whether a story is in the public interest, he references the coverage of the trial of Colonel Russell Williams.

"We had a problem at the Star, the Colonel Williams case. It was a big dust-up... The Star’s front page with Colonel Williams appearing in what looked like women’s underwear on the front page. (There were) lots of complaints about that from the public that it was wrong. An editor made a decision to publish that on the basis that he thought it told a story. One could debate about that forever. Editors make decisions like that all the time, and I think from what I've seen that what drives them is what they believe the public interest is, and sometimes that is a legal issue and sometimes not. Sometimes you can make it into an ethical issue. But if editors think something is in the public interest then they're going to be trying very hard to publish it." (Bruser, Oct 22 2010).

Bruser says that he is often included in newsroom debates over editorial selection, and sometimes disagrees with judgments, but often those decisions are not based on legal issues. "I’m just a lawyer," he often says. However, Bruser knows editors have enough legal knowledge — beyond simply knowing that Section 2b of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants Canadians freedom of expression — to know the appropriate situations when a lawyer's opinion shouldn't be dismissed.

Gragg, for example, does have an appreciation for law and its impact on an editor's job. He helped the Ottawa Citizen assemble its defence in Quan v. Cusson, a case that centred around published stories about an Ontario police officer who travelled to New York City without permission immediately after September 11, 2001 because he wanted to help with the clean-up and rescue effort. Gragg also thinks some Supreme Court decisions are setting standards not only for journalists but for all citizens.

"We were asking for public interest responsible journalism decision and they named it communication decision because... this defence should apply to anybody whether they’ve gone to J-school or wherever or work for a mainstream media or whatever. And that is more important than ever in social media days... it is an underpinning of journalism. We’re not acting in any special role we’re acting as citizens." (Gragg, Oct 20 2010).

LaPointe, says that eventually, accumulated court decisions might create a kind of list of standards, but he doesn't believe it has happened yet.

"I think what there trying to do is to interpret behaviour in the context of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and I think there are probably hundreds of tests of the Charter that journalism can provide through the courts and so one by one I expect that your going to get this composite sketch created over time that helps media really understand what its rights are and aren’t and what it needs to do in terms of comporting itself properly. But, no, I don’t sense anything of that direct nature going on." (Oct 21 2010 ).

Works Cited

Aristotle: Ethics Book II (para. 1104a-1109b).

Brooks, B.S., Pinson, J.L. (2009) The Art of Editing: In the age of convergence. (9th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Clark, R.P., & Fry, D. (1992) Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, Inc.

Dale, C. & Pilgrim, T. (2005) Fearless Editing: Crafting words and images for print, web, and public relations. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Gilmore, G. (1990) Modern Newspaper Editing. (4th ed.) Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press Inc.

Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61.

Harrigan, J.T., & Dunlap, K.B. (2004) The Editorial Eye. (2nd ed.) Bedford/ St. Martin’s

Kant: Fundamental principles of the Metaphysic of Morals

Koch. T. (1990) The News as Myth: Fact and Context in Journalism. Westpot, CT: Greenwood Press

Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2001, 2007) The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople should know and the public should expect. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press

Mill: Utilitarianismch. 2 ("What utilitarianism is").

Quan v. Cusson, 2009 SCC 62

Rawls: A Theory of Justice, ch. III ("The original position").

Sessions Stepp, C. (2008) Editing for Today’s Newsroom: A guide for success in a changing profession. (2nd ed.) New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Wissner-Gross, E. (1999) Unbiased: Editing in a Diverse Society. Ames, Iowa: Iowa University Press


Bert S. Bruser, Media Lawyer bert.bruser@blakes.com

Drew Gragg, Managing Editor, Ottawa Citizen dgragg@thecitizen.canwest.com

Kirk LaPointe, Managing Editor, Vancouver Sun KLaPointe@vancouversun.com

Graham Parley, City Editor, Toronto Star GParley@thestar.ca

Jim Poling, Managing Editor, Hamilton Spectator JPoling@thespec.com

Michelle Richardson, City Editor, The Gazette mrichardson@montrealgazette.com

Subject Author Replies Views Last Message
No Comments