Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Revisionist Journalism

Certain jobs stick with you. I worked behind a deli counter when I was a kid; I knew the differences between a dozen different cheeses, and today I can hardly distinguish between mozzarella and grated Swiss. Ditto with working in a record store: I knew all the Top 40 bands, and I knew which hit songs appeared on which albums. Five minutes after I walked out, that knowledge vanished.

But once an editor, always an editor. You just can't shake it. And in reading daily headlines with an editor's eye, you catch certain things.

Barbara Asher is a professional dominatrix who was charged with watching a 53-year-old man die on her bondage rack before cutting up his body and dumping the pieces in a trash bin. She was acquitted this week. The prosecution failed to produce a body, despite claiming to know exactly where Asher had dumped the body; and the police claimed she had confessed, but they didn't record it and they couldn't produce any interview notes. Whether or not she's guilty, there was certainly reasonable doubt, so the jury was correct.

The story was interesting enough, I suppose — although less for the sex than for the notion of prosecuting a murder without proof of death — but what caught my editor's eye was the CNN front page reporting the story. Within 24 hours, they changed the headline three times.

They began with:
  • Dominatrix acquitted on manslaughter charges.
That's accurate, but journalistic integrity doesn't sell advertising space. You can imagine the lecture that took place in some editor's office. "We spend every day praying for a sordid tale of sex and violence, a story that will appeal to the absolute gutter of American society. We finally get that story, and it's everything we could hope for, including bondage and dismemberment and a leather mask...and you obscure it with five-dollar words?!?"

Hence this revision:
  • Dominatrix beats murder rap.
Much better. That's much more pulp, much more Daily News. That'll grab people's attention. Good job.

...Except, no. That pesky journalistic integrity. She wasn't actually charged with murder.
  • Dominatrix beats manslaughter rap.
It's a trivial observation; but it's an insight into a newsroom that you couldn't get 20 years ago, thanks to a technology that has completely changed the attitude of publishing. It's about immediacy. The web allows infinite revision, so there's no reason not to beat the competition to the punch. Proofread later. Publish now.


At May 23, 2006 11:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But the web will never be truly credible until people care about getting it right the first time. As far as I'm concerned, reputation needs to matter just as much here.


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