Skeptical copy editors are a publication’s best asset

1 Feb

I ran across Pam Nelson’s tips for copy editors several weeks ago as I was browsing my Google Reader, and I immediately bookmarked the page. I made a mental note to share it with my fellow copy editors at the Alligator, because I felt Nelson made very good points, many of which I believe should be stressed daily. I edited a column Sunday night in which the writer had misspelled astronaut Alan Shepard’s name. I didn’t at first notice the problem, but as the name Shepard has many variations, I figured it’d be a good idea to check. Good thing I did.

No matter how good future journalists become at self-editing, I think it will always be important to have copy editors. Having a second, third or fourth set of fresh eyes looking over a story can mean the difference between running a well-written but poorly sourced story and publishing a knockout, newsy one. Skeptical editors are even more valuable, because they will never just take a story at face-value. They will always be willing to delve deeper into an issue, making sure it’s explained clearly, but, even more importantly, making sure it’s an issue in the first place. Not all story ideas are good ones, and skeptical editors can make sure the not-so-great stories don’t eat up column inches that could be given to great ones. It’s important to know how to weed out the bad ideas before they make it to print, and editors should be well-versed in those methods.

Reid MaCluggage noted that our biggest weakness is unchallenged information, and I definitely agree. It’s too easy to look at a story with more than one source, a myriad of direct quotes and specific details and say, “Looks good to me.” One of the most valuable things I’ve learned in my journalism classes is if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Training editors in critical thinking, as MaCluggage suggests, is an excellent way to make them more skeptical readers. Scientists, he notes, are less likely to jump to conclusions because they follow the scientific method: They must form a hypothesis and then prove or disprove it, ruling out other outcomes. If journalists and editors thought more like scientists, they could see the value in needing to prove or disprove a claim with ample evidence before reporting it as truth.

It has never been easier to double-check widely known facts, thanks to the Internet and Google. Once I recognize a credible source, it’s simple for me to compare results from other sources to see if it all adds up. Red Gibson’s list of seven questions for editors is a great checklist that merits following to make sure a story is not only accurate, but also coherent. Especially important, I think, are the questions related to the “sharpening” of the lede and the assurance of an overall “big picture” for the story. Without those things, readers will be left wondering why they’re reading a story, and they won’t appreciate you wasting their time. Gibson also makes a good point about checking math. Math certainly isn’t my strong suit, but I appreciate the need to be able to check arithmetic as a copy editor. There are all kinds of things that could go wrong with simple math, and it can never hurt to double-check figures with a calculator.

A team of skeptical editors well-versed in the tricks of the trade can go a long way to saving a publication from error-induced embarrassment.

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2 Responses to “Skeptical copy editors are a publication’s best asset”

  1. Ronald R. Rodgers February 1, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

    Excellent re Rubric and well aggregated. One thing on links – keep them to one to three relevant words.
    A couple editing issues:
    editors at the Alligator, because I felt NO COMMA IN FRONT OF BECAUSE
    a myriad of direct quotes NO OF

  2. Ronald R. Rodgers February 1, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

    Go into your settings and set up blog to require moderation before comments become public.

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