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posted: 9/6/2012 9:06 AM

Citizen reporting, instant news and the role of editors

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We have a saying around here that everyone needs an editor. I can tell you that when you edit the editor's copy, you are much more discreet about the changes you make or suggest, but the process is no less important and it extends beyond the mere realms of fact checking or typography. It also, importantly, applies to matters of taste and judgment.

Consider two particular recent events. The first occurred on Aug. 24, when an apparently upset former T-shirt designer gunned down an ex-colleague near the Empire State Building on a New York City street setting off a gunfight with police in which he died and several bystanders were injured. Workplace shootings in New York City aren't exactly surprising news elsewhere in the world, but in today's terror-conscious environment, mysterious broad-daylight shootings on a Manhattan sidewalk attract news people quickly.

They also attract scores of smartphone-wielding citizens with immediate access to various social networks, and in this case, one of those citizens snapped a picture with and uploaded it to his followers on Instagram. The photo showed a man crumpled on the sidewalk with a rush of blood streaming to the gutter as police approached.

At the time the photo was posted, the victim had not been identified nor had any circumstances of the event been established. Within minutes, though, the picture had transmuted by the miracles of retweeting and electronic sharing into potentially tens of thousands of iPhones, iPads, Androids, PCs and Macs around the world. No verifications. No thought for the sensitivities of the viewers or potential loved ones of the victim.

A week later, a situation arose that was virtually the opposite of this so-called citizen journalism. One of the members of Seal Team Six was about to publish, under a pseudonym to protect his identity, a book describing the killing of Osama bin Laden. But two agencies, including The Associated Press, discovered his name and published it, leaving us at the Daily Herald to wonder whether we, too, should identify him. The circumstances did not meet our criteria -- in particular because one issue involved a threat to his personal safety -- but his real identity was by now readily available, so we were hardly protecting him.

We chose, however, after substantial discussion involving several editors, to stand by our policy and leave him unnamed in spite of what our news service or any other media might do. That changed for us a day later when the author appeared on television using his real name, but up to that point our discussion led us to err, if err it would be, on the side of discretion.

The juxtaposition of these cases can be a little confusing. In the first, it's pretty clear a lack of scrutiny led to unreliable, insensitive publication. In the second, the debate centered entirely on more-traditional publications, so one can't say that standard methods would have averted an error of judgment, again if error it was. But at least in the second circumstance, the opportunities for discussion were there, nor did every outlet have to follow the lead of those who saw value in identifying the Navy Seal. There was at least a conversation.

To my mind, we need more of those conversations. Even with them, questionable information can get published. Without them, viewers or readers are left to fend for themselves to determine the value or circumstances of what they're seeing, almost as though they're forced to understand a story not by reading the reporter's completed, polished and reviewed finished work but by sorting through his notes.

That's hardly reliable, and potentially dangerous. It's why, ultimately, we have editors and why, even in an instant-gratification media environment, everybody needs one.

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