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It appears not everyone takes responsibility for what they write

I learnt something this last week that really shocked me.

It wasn’t that mums spend time on Twitter (not exactly breaking news there) or that some mums prefer to keep one eye on something else whilst watching their children or that some mums let their children cover themselves in sudocream because they had both eyes on the computer screen.

Because come on, there are times when small children can be a little, well, dull.  There are times when you do need to talk to someone else because its that or run screaming out of the house rather than deal with another fetid nappy and the likes of twitter do give you a way of at least talking to another adult.

But that’s not exactly news, at least it isn’t to someone who has small children.
What was news to me was that once a journalist finishes writing their article, they walk away from it.  They don’t take any responsibility for what is actually printed, for what happens to the words they have typed out.  The accuracy, or rather any inaccuracy is nothing to do with them.  Their job is done and they walk away to write another hatchet job piece.

I can’t be the only person that is flabbergasted at this.

In my job we were taught that you can delegate the job but not the responsibility.

That there is a place the buck stops and that if you put something into a document you’d better jolly well be prepared to back it up.

And you’ll have to take responsibility for the actual content even if you let someone else prepare the page because it was you, and you only, that signed it off and sent it to print.

I can only imagine how nice life could have been if I could have just left other people to do what they fancied and then been able to shrug and go ‘oh well nothing to do with me, it was ok when I left….’ rather than having to stand up infront of clients and my boss and take responsibility.

But I am not a journalist.

And that’s the incredible thing.

Because what I write isn’t exactly life or death, it doesn’t really have much of an impact on anyone’s life, its not there in print that someone’s Mum can read, that retains a footprint in the world for people to keep coming back to year after year.  What journalists write can have a real life impact on real life people.  It can harm, can hurt, can upset and yet they can walk away and shrug it all off because its not their responsibility – they only type up the first draft.

And yet journalists look down on us bloggers, don’t really consider us to be proper writters.  They look down on us people who stand by what they right, who take responsibility for what they right, who check the facts themselves and who know the human impact of the words that they type onto their screens.  Right now I know who I’d rather read.

No sleep ’til Brooklands writes here about her experiences trying to get an accurate representation of what she actually said from a well known daily paper.  Its an interesting read.

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20 comments to It appears not everyone takes responsibility for what they write

  • Ooh interesting post – light blue touch paper and stand well back…

    I’m not sure just how much a journalist’s copy get tampered with before it appears in a paper, but if you know that a publication is well known for doing it and will put a particular slant (usually negative) on pieces then surely as a freelancer who cares about their words and how they are portrayed, you wouldn’t work for them? No?

    Or maybe I am being over simplistic. It’ll be interesting to see any replies you get from journalists.

    • It’s a fair point but often once you sell a piece you have no control over where it’s syndicated to. There is one national paper I would never knowingly write for, but my work has appeared there because another national paper syndicated it. Although I don’t judge anyone for who they write for – morals don’t pay the mortgage, and this is a tough way to earn a living.

    • Muddling Along

      I’ve just been astounded at how it appears that as a profession journalists can just say that someone else did it and shrug that its not their fault – for me I find that very hard to understand given that my profession requires me to take responsibility for what I write

      I guess I am just being naive but blimey

  • Hmm.

    As a freelance journalist, you know, it’s hard but it’s life.

    My job is to supply a product to the paper. I do interviews, I do research, I type up the words and I file them. What happens subsequently to that really isn’t my problem. Sorry.

    That might sound harsh but once I supply my copy to a paper, it gets edited. By a few people. Then it goes through sub-editors where it might get cut, or rearranged, or re-ordered to fit the way the page looks at that time. Then a section editor might decide it needs an extra ‘case study’ or fact box and they ask another writer to supply that. A sub will add a headline and standfirst, a picture ed adds a photo… and what appears in the paper may be exactly what I wrote (in which case I do a happy dance) or it might only bear a passing resemblance to what I wrote (in which case I cheer myself up by submitting an invoice).

    Regardless, in terms of time/money, by the time I’ve filed copy, I need to devote my attention to the next article I’m writing. I don’t earn any money responding to comments on my articles online. The paper doesn’t pay me for responding to Tweets or letters or emails about them. Sorry.

    I can understand why it’s an emotive subject but what I would say about professional journalists versus bloggers is that ultimately, we are ALL legally responsible for what we write, but in my experience journalists are a lot more conscious of that responsibility than bloggers, who simply aren’t aware of the obligations that come with publication, in many cases.

    • I’m with Sally on this one. As a freelance reporter, we are paid to write the facts, but there are many times your stories get changed. It’s not a matter of walking away, your job is to report, but you have no ownership over your words, ultimately it’s the publication which does. As a blogger also, I am acutely aware of how powerful words are, unfortunately I do not believe all bloggers do – as I do not believe all journalists do. But in the case of bloggers you do have ownership of your words and have to be even more mindful of what you write and how well you research the processes before laying blame or pointing the finger.

      • Muddling Along

        I’m intrigued by the no ownership over your words, how does the IP work? How does the impact on your professional reputation work?

        I admit I don’t understand the profession but, given the constraints of my own and the regulations I need to comply with and the consequences of not, I am interested in how another works – as I’ve said before its just very strange from me that people can walk away from their product and let someone else determine a potentially completely different end product

    • Muddling Along

      I guess the disconnect I have had Sally is that I look at my professional life and its a world away – that I had assumed, obviously incorrectly that those who wrote the piece had some control over the end product

      It just feels very strange to me, given that my professional reputation is the key to me earning my livelihood, that a journalist has something published over which they have effectively walked away from in terms of accuracy and tone

      I guess if you come from that world you know how it is but its been an eye opener to me

  • When I was working as a reporter on my local newspaper it used to infuriate me that the copy would then go to the sub-editor and they would perhaps change just a few words or put on a headline that did not represent the story I had written. (I later became a sub too – poacher turned gamekeeper.)

    But it is true that once you have written a story and hand it over to the person making up that page you do lose control. As a reporter I could object but was mostly ignored. I used to think it was like Chinese whispers – I’d get the story, write it, then it would go to the subs and finally (sometimes) the editor. The finished version was often very different to the original.

    I once had a story lifted by a red top. They completely re-wrote and distorted what I had written (about Mick Jagger) to better suit their agenda. I was furious but there was nothing I could do.

    It’s not really a case of walking away from what you have written – more often it is taken from your hands and there’s nothing you can do except bleat impotently. Editors have their own agendas. Why let the facts stand in the way of a good story? It’s something I learned very early on in my journalism career. I hated it then and still do now. I no longer work in the newspaper industry.

    • Muddling Along

      Its really interesting to hear from people who’ve done the job – I was just astounded by what I read about how little control you have as a journalist over your words and I guess those of us who don’t work in that area didn’t realise

      How does it go in terms of IP? Don’t you have any rights over what you’ve written?

  • twelve years I have worked as a journalist and what you submit is not always what appears. I once quoted somebody called Lee (a girl) yet when it went to print ‘she’ had changed to ‘he’. This is a very simple example but it illustrates the point. There is an ongoing battle between writers and subs, BUT I have 100% respect for subs – they are under intense pressure from editors and art directors (the puppeteers of any publication) to make the story ‘fit’ both visually and editorially. As for writers looking down on bloggers…what? I totally don’t understand why you think this. It’s two different arenas – its like saying a chef who cooks to earn a living, looks down on someone who cooks their own dinner!

    • I want to add, about my last comment – i mean that in the most complimentary way! Both journalists and bloggers have their own space – different roles – and there is room for all. x

      • Muddling Along

        taken as written – wasn’t trying to say that I’m equivalent to the likes of the broadsheet journalists… obviously given this is my hobby and not my full time job

    • Muddling Along

      I guess it comes down to people on the outside not understanding the process and not understanding the power that editors have but it does make me very nervous about ever engaging with anyone in that profession

      Amusingly today I got an email looking for people to participate in a documentary about mother and looking for full time working mothers with a nanny – after all this I think not!

  • Funnily enough once upon a time I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. I thought that being a journalist would enable me to affect the world I lived in. I wrote for the local daily freelance, and I looked into doing a post-grad course in journalism. I didn’t go down that road (well not entirely) and I ended up working in PR, another profession that journalists typically turn their noses up at! Now this is the funny bit – when I first started working in PR I realised something profound. If I wrote a piece (for my client) in the tone and style of a newspaper and it told a story and had all the facts, they would print it, most often verbatim. That’s when I realised that I actually had more control over what I wrote (for my client) than the journalist working at that paper. I could choose who I wrote for and what I wrote and if the client or their product/story/services didn’t pass my personal standards for truth and honesty and interest, I wouldn’t work for them. Not many journalists have that type of control. Vx

    • Muddling Along

      That’s very interesting – the PR releases I’ve written have mostly been incredibly dull and so have appeared in very similar forms

      I find PR an incredibly interesting arena – managing two sides that appear to not understand each other

      I guess because the journalists I work with are very specialist they have a higher duty of care (or at least a higher ability for us to work out when they’ve messed up and so turn off the conduit into our off the record information….) so its a different beast

  • I was pretty shocked when I read that post about how distorted her story was. I mean I knew they skewed facts a bit in papers and took things out of context at times but I had no idea it happened to this level. It sort of reminds me of the photoshopping debate – people in the industry think that everyone knows it happens (ie all professional photos are photoshopped) and so they think it’s perfectly normal, but in truth, your average joe bloggs like me has no idea to what extent it happens and is shocked to find out the truth.

    • Muddling Along

      Reading the comments above I think you have it entirely – those in the industry know how it is and the rest of us are shocked

      I deal with reporters in my day job and they spend their time triangulating information and checking sources and making very sure they don’t expose their off the record sources so I guess I assumed all journalists were the same. As an example my closest reporter friend was telling me over lunch the other day how he’d had his notes audited to check he kept proper records and those were reflected accurately in his pieces…. Which might explain my confusion over the professional standards in the rest of the industry

  • I can’t say I’m surprised and I agree about what the journalists commenting here have said – you don’t own your words as such and you are at the mercy of the subs etc. I don’t think that makes it ok to attribute quotes etc from people who didn’t say any such thing.

    I’m a medical writer and I have follow-up from clients and readers on occasion. I do try to get facts right but we do make howlers at times! I did an interview skill course (run by a couple of extremely good writers) and they emphasized about accurate reporting, not everyone takes the DM’s line, thankfully.

    • Muddling Along

      As you say, thankfully not everyone takes the DM line

      I guess from my dealings with reporters I thought I knew how most worked but actually I was dealing with a different type of journalist than works for them…

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