Skeptical editing: more than curiosity

By · Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

In the advanced editing course that I teach at the Newhouse School, students read a story yesterday that was published in The New York Times on Feb. 7 under the headline, “Sinatra Song Often Strikes Deadly Chord.” The song? “My Way.”

Students were instructed to follow the skeptical editing method as they read the story. What is that? It is a process in which an editor asks questions paragraph by paragraph.

Authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explain the concept in Chapter 4 of their book, “The Elements of Journalism.” In our book, “Think Like an Editor,” Reid MacCluggage, retired president, publisher and editor of The Day Publishing Company in New London, Conn., shares his list of ways that editors can develop a healthy skeptical habit.

As students discussed the story in class, they realized how many times two basic questions — “Who says?” and “How do we know that?” — can be asked. They came to understand the power of the skeptical editing process. It is more than being curious. It is questioning every fact and assertion of fact to ensure the story is accurate and substantiated. The process helps to uncover what might be missing or what might need to be clarified.

Students learned that this process scrutinizes the story — not the reporter. And, in fact, editors are encouraged to share the skeptical editing process with reporters so that they, too, can apply it to their own stories.

Tomorrow in this blog, we will share the findings of a writer who scrutinized the story about “My Way.” In the meantime, you might want to read it and follow the skeptical editing process. What do you find out?

(There are skeptics for everything, by the way — including skeptical editing as we have described it here. The skeptics’ question: How could you apply this kind of scrutiny to every story? We are not suggesting that. Rather, the process works best for substantial stories and projects. That being said, it’s interesting how this skeptical habit seeps into all your work — and appropriately so.)

In “Think Like an Editor,” skeptical editing is defined and explained in Strategy 18: Skeptical Editing: Ask Key Questions Graph by Graph.

Emilie Davis

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