Staying aloof

Someone sent an email asking why I do what I do the way I do it. The writer made it clear the email was a private communication so I won’t reprint it here. But if one person is curious enough to write with such questions, it’s likely many people who haven’t written have similar questions.

It may seem cruel to some readers — and to some writers who get mentioned in this column — to call people out publicly as this column often does. But newspapers are constantly publishing things some people would rather not see in print. As George Orwell put it, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” If reporters and columnists and editors are willing to do that, they should be willing to have the same thing done to them. It’s not just that turnabout is fair play. It’s not simply schadenfreude. Once you’ve been the subject of an article that doesn’t put you in the best possible light, you’re likely to be more careful about how you treat other people in print. Hunter Thompson wrote, “… when you work as a journalist and sign your name in black ink on white paper above everything you write, that is the business you’re in, good or bad. Buy the ticket, take the ride. … That is a thing you want to remember if you work in either journalism or politics — or both, like I do — and there is no way to duck it. You will be flogged for being right and flogged for being wrong, and it hurts both ways — but it doesn’t hurt as much when you’re right.”

Some might think it would be better to keep errors and questionable decisions out of the paper rather than write about them after they’ve happened. In a perfect world, that would be the way to go. But editors and reporters — contrary to what some people say — are, in fact, human beings, and humans are fallible. So we’ll never get an errorless newspaper. Newspapers have long published corrections and clarifications, but some issues require more space and thought than that format allows, so many papers and other news organizations have ombudsmen. Ombudsmen — and public editors and the other names such positions go by — aim to do more than say we got it wrong and here’s what the story should have said. Ombudsmen try to figure out where things went wrong and explain to readers — or listeners or viewers — what happened. These columns also give the folks making decisions a chance to explain why they thought at the time they were doing right — or to admit their error and explain how they plan to avoid such mistakes in the future. The ombudsman usually issues some kind of pronouncement about the work and the process. Sometimes the ombudsman’s job isn’t to chastise or correct journalists, but to explain the process to people who aren’t journalists. That gets us back to the question of why, if the ombudsman is so danged smart, he doesn’t fix things before they get into print.

Ombudsmen aren’t editors. They don’t see things before they get into print. They’re not part of the newsroom. They are supposed to be separated from the process so they don’t have a personal stake in newsroom decisions. With that detachment, it’s easier to offer disinterested judgment on the process and what it turned out. At The Cavalier Daily, the detachment is close to complete.

I am not a University staffer. I am not a member of the University faculty. I do not have a desk in The Cavalier Daily newsroom. I experience the paper as any other reader does. I see it when it’s published.

The difference between me and most readers is that I’ve written for and edited newspapers and magazines. I’ve worked for alternative publications, mainstream dailies and public radio. I’ve seen how the process works and how it falls apart in many newsrooms in communities ranging from small mountain towns to large coastal cities. I’ve made and seen all sorts of boneheaded mistakes, and I’ve produced and seen produced good, solid journalism and award-winning work. I can bring a good deal of experience and at least some insight to the discussion.

The most important reason I couldn’t be involved with The Cavalier Daily’s stories before they’re published is I am not a University student. The Cavalier Daily is a student-run paper. Those students are wise enough to seek counsel from outside their circle, but they rightly and jealously guard student control over the paper. That gives the University of Virginia something that’s increasingly rare – a publication focused on this community that is controlled my members of this community. This paper’s ombudsman is simply someone who thinks that’s a valuable thing and is happy to try to help make it stronger.

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