Newspaper Copy Editors' Perceptions of Their Ideal and Real Ethics Roles

By Keith, Susan | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Newspaper Copy Editors' Perceptions of Their Ideal and Real Ethics Roles


Keith, Susan, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This study examines the ethics role conceptions of newspaper copy editors, who have long been viewed as "the last line of defense" against errors but sometimes battle for respect in their newsrooms. Survey responses from 470 copy desk workers at 100 daily newspapers indicate that most copy editors think their jobs should have an ethics-watchdog component. They also perceive, however, that there is little newsroom support for their raising questions about potential ethics-related problems. This conflict between perceptions about ideal and real roles was associated with lower job satisfaction across five measures.

Newspaper copy editors have long been known as "the last line of defense" against errors because they do their work near the end of the production cycle. That also means they have the potential to be a last line of defense against violations of ethical standards. In fact, many editing textbooks say copy editors should be prepared to raise questions about potential ethics-related problems, such as a lack of balance or fairness, and to watch for obvious breaches of ethics like plagiarism.1 There is anecdotal evidence that many copy editors take this role seriously. In recent years, copy editors have been credited with detecting lifted quotations,2 plagiarized stories and columns3 and letters to the editor,4 and fabricated material.5

There is also anecdotal evidence, however, that copy editors' ethics-related concerns are not always taken seriously. For example, a copy editor reportedly raised questions "about the level of truth" in Patricia Smith's Boston Globe columns three years before she was forced to resign under fire for fabrication.6 Similarly, "growing newsroom unrest" resulted when managers ignored a copy editor's concerns about stereotyping in a Houston Chronicle section on juvenile justice that pictured only minority youths.7 Articles based on depositions of Atlanta Journal-Constitution copy editors8 indicate that some tried unsuccessfully to get senior editors to reconsider the fairness of a 1996 column9 likening security guard Richard Jewell-who was never charged with bombing Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park and was eventually formally cleared10-to Wayne Williams, convicted in 1982 of murdering two people and implicated in the deaths of twenty-two others.11 The column was published and Jewell filed a 1997 libel suit against the paper12 that was still pending in late 2005." More recently, John E. McIntyre, managing editor for the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun and former president of the American Copy Editors Society, wrote:

In the endeavor to head off plagiarism and fabrication in news stories, and to ensure the reliability and accuracy of stories . . . the ranking editors and the copy editors are on the same side. The problem is that the ranking editors don't always recognize this. When the American Copy Editors Society presents workshops on structural editing ... a troubling comment keeps surfacing among the participants: "I wouldn't be allowed to raise questions like that at my paper."14

Although copy editors' jobs charge them with evaluating stories, their concerns sometimes go unheeded; forces that Shoemaker and Reese identify as stronger "influences on media content"15 sometimes limit copy editors' authority. Nonetheless, Hank Glamann, former assistant managing editor for editing at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, urged members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to "create a climate in your newsroom in which any member of the staff can ask any question about any story and expect to be heeded. To restrict who can ask about what is inefficient-and a real waste of talent."16

This survey of copy desk workers sought to determine how they perceive their role as "final guardians" of journalistic ethics, and whether there are conflicts between what they think their role should be and what they perceive it actually is. The research is important for two reasons. First, copy editors constitute a significant proportion of the newsroom workforce-nearly 20% in 200517-and are often difficult to hire. …

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