This is the second in a three-part series by Alison Cies ’11 examining and explaining the inner workings of The Argus. Part I was published on May 24 and Part III will be published on June 3.
On many occasions, I have found that the campus community can be quick to criticize The Wesleyan Argus, despite knowing little about the process of producing it. How does a story translate from an idea to a publishable article? Who’s involved in this process, and how does it work? On the occasion of my last production night as executive editor of The Argus, here’s a brief overview of what goes in to producing “the nation’s oldest bi-weekly.”
Of course, this seemingly seamless process presents a few bumps and bruises along the way. How do mistakes happen with so many people editing? Well, it goes back to the editorial process. Basically, mistakes build. At the first level, you have the writer. If the writer unknowingly misreports something and editors fail to catch it early on, the inaccurate story may make it through every level of editing without anyone noticing. How do we catch a mistake? Editors make every effort to fact-check articles (such as by looking up events online and by contacting sources to verify information). Honestly, though, much of what we catch is due to sheer luck. More often than not, something about the article will strike the more seasoned editors as being off (perhaps the phrasing of a paragraph), and we’ll run a Google search on it. Twice this semester, we’ve found writers plagiarizing from websites after we Googled sentences from their articles.
At the second level, editors can make mistakes as well. They may unknowingly change the meaning of a story while editing sentences for clarity. Depending on when this happens in the process, it is rare that other editors will catch the mistake. This glitch explains how last year’s article on STI testing on campus misreported that several students had HIV. Despite the fact that all of the editors in the office were talking about these shocking results, none of us thought to contact the story’s sources to verify this information. Why? The mistake had been made, unknowingly, at the editorial level—where, for obvious reasons, editors blindly trust fellow editors. When you’ve worked with the same people week in and week out for four years, it’s very difficult to bring yourself to question their judgment. It’s even more difficult when you’re on a deadline.
The process may appear hopeless and helpless, but it’s not. We avoid mistakes by training our writers and leading by example. As editors, we work extremely hard to teach our writers how to report fully and accurately from day one. This means guiding them on what to report and how to report it. We teach them how to find stories and approach sources, and what types of questions and follow-up questions to ask. We over-emphasize the need to abandon modern technology when reporting—you interview your sources in person, not via e-mail (although having a tape recorder handy in interviews is a must). Lastly, we stress to new writers one of the most critical components of reporting: the source. It’s not what you know, but who you know, because who you know is going to tell you what you don’t know. In essence, the source makes all the difference in telling the story. Of course, it’s not solely the writer’s responsibility to get the story right—editors, too, are encouraged to re-evaluate their roles and responsibilities throughout the entire production process and to reflect on mistakes and mishaps in an effort to develop solutions to them. In this business, it is crucial that we strive for improvement—from ourselves, and from others.
Alison Cies ’11 is an Executive Editor and former Editor-in-Chief of The Argus.