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From the Archive: Editors + Reporters

Editor’s note: “From AIR’s Archive” brings forward some of the lost (or long-buried) profiles and advice about audiocraft that we’ve collected over the years. Part one of “Ask the Expert” on the editor/reporter relationship was inspired by Matthew Payne, who was inspired by a session at the Third Coast Festival titled “Trust Me, I’m an Editor.” Part two is a shortened version of “The Reporter Editor Relationship,” originally written in 2001 for NPR editors by NPR’s executive producer for training, Jonathan Kern. NPR’s liaison with independent producers, Margo Melnicove, compiled the material for All About Editors. The seminars were organized around a series of questions, the first of which introduced the subject of editing.

 

Q: What are the characteristics of the ideal NPR report? What are we, as editors, looking for when we work with reporters?

Above all, NPR reports should be accurate and fair. This is not merely an ideal; it must be the foundation of every report we broadcast. Inaccuracies and bias reflect badly on the reporter, the editor and the entire network.

A piece can be technically accurate and still misleading. Washington editor Ron Elving gives the example of a report characterizing the Bush Administration’s tax cut proposal as “the biggest in twenty years.” That’s true, but the statement ignores the fact that there haven’t been many tax cuts in the past twenty years. The phrasing while technically accurate suggests that the cut is very big indeed. And that’s a disputable claim; there are certainly people who feel the cut isn’t big enough.

Similarly, a piece can be fair without necessarily giving both sides in every report, and a piece that gives both sides may still be biased or unfair. All Things Considered executive producer (and frequent editor) Ellen Weiss notes that a reporter in the Middle East may focus one day on the situation in the Palestinian refugee camps, another day on Israeli settlers in occupied territory, and another day on policy pronouncements from Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Fairness in the first two examples would demand accurately reporting how people there feel and what they are saying; it wouldn’t mean matching up an actuality from a settler with an actuality from a refugee.

The editor is also responsible for ensuring that any given NPR report is well-structured that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. The report should be focused; it must be clear from the start what it is about. And when the piece is over, it should be easy for the listener to recall some key scenes and ideas.

Whether it is memorable will depend in large part on the quality of the writing. A good NPR report is one that is visual and descriptive. It engages the listeners, and keeps them engaged throughout the piece. It is written at a level that neither presumes too much knowledge on the listeners’ part nor talks down to them. And it’s written for radio — in short, clear, strong sentences that avoid jargon and journalese.

NPR places a premium on sound. News reports must be well-delivered. If they use tape, that tape should advance the story, not merely add production for its own sake. While editors are not primarily voice coaches, they should recognize that their work is wasted if a piece is unlistenable, either because of the way the reporter reads or because of the poor quality of the tape.

Q: When should the reporter and editor first consult on a story?

The editor and reporter should collaborate from the very start — before the reporting has begun. One of the editor’s key jobs is to help the reporter focus the story, so a reporter- editor conversation early on can save time when it comes to doing interviews and tracking down facts. The editor is also a surrogate for the listener: it’s the editor’s job to challenge the reporter — to ask what is new about the proposed story, whether it is (or can be made to appear) relevant to people in other parts of the country or the world, whether there are scenes or people who could help bring the piece alive. These are all questions that should be raised in evaluating whether a story is worth pursuing. And they should be in the editor’s mind as he or she is making an assignment.

Ideally, the reporter and editor should also discuss the story while it is being reported, especially if the focus of the story changes as more facts are uncovered. Editors who work with station reporters and freelancers should even consider asking the reporters to check in while they’re in the field, to make sure that they’ve interviewed the right people and asked the right questions.

Q: What’s the editor’s role in helping to structure a story?

One of the main jobs of the NPR editor is to ensure that our stories have a logical structure of some sort. All too often reporters assemble their pieces by collecting their best tape, and then writing copy that moves from one tape cut to another (usually ending with the cut that is most poignant, or emphatic, or forward-looking, or in some other way sounds “conclusive.”) But a piece that is no more than a collection of good actualities strung together by the reporter’s voice tracks will be much less memorable than a story that unfolds in some systematic way.

Exactly what way will depend on the story that’s being told. For example, a reporter may be taking a listener on a tour of a place, in which case the piece may be structured geographically — as a trip down the river, a visit to the headquarters building, a survey of a battle site, and so on. Many reports describe events in chronological order. Or a report on a scientific discovery may begin with the question the scientist hoped to answer, and then take us through his research one step at a time. It’s sometimes possible to invert the chronology, beginning with the latest developments and then telling us how we got to this point. There are story structures that are framed more or less as an argument: a report may examine an issue by posing the problem at the top, and then letting people on various sides each have a say.

The important job for the editor is to ensure that whatever structure the story has makes sense. One of the simplest ways to accomplish this to ask the reporter to sketch out an outline, the first part of which is the intro. Do all of the elements relate to the focus of the story? Are there parts that are built around compelling tape but don’t actually fit with this particular story? Science Desk Editor Alison Richards says she likes to do a “tape edit,” in which she listens to all of a reporter’s actualities before the script is written to make sure the tape cuts are in some sort of logical order. Taking the time to think and talk about structure — before the reporter starts writing — can actually be a way to save time during the edit.

Q: How can the editor improve a reporter’s writing?

Off the top of their heads, NPR editors can come up with dozens of elements of good broadcast writing — it is conversational, active, forceful, and uses details well but sparingly; it avoids jargon, journalese and clichés; it relies on simple declarative sentences, without long parenthetical phrases; and so on. Yet even a cursory visit to the NPR script archive shows that practice and theory are out of synch. While it’s impossible to edit by following a checklist, editors should be on the watch for some of the most common writing errors:

Passive voice. “The Bush administration is taking a hit for its position on global warming.” Who’s doing the hitting? We can’t picture the players if they’re not named.

Clichés and shopworn phrases. “This decision comes in the wake of a ruling last week,” “the long-simmering dispute has provoked a storm of controversy”, “investors have been taken for a wild ride by the roller coaster stock market,” “public school teachers are leaving in droves” — these are just a few examples of the hundreds of modular phrases journalists use to write with a minimum of effort. It’s understandable: the reporters and news writers are under deadline pressure, and these are the phrases that spring to mind. The editor’s job is not to let them get away with it.

Generalities. Keep a sharp eye out for phrases like, “Most people have never heard of,” “Many people think,” “The conventional wisdom is,” and their ilk. They are often simply wrong, and rarely convey much real information.

Vague attributions. Vague phrases like “officials say,” “analysts say,” and “critics say” suggest sloppy reporting. Editors should push reporters to be as specific as possible.

Subjects and verbs that are too far apart. We hear many sentences on the model of this one: “Jacob Wayne Johnson — who killed seven people, including three children when he blew up the Columbia, South Carolina abortion clinic six years ago — is set to die on May 16.” By the time we get to the verb we can’t remember what the subject is.

Too much information in one sentence. Unless people are taking notes — and they aren’t we can’t expect them to absorb everything in a sentence like, “The controversy stems from a twenty-year-old landmark legal settlement in which the rival Indian tribes abandoned their centuries-old claim to two-thirds of the state’s territory and received eighty million dollars, recognition from the federal government, and a much smaller amount of land.”

Non-conversational language and syntax. In real life, we don’t ever introduce people with their titles — e.g., telling our spouse, “Duke University’s Bio-ethics Policy Commission chairman Russell Roberts says he’s resigning!” So why do we do it in our scripts? And in normal speech, we don’t rely on adjectives to squeeze as much information into every sentence as we can: “The assassination of the elder Kabila led to fighting in mineral-rich Congo, especially in rebel-held parts of the country.” This isn’t speech; it’s newspeak.

Conventions borrowed from print. This is another way awkward-sounding sentences get into our scripts. For example, we should avoid putting the attribution at the end of the quote, as papers do: “This is not the way the federal government is supposed to operate and it violates the rights of homeowners, says Jim Jenson, Vice President of the American Property Rights Owners Association.” Similarly, it always sounds silly when we describe, say, John Jones as “the fifty-eight-year-old Jones,” even though newspapers do it all the time. And headline writers may be forced to use phrases like “jobless rate,” but there’s no reason for them to be picked up in our stories.

Of course, getting people to write well is much harder than keeping them from writing badly. You can remove the clichés, shorten the sentences, put everything in the active voice — and still have a dull script. However, sometimes an editor can help revive a story by asking the reporter a few, well-chosen questions. For example: “What did the place look like?” “How was the interviewee behaving when he spoke to you?” “What will you remember most about the event (or conversation, or visit)?” An editor can also urge a reporter to use strong, visual verbs instead of the many forms of “to be.” Target sentences that start with “There is” or “There are.” The changes can be quite small and still make a difference. Instead of, “There were crowds of teenagers eager to buy tickets,” we might say, “Teenagers elbowed one another aside as they pushed forward to buy tickets.” Instead of “There was a small girl in the front of the school,” we can say, “A small girl fidgeted with her lunchbox as she stood in the front of the school.”

Sometimes — and that “sometimes” should probably be underlined — an editor can help a reporter write better by getting him or her to have a particular perspective on his story. This doesn’t mean slanting the story: a reporter can have a point of view without showing an editorial bias. It’s okay, for example, to describe what it feels like at the top of the dormant volcano where the observatory is located…or to make it clear that the sights at the refugee camp were appalling…or to reflect a sense of humor in a situation that is undeniably funny.

Q: Where should we draw the line between reporter and editor?

There’s no rule about how much editing is too much. Some NPR editors say if they’ve done their job right from the start — if they’ve talked the story idea over with the reporter, consulted while the reporting was still under way, and helped him or her structure the piece then only one edit should be necessary. Others expect to have several edits, especially on a longer piece.

But the process should involve editing, not rewriting. It’s almost always better to steer reporters in the right direction and let them use their own words — words they’re comfortable saying. One common technique is to get the reporter to tell part of the story without a script. Then the editor can point out to him or her whether the phrases used in speech are better than the ones in the first draft of the piece: “See, you didn’t call him the ‘Wynton J. Rassias Professor of Psycholinguistics, you just called him ‘a linguist.’ And it was much easier to follow you when you described how he figured out the ancient Greek text. All the detail in the script had me confused. Now go back and write it more or less the way you told it to me.”

Similarly, a reporter should not expect his or her editor to boil a 16-minute piece down to 8. If a piece is twice as long as it ought to be, the editor might give some general guidance about what needs to be cut; but the reporter should do most of the cutting.

Q: When is an editor done with a piece?

Editing for radio involves much more than merely correcting and revising text. The NPR editor also serves as a surrogate for the listeners — a one-person focus group to determine whether a report “works” on the radio.

That means, first and foremost, that editing involves listening, as the reporter reads the story out loud. Some editors like to have a script at hand to jot notes on; others say they never look at a script until they’ve edited by ear first. In any case, listening to the story allows the editor to make sure that the story not only has been well-reported — that it is accurate and unbiased — but that it is structured and written for radio. Sentences that look good on the page may not work well when they’re read out loud. The reporter may trip over tongue-twisters. A sentence may start with a participle, so that the subject isn’t obvious until we’re deep into the sentence. (“Growing up in southern Massachusetts at the end of the first World War, when prejudice against Germans and people of German extraction was still widespread in the United States, Helmut Kleinfelder had a difficult life.”) Or the reporter may not have written well into or out of his actualities, so it’s unclear who is speaking.

The editor should also hear all of the audio used in a piece to make sure the actualities are all easy to understand, and that the reporter makes it obvious why we’re hearing a particular sound at a particular moment.

Finally, by listening to the piece, the editor ensures that it holds up for its full length. One of the harshest criticisms an editor can make of a radio report is, “My mind began to wander.”

In the end, the important thing for the editor to keep in mind is that the story will be heard, not read. That one basic condition affects almost every aspect of editing: the intro, the structure of the report, the start and end of the piece, the selection of actualities and sound, the way the sound is filed — and how the piece is read. The best radio pieces are visual they create images in the listener’s mind — but those images get there through the ear. The editor is the critical middleman between the reporter and the audience. The role may often be invisible, and the responsibility unappreciated — until something goes wrong. Then the first question asked by managers and listeners alike is, “Who edited that?”