In the January 2011 New Yorker, a “Wayward Press” piece by Peter Maass — “The Toppling: How the media inflated a minor moment in a long war”, about the press accounts of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in the early days of the war in Iraq — with this arresting passage:
Robert Collier, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, filed a dispatch that noted a small number of Iraqis at Firdos, many of whom were not enthusiastic. When he woke up the next day, he found that his editors had recast the story. The published version said that “a jubilant crowd roared its approval” as onlookers shouted, “We are free! Thank you, President Bush!” According to Collier, the original version was considerably more tempered. “That was the one case in my time in Iraq when I can clearly say there was editorial interference in my work,” he said recently. “They threw in a lot of triumphalism. I was told by my editor that I had screwed up and had not seen the importance of the historical event. They took out quite a few of my qualifiers.”
British journalists felt the same pressure. Lindsey Hilsum, the Baghdad reporter for Britain’s Channel 4 News, was instructed by her editors to increase her coverage of Firdos even though she believed the event was trivial. She told the authors of a study titled “Shoot First and Ask Questions Later” that the toppling was a small part of a nine-minute story that she transmitted to London on April 9th; in her view, it was “a small, symbolic event for American television.” As she put it, “In London, where they had been watching, they said, ‘No, you have to make that section much larger.’ ”
I post fairly often about the way events are reported in various publications, and as a result I’ve corresponded with writers for publications of several kinds about the things that appeared under their names. Much of the time our correspondence is about the choice of wording in their material as published (especially in the use or avoidance of taboo vocabulary and slurs, but in other areas as well), and sometimes it’s about the content of the material; it turns out that what they wrote was altered by copy editors or higher-level editors, sometimes quite substantially.
In the worst cases, as in Collier’s experience above, editors rewrite material to tell the story they want to hear or think their readers want to hear. (Or they instruct writers ahead of time to produce the story they want, as in Hilsum’s experience above.) These are matters of judgment, of course, but it’s distressing (to say the least) when the judgment of people on the ground and close to a story is over-ridden by the judgment of editors who have expectations but no actual first-hand knowledge.
Terrible things have happened to stories about science and scholarship — stories by reporters and other writers specializing in these areas, and even writing by specialist authorities who have been invited to write on the topics of their expertise. Every so often an editor will simply rewrite this material to conform to the editor’s own presuppositions and beliefs, the research and published scholarship be damned. I’ve heard a number of such stories but don’t think I can violate the confidence of the writers, scholars, and scientists who were handled so shabbily.
A final note: even when editors don’t significantly alter the material they deal with and the published material is not only accurate but also carefully framed for a non-specialist audience, there’s no guarantee that readers won’t just inject their own presuppositions and beliefs into the way they interpret the material. So someone who wrote a book not long ago on a language-related topic — again, I’m protecting my source — complained to me that
I’ve been inundated with hundreds of letters, and while it is wonderful to know there is so much response, it is really saddening that so many of these are of the format, ‘I am so happy to read that you endorse X’, where X is some part of what I tried in clearest possible terms to explain was wrong.
These people read what they wanted or expected to hear. There’s a lot of that going around.