I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role an editor plays in a community. I know – sounds self-important, but I think there’s a problem with a distinct lack of editorial process in a lot of what we read and discuss on a daily basis. Let me explain.
In my typical week, I read a lot of submissions and the work of staff members and interns. There’s not much that I don’t adjust in some way. Often, these adjustments are minor. But often, I can find myself performing substantial rewrites, writing compelling lead paragraphs, reorganizing a story’s structure and occasionally adding a little extra reporting.
The purpose of that work is to make sure we can give our readers the best and most thorough stories we can. We’re not staffed like the New York Times, so the process isn’t always perfect, but everything you read in the paper has been weighed against editorial standards, standards that favor documented observations, logic and evidence-based conclusions. Yes, we still outrage people. We still make mistakes. But we’re always accountable and ready to correct the record as soon as possible when we’re wrong.
Call it editing. Call it peer review. Or just call it thinking before you speak (or write). It’s a crucial step in a thoughtful conversation and as newspapers and other traditional forms of media continue to slip into extinction, I’m worried that the editorial process will disappear with it.
We can already see how a conversation happens without the editing process. It’s called social media. One of the great democratizing effects of social media and the Internet has been making everyone with Internet access their own editor and publisher. It’s been an empowering change in many ways, but it’s also created an enormous amount of chaos as people both well known and obscure are able to jump to conclusions, provoke and incite without any step along the way to consider how the message might be received.
The sorts of comments that were once delivered as soliloquies to empty basements are now viewable by millions. As soon as the thumbs hit the iPhone keyboard and punch the blue Tweet button, the thought is out there for better or worse, and too often for worse. We live in an age in which a stray thought issued on Twitter can cause an international incident.
But one doesn’t have to look to the regular Tweetstorms emanating from the White House to see examples of comments that really could have used an editor. You can find them every day on Facebook posts made by your uncle. You can find them in wild, conspiratorial yarns spun on the neighborhood social network Nextdoor.
When everyone becomes his or her own editor and publisher, we get a level of discourse that’s not terribly thoughtful, to put it modestly. I don’t know what we can do to try and curb the effect of unedited speech in the pubic sphere, particularly because I believe in the rights that protect it. But the effect it has had on our politics and discourse is evident.
Maybe we all just need to think a little more like editors.