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What does an editor do

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 11:26 UK time, Tuesday, 27 June 2006

So this is the editors' blog. But what do we mean by "editor"?

The first thing to note is that the person who edits a particular edition of a programme - what we call "the output editor" - is not necessarily "the Editor".

So what's the difference?

The set of the BBC One O'Clock NewsAs with all the best questions the honest answer is - it depends. On some programmes, there's less difference than on others - often the Editor will be the output editor on any particular day. But in broad terms, the output editor is responsible for one edition of a programme; the Editor for the programme, and the team, over time.

So what does being responsible "over time" mean ?

Every programme has a programme remit - a description of the programme, its key features and in particular the features that make it original and distinctive. Some are written down, though most programme remits are less formally set out and often agreed only verbally with Department Heads. That doesn't make them any less binding on the Editor. Recently, objectives dealing with aspects such as audience size and appreciation have supplemented or even superseded formal programme remits.

In addition to these, all Editors set themselves objectives when they get the job. The selection process demands detailed pitch which can include anything from changes in programme agenda and tone, to changes of presenters or personnel - or even what shouldn't be changed.

The tools the Editor has are limited. Money is one; you have to manage the programme budget - which includes the annual argument for more (you always end up with less) as well as making it all add up at the end of the financial year, having spent a proportion of it on things intended to achieve your objectives. Staff is another; you appoint - or supervise the appointment of - staff, appraise them, decide who does what on the programme, give them feedback and advise them on their performance.

A BBC Radio 4 studioThe other tools - the really powerful ones - are less easily defined. Influence... setting the programme weather... stalking the floor... hunting down inaccuracies... generating an atmosphere where originality can flourish... spotting flair and encouraging it... spotting bad habits and discouraging them... knowing whose case you need to be on, who you can cut a bit of slack. And dealing with The Talent - the presenters, the real power-mongers in the BBC.

And Editors will have influence over programme decisions, though different Editors have different approaches. Clearly, as Editor you have to make the calls on the big, risky stories. And you have to have the means in place to make sure you know all you need to know before making those big calls; and the nous to know when someone on an even higher grade than yourself should be aware of the risks you're about to take on the BBC's behalf.

But you can't - and shouldn't - make every decision. Though you do have to be prepared to take the rap for decisions made in your absence or ignorance, even if you'd have made a different one based on the same facts. There are two phrases no Editor should ever use outside the programme. "It wasn't my fault" is one. "I didn't know" is the other. Both might be true in fact, but never can be in spirit; and anyway, the skill of the Editor lies in making sure they never are in any sense. It is your fault and you did know. Live with it.

And output editors? In the broadest sense, output editors are responsible for everything that happens on their watch. Which may be anything from a day to a couple of hours. They don't work in a vacuum, though - indeed, it's the Editor's job to make sure they don't. If the programme Editor has done the job properly, output editors will know as clearly as possible the direction they should be taking each edition of the programme.

They'll express that direction by a number of means; they'll choose the lead story and the running order... choose the guests... and the way stories are treated. They'll also be responsible for getting the best out of the team that day; running meetings and discussions creatively... chasing progress and keeping the story in sight. They'll stamp on inaccuracies and keep a mental note of fairness and balance; they'll brief reporters and presenters and give feedback after the programme.

Journalists working in the BBC News 24 galleryThey'll also know when to involve the Editor. Some output editors prefer to avoid discussing anything with the Editor until after transmission; others like to feel they've thrashed out their ideas - and their problems - beforehand. In all cases, though, having antennae for the possible consequences of decisions - consequences that may go way beyond a single edition of the programme - is a key requirement of both output editor and Editor. The first has to know when to consult, the second has to learn how to spot the signs that an apparently straightforward decision might turn out to be anything but.

Which leads to the final responsibility of the Editor; accountability. While the output editor will deal with the small rows around a particular programme - and some are inevitable - it is the Editor who has to explain why decisions were made or how - in spite of evidence to the contrary - the programme did uphold the highest standards and values.

Or if it didn't, apologise.


  • 1.
  • At 02:32 PM on 27 Jun 2006,
  • Pat wrote:

Very interesting Kevin. Tell me, where do people like 'middle east editor' jeremy bowen and 'world affairs editor' john simpson fit into this?

  • 2.
  • At 02:36 PM on 27 Jun 2006,
  • nerdboy wrote:

"Every programme has a programme remit - a description of the programme, its key features and in particular the features that make it original and distinctive"

I think I've found it! Is this classified?


One O'clock News:

Housewives agenda, report on anything with "health survey/scare" in title. Update viewers on house prices and how it will affect THEM.

Six O'clock News:

This one's aimed at the low end of our market - i.e our target viewers. Make sure George waves his arms around as much as possible so the viewers really understands what's going on. Make use of the two presenters by letting each one have half a line each. We've got a huge video wall guys - don't let it go to waste! Plently of gratiuitous graphics needed here, when a presenter says a number over 10 please flash it up behind them - focus groups have told us they can't count. Designate any item destined to be shown around halfway through the programme be the 'special report' regardless of the content. Occasionally allow celebs to use this slot for extra weight.

Ten O'clock News:

Our flagship, news must be of slightly higher content than what's gone before but not much. Use plenty of subpar reporters outside for this, people want to know we're still there hunting facts for our precious viewers. Show we are highbrow by having a book advertisement for 10 minutes with an arts correspondent - don't worry, it doesn't have to be news!

All outlets:

(i)Please plug freely any programme found on the BBC on any news programme. If you're not sure if it's news, use it anyway, it matters little. Extra points for non current affairs programmes shoehorned in.

(ii)Make use of our extensive presentation department with jazzy effects and music on reports. For example, is a political story to boring for our target viewer? Then use an X-facto...sorry BBC Fame Academy analogy to illustrate the point. Need to show effects of drug use? Just use a loud techno track over whatever the reporter is saying.

(iii)Finally - don't be scared to let presenters go off and do entertainment shows. As one of our presenters said: "Anyone who thinks you can't do entertainment as well as news is a dreadful snob". How true. People like to see the personality behind the face and our quite happy to accept the lack of authority that goes with this.

With the BBC being accused of reporting bias surely the editors must share some responsibility?

What is the process that an editor would go through to ensure a report is factual and not based on comment, feeling or hearsay?

  • 4.
  • At 03:18 PM on 27 Jun 2006,
  • Kevin May wrote:

Congratulations on an entertaining and revealing new addition to the BBC website.

Please try and include a piece by the editor of Radio 4's Today programme. Today is still the best overall news programme on radio but over the last three years or so it has become largely responsible for shaking my confidence in the impartiality of the BBC, which during my first 40 years of life I had never found cause to question. Specifically, a bias against Tony Blair.

(I should say at this point I'm not a huge Labour or Blair supporter - I'm thinking of voting Cameron next time - but I'm genuinely curious about Today's Blair coverage because at times, to my mind, it's just been farcical.)

The programme, at least when certain presenters are on, never misses an opportunity to question his position as PM. Even in the months after his re-election, Today never let up from its implied criticism, which is conveyed to me through the editor's repeated choice of programming and some presenters' choice to reserve their most acid questioning techniques for Blair and his supporters.

I first noticed this during the run up to the war in Iraq when Today ran numerous stories that seemed to be very anti-war, i.e., little balance seemed to be shown... Supporters of the war were savaged, anti-war campaigners had a much easier ride. The majority of the public seemed not to care (about Iraq), the Tories were supporting the war and his MP's never seemed in danger of getting rid of him, but the 'Is his position tenable' line continued with vigour. So how is the sheer amount of airtime on such a 'non-story' justified?

How does an Editor choose how much time to give stories? Is he/she worried about being seen as biased - or is he/she sometimes tempted to run stories just to prove they're not in the government's pocket? How does an Editor deal with the big personalities (egos?) of some of the 'talent'? Is it (or should it be) necessary for senior BBC editors and staff to avoid giving away their own political beliefs for fear of influencing the impartiality of juniors?

Does anyone keep track of the number of occasions a subject is covered or the minutes a programme spends over time on a given topic? The number of guests brought on to lambast a person or the degree of ferocity used in the questioning of certain people while reporters are (ostensibly, at least) playing Devil's Advocate?

That would be one blog I wouldn't miss.


And, to be fair, how do Editors cope with what they see (or know?) to be baseless and offensive accusations of bias from politicians or the general public?

  • 5.
  • At 04:53 PM on 27 Jun 2006,
  • Kevin Marsh (editor, BBC College of Journalism) wrote:

Yes of course Editors are responsible for ensuring that their programmes don't show bias or unfairness.
That's one of the things that an Editor will impress on the output editors... and indeed all the other members of the team.
The process is different in different places - and depends on factors such as whether a report is live or recorded; whether it's mainly script or mainly interviews.
Editors will usually listen to or view recorded reports ahead of broadcast with your question in mind. With live interviews, though, the Editor will often play a part in briefing beforehand and will review them with the output editor, producers and presenters ... again with your question at the front of his/her mind.

I thought it was the PRODUCER who did all that stuff. So has the word 'producer' been redefined? Or have the producers all been made redundant? Or has a whole new level of bureaucracy been put into the Beeb?

  • 7.
  • At 07:07 PM on 27 Jun 2006,
  • Robert Holbach wrote:

Reading last year's BBC News online "From the editor's desktop" column was brilliant. It was published once a week, it covered a variety of things, and it found an interesting voice and sense of humour.

At the moment, I struggle with "The Editors' Blog" - there seem to be too many posts a day, some of which are quite lengthy. I feel information overload. As with many of the most frequent bloggers, that means information drops out of sight too quickly and may easily be ignored. Would it be possible to turn this blog into something more like its predecessor, by perhaps giving every editor one day a week to post on, and thus having 7 weekly columns (with one post per day) rather than a daily overload?

I liked Nerdboy's satirical piece (above). It is a credit to the Editors of this blog that they allowed it to be posted. I just fear that some readers might think it really is an official document. It certainly seems quite believable!

Is it the editors job to be a bit boring as well?
The idea behind this weblog is great..
But this post doesn't promise much good.
Sorry …

It will be welcomed by many, I am sure, if you made your posts considerably shorter.

  • 11.
  • At 06:47 AM on 28 Jun 2006,
  • nick wrote:

A very interesting article, but one of my instances of perpetual bewildernment, is this. There are eight hours in the normal working day, so allowing for three hours maybe, whatever can take up an editors time for the other hours. I do find it incomprhensible that there is so much work in this side of programming that a full eight hours are required each working day.

I always wonder as well what journalists do with the time when they are off air, after they have spent maybe two or three ten minute slots on air. And the plethora of journalists the BBC has, are they all occupied behind the scenes in ways we do not know about.
I love the BBC, normally, but am curious about these points I made.

  • 12.
  • At 11:03 AM on 28 Jun 2006,
  • Jakester wrote:

Kevin Marsh's post very interesting (though yes, over-long), but as far as I can tell a lot of the detail related only to radio/ TV. What's the equivalent website model when there aren't editions of programmes to make using running orders and presenters?

Here in Amerika... the editors of our alleged "free press" work diligently to keep the people $tewepid and maximize profits for those who own the "free press." I visit the BBC often because it has more integrity than the hogwash hype offered in the U.$. media... and because almost everything here has become propagan-duh.

  • 14.
  • At 12:33 PM on 28 Jun 2006,
  • Kevin Marsh (editor, BBC College of Journalism) wrote:

Sorry you thought it was long - you're right ... though in truth it would take a book to capture all the things that an Editor does (and all the things an output editor does).
Nick's post makes me chuckle ... in particular, I don't remember when I last worked an eight hour day (or a five day week for that matter). The Today Editor's average day starts at 6 am (or before, if there are tricky scripts to be read) and rarely ends before 10pm ... and I don't think many other Editors have workloads much different.
I could set out all the things an Editor does to fill the 16 hours or so they're at work or on call ... but that really WOULD be too long for a post.

  • 15.
  • At 05:28 PM on 28 Jun 2006,
  • Steve Herrmann (editor, News Interactive) wrote:

Jakester - in answer to your question: On the News website the Editor's role is similar - to take overall responsibility for the coverage and manage the teams who produce it day to day. They include daily output editors who run the front page, sub-editors and writers, section editors who run the website sections (health, business etc) and the journalists responsible for the audio video content and interactivity (messageboards, debates).

  • 16.
  • At 04:07 PM on 29 Jun 2006,
  • Catherine wrote:

Just a quick question: I'm rahter interested in a career in editing, and I was wondering what is the best way to move into the industry or gain experience.

Any information would be great. This new blog is very informative and interesting, I applaud you!

  • 17.
  • At 05:58 PM on 29 Jun 2006,
  • Adam Cooper wrote:

An interesting insight into the world of the editor. One thing I have often wondered is how is the agenda set? How do you decide what to lead on, what to include and what not to include? Is there a formal process? Written criteria? Do you assess whether you've covered things adequately afterwards? Is there any regular independent analysis of the quality and coverage?

  • 18.
  • At 01:24 PM on 30 Jun 2006,
  • Kevin Marsh (editor, BBC College of Journalism) wrote:

Deciding what to put in any programme is an art not a science.
You factor in a lot of things - what you know about your audience; what you know about their expectations of you; how stories are developing and where they go to next; what's unexplained; what's been over-covered.
All the time, though, you're trying to say something that's genuinely new; to use the old hackneyed phrase "something that adds to the sum of human knowledge."
It may often be not very much ... and, particularly with live programmes, you fail as often as you succeed; but that remains the aspiration.
Do we assess whether we've got it right ? Yes ... and what the audience thinks is a very important part of that. And while there's no formal routine analysis (I think that a formal content analysis of every minute of BBC News output would be unrealistic) we do carry out exercises from time to time which look in great depth at how we covered important stories. And remember, there are now hundreds of informed and interested individuals and groups out there looking very closely at what we do and shouting very loudly about it.

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