Readers' Editor

The device called editorial judgment

One of the biggest challenges confronting a Readers’ Editor in answering queries is to unpack abstract and complex governing >rules and codes of journalism and render them as comprehensible signposts to the functioning of a responsible mainstream media. The inherent contradiction is that most of the terms used by journalists to explain their trade seem too obvious to their fraternity and, yet, distant and elusive to the readers. Over the last three years, this column has dwelled upon a range of editorial devices and practices while addressing the readers’ concerns. Some of the recurring phrases were ‘The Theory of Interlocking Public’, ‘the editorial judgment’, ‘public interest versus what the public is interested in’ and ‘freedom of expression versus privacy’. A >journalist understands the full import of these phrases but rarely articulates them in a language that can touch every reader.

The leadership qualities of an Editor manifests through that wonderful device called ‘ >editorial judgment’. But rarely do readers get to know the inputs that go into the process of taking an editorial call. Editors are busy producing their newspapers and rarely explain the complex, day-to-day process of selecting and processing news. Alan Rusbridger, who was Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian for two decades from 1995 to 2015, enunciated this tightrope walk using a specific example: his decision to publish the snooping documents revealed by the National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden.

The selection of news seems like a rather simple and straightforward decision-making process: if the news serves public interest, it should find a place in the publication. But, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. Mr. Rusbridger, while addressing the new batch of students at the Asian College of Journalism, shared a chart in which he located L’affaire Snowden in a complex web of competing and often conflicting reality.

Rusbridger’s list

Some of the questions he had to deal with were: Who is a journalist? Is there a hierarchy between bloggers and the mainstream media? How can Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald be described? Is the activist’s objective the same as the The Guardian’s open model? What lessons do we draw from James Risen of The New York Times case? Wikileaks? How will institutional strength help in dealing with the fallouts of the story? What new expertise is needed to handle this huge cache of information? How can one decide on the proportionality and the effectiveness of these documents?

If the story is going to have an impact beyond the traditional bounds of a single nation state, what are the legal implications? From the Espionage Act to the Official Secrets Act, there are different interpretations in the U.K., the U.S. and Australia. Which one would apply in this particular case? The laws governing press and the laws governing national security are in conflict with each other, and one infringes upon the other. How can a range of questions surrounding confidentiality — of journalists’ sources, of lawyers’ communications, about medical records, social media and anonymity — be handled?

The question of popular perception matters a lot. Given its history, in Germany the idea of spying brings back memories of the dark days of Nazi and Stasi. But, it is often romanticised into a problem-solving James Bond in England. What will be its impact on international relations, given the fact that G 20 allies, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, are also not spared from tapping? The host of questions relating to privacy — data versus metadata, content, what metadata shows, the ability to track movements, searches and relationships — do not have any easy answers.

Prior restraint and censorship are generally frowned upon. But how do we look at the decision of the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which wanted the computers containing the Snowden files, which subsequently led to The Guardian destroying its computers and hard drives? Will the U.S. Supreme Court’s verdict on the Pentagon Papers hold for this case too? What is the meaning of citizen’s consent in this environment? Is consent meaningful or possible?

Mr. Rusbridger concedes that the decision becomes a 1,000 times harder because of the possibilities of the bad guys changing their operational methods and effecting new forms of communication. What will be the impact of the revelation on Silicon Valley? Do Google, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and other tech companies cooperate in the snooping voluntarily or is it a compulsory cooperation? What happens to user’s rights and transparency? Will this have a backlash on the digital economy? What happens to trust in these businesses built on our data? How much do the elected bodies of governance like the Congress in the U.S. or the Parliament in the U.K. know, and do they agree to the methods deployed by the agencies in collecting information?

The topics listed here are not exhaustive but indicative of the complex nature of our interlocking public. Here the editorial judgment is an intricate process that critically evaluates these multiple strands to arrive at a decision of what is in public interest before deciding to publish something.

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Printable version | Jul 19, 2021 5:23:17 PM |

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