Word choice matters

If 100 people gathered across the street from your workplace to express their opinion about something, would you call that a rally, protest or demonstration?

Here are a few definitions from the American Heritage dictionary:

Rally: n. A gathering, especially one intended to inspire enthusiasm for a cause: a political rally.

Protest: n. An individual or collective gesture or display of disapproval.

Demonstration: n. A public display of group opinion, as by a rally or march: peace demonstrations.

The three definitions are mostly the same, but there are slight differences. If the 100 people were mad because my employer had dumped toxic waste in a nearby stream, I’d be apt to call the event a protest. But if they wanted the leader of my company to run for governor, I’d probably use the word rally.

But beyond the dictionary definitions, we all know words have nuances to individuals. To me, a protest sounds a bit angrier than a demonstration. That may not be the case, but it’s a perception I have.

I grew up in a city along the Mississippi River. To me a river is big. Something about 3 feet wide is a creek or stream. Natives of the desert may see things a different way.

When you are editing, you need to look at word choice in the context of the type of editing you’re doing. In fiction editing, you may decide a word is too sterile and something that has more nuance is best. In news editing, you may decide a word is loaded — it evokes a certain opinion about the news event — and a more neutral word is better.

One of the jobs of the news copy editor is to make sure the word choice of the reporter doesn’t editorialize about the subject of the story.

Copy editors represent the reader. Remember, if you think a word is loaded, others will, too.

Taking the time to get it right

How important is accuracy?

My grammar nerd friends may disown me, but I rate my tasks as a copy editor in this order: ensure accuracy, ensure clarity, fix the grammar and spelling.

So when someone told me today that doing fact checks wasn’t a role for copy editors anymore in the new media word, I cringed. The speaker was lamenting the fact that there was no time or resources anymore to check  facts. I argued that you need to take the time.

If I see a figure in a story I’m editing, how much time will it take me to find the source document and check that the figure is accurate? (There’s no one answer to the question, but when it comes to government documents, many are easily found on the Internet. And a call to the reporter can get you what you need as well.)

How much longer — and how much more damaging for my publication’s reputation — is it for me to skip the five-minute online accuracy check and just let it go, hoping the reporter meant $100 billion and not $10 billion or even $100 million?

That’s why I teach my students to raise red flags about certain things: figures, quotes taken from other sources, addresses and phone numbers, links in stories are among the red flags. These are all fairly easy to check and doing that check should be on the list of things a copy editor does when working on a story.

As copy editors, we should all make the time to be skeptical.