Academic journal article Journalism & Mass Communication Educator

Noble Work, but Undervalued: The Status and Value of Copy Editing in Journalism Schools

Academic journal article Journalism & Mass Communication Educator

Noble Work, but Undervalued: The Status and Value of Copy Editing in Journalism Schools

Article excerpt


Reporters and writers traditionally have held the highest status among the three steps of the newsroom production process - writing, editing, and design. In the last quarter-century, design has risen in status too because of the growing importance of visually appealing pages in attracting more readers.

Copy editors have taken a back seat to the reporters; they are largely invisible and treated as "second-class citizens," partly because of the odd hours they work and partly because of their often more reserved personalities.1

Journalism school curricula reflect the industry emphasis on writing and reporting.2 Editing courses, while considered fundamental to any print journalism program, are not the popular ones. Many students prefer reporting and the glory of a byline or the creativity of a design class. Herbert Lee Williams, in a 1983 report on the toughest courses to teach in journalism, said "editing, perhaps understandably, seems to produce the widest range of problems for instructors."3 He quoted a survey respondent:

Journalism majors, for the most part, absolutely wallow in the "romance" of reporting - that is, they envision themselves with Page One bylines in The New York Times, but never see themselves as being on the rim or in the slot, or heaven help us, in a newsroom management position. And so, motivating them to take this art of editing as seriously and to work as hard at it as they do on their writing (in other words, to see an ability to edit as being integral to the information processing business) becomes the real challenge.4

Copy editing began to attract more attention in 1995 when Merv Aubespin, chairman of the ASNE human resources committee, declared 1995 the year of the copy editor. Thanks to a report by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1995 that linked good editing with strong news credibility, the concerns of overloaded and often invisible copy editors were finally being heard. In September of that year, the first National Newspaper Copy Editors Conference was held; two more were held in 1996 - all at universities. An outcome of these meetings was the formation of the American Copy Editors Society in 1997 to find ways to improve the value and status of copy editors.

In addition, the much-discussed media convergence that some see moving into the newsrooms is seen as putting more importance on editing. Steve Outing, who writes a new-media column for Editor & Publisher magazine, says that the newsroom of the future will put greater responsibility on editors than ever before.5

How should journalism programs respond to the industry's new focus on copy editing? What is the status of copy editing in journalism programs? Does its status reflect the industry, and how does copy editing contribute to the overall journalism curriculum?

This paper presents and discusses results of a survey of editing instructors in the United States on the status of copy editing. The research provides benchmark data on the state of copy editing instruction in accredited colleges and universities. It concludes that copy editing is generally healthy and respected in most programs but that it mirrors the industry in taking a back seat to reporting.

Context and literature review: Copy editing and credibility

Credibility has been a key concern of news industry associations in the last several years, and greater attention has been paid to its relationship to copy editing.

Dorothy Wilson, managing editor of The Sun-Herald in Biloxi, Miss., commented to educators in 2000: Editing is the "glue in the whole process of writing, editing, and presentation. Copy editors are the quality-control people; they add value to the final product."6 Gilbert Cranberg writes in Editor & Publisher that when quality falls, credibility crumbles; the newspaper is remiss in its duty to inform its community, and its role in society as a useful institution is diminished. …

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