Speaking Up

By Christopher, L. Carol | The Quill, July 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Speaking Up


Christopher, L. Carol, The Quill


Members of the American Copy Editors Society had been talking among themselves about copy editors' roles in establishing or maintaining the credibility of newspapers long before a major study was issued earlier this year.

Says ACES President Pamela S. Robinson: "We know there's a problem. We want to be involved and help solve it."

Those conversations were renewed when the study, "Perspectives of Public and the Press," was released by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, whose membership is drawn from executive and managing editors.

The study, whose conclusions were based on data from both journalists and civilians, said newspapers have too many factual, grammar, and spelling errors-the kind of mistakes copy desks are supposed to prevent. Five ACES members wrote responses to the study, based on a draft available two months before issuance.

The goals of the study were to "provide context for thinking about the credibility challenge, looking at potential factors that affect credibility as viewed through the lens of enduring journalistic values-balance, fairness and wholeness; accuracy/authenticity; accessibility; leadership-and behavioral factors such as business practices and journalists' attitudes and behaviors."

Judy Christie Pace, chairwoman of the ASNE's Ethics and Values Committee, said she is delighted to have the response from ACES, and believes that it rose from copy editors' passionate concern about credibility. "No one wants the paper to look better than they do."

Copy editors, of course, can only work with what they get in any given story, with the possibility in most newsrooms of sounding the alarm on legally or ethically dubious stories. But over the long term, says Robinson, to the extent that copy editors have credibility in their own newsrooms, they can also spot troublesome trends, such as a lack of diversity in overall coverage. "The copy desk is supposed to be the subjective eyes of the newspaper, to keep the paper from going over the edge, to provide the freshest eye on the story," Robinson says.

John McIntyre, who wrote one of the five online ACES responses and is copy desk chief at the Baltimore Sun, suggests that credibility should not be understood narrowly. McIntyre says that "maladroit metaphors, windy and cluttered writing" drive him to "fling my paper across the newsroom because they all put out the message that the newspaper doesn't know its business."

"It's important that facts are accurate," he says, "but beyond that, stories must be grammatical, properly spelled, and have a clear prose style that is appropriate to the subject and to the publication."

Robinson, who works a day job for the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service, and McIntyre believe that giving the copy desk credibility inside the walls of the newsroom will improve a newspaper's credibility in the community. How? Provide the time for good copy editing, says Robinson. Acknowledge the importance of good copy editing, says McIntyre. …

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