Dori Maynard’s lessons for copy editors

Accurate, fair, clear.

Those three words are part of the mission of any copy editor. Those of us who edit know that striving for the middle mission — fairness — means understanding our world and ourselves.

On Tuesday afternoon, I was having a discussion with my news editing class about recognizing their own biases so that they can make better decisions about how certain words and phrases can cause harm or skew meaning — especially when it comes to the idea of editing for diversity.

Later Tuesday, I heard the sad news that Dori Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard institute for Journalism Education, had died. I don’t think I was ever introduced to Dori Maynard, but I certainly was introduced to her message and had heard her speak.

I became familiar with Maynard’s Fault Line presentations at an American Copy Editors Society conference. My classroom presentation included information from the Maynard Institute’s Fault Lines program.

The fault lines, according to the program, are race, class, gender, generation and geography. For the class, we also talked about ethnicity, religion, disability and sexual orientation.

Part of the discussion was about recognizing your own blind spots and learning about diverse groups so that, as copy editors, we can strive for fair and nuanced copy.

This morning I watched a few videos that illustrated that point from Maynard’s presentation at the Editing the Future conference in 2003. (ACES hosted the Editing the Future 2 conference in 2005.)

In one video clip, Maynard is asked “how can you be more descriptive in  language if you get away from the common catch words and phrases?” Her answer noted the vital role the copy desk plays in editing for diversity:

“You can describe what you see without saying ramshackle, which is what gets you into the inflammatory area,” Maynard said.

“This is where the copy desk is so key; you need to help us take away … some of our own unconscious biases that creep into those descriptions.”

She talked about describing things instead of using the buzzwords that have a specific, unwritten meaning for people. Her example: “inner city” being shorthand for black and “suburban” being shorthand for white. The key is to us extra words to truly describe the location and let the readers make their own decisions about what an area is like.

Many of those ideas are at the core of the Cultural Sensitivity track of sessions at ACES 2015 conference in March.

In another clip, Maynard talked about the key role of copy editors in the fault line process in the newsroom.

Reporters aren’t the only ones who need to understand the ways in which those fault lines shape our perception of ourselves, others and events around us. Copy editors need to be aware of their blind spots — and the writers’ blind spots — as well.

The best way we can honor Dori Maynard’s life is to keep teaching those lessons.

Nuance, perception and word choice

Copy editors need to be keenly aware that what a word means can go well beyond the definition.

While Merriam-Webster may seem to disagree on the face of it (after all, its definition of “definition” is “an explanation of the meaning of a word, phrase, etc.”), I suspect the M-W editors know that some words have perceptions beyond their book definition.

A good copy editor understands both a word’s dictionary definition and its greater meaning out in the world. Sometimes words with an innocuous book definition are choices that may offend or paint a misleading picture.

Two recent incidents got me thinking about that. In one, I was talking to a student copy editor about the word “victim.” My point was that “victim” might not be the right word choice for the story because we could not be sure that person actually was the victim of a crime. So I asked him “what do you think when you hear the word victim?”

“I think of someone who is weak,” he answered.

You’ll not find that idea anywhere in the dictionary, but victim is a word that bothers many people. There are reasons to be careful about using it beyond black and white ones.

Some words are contentious. Some words have nuances that are different for different populations.

Some words paint an immediate picture to all who hear them — a picture that isn’t always proven factual.

At a Feb. 3 discussion at the University of Missouri on free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, speaker Adian White, director of the Ethical Journalism Network, talked about the rush to publish. He said journalists need to take their time, reflect, and not react without thinking about the information they have.

That includes word choice, he pointed out, mentioning the word “terrorism.” (The Merriam-Webster definition is “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” But world events have added a lot of nuance to what people think about the word.)

Is using certain words before the facts are known as wrong as reporting inaccurate information? People who report and edit crime stories should know you don’t use the word “murder” lightly. What other words fit into the same category?

Part of the copy editor’s role is to look at the word choice of writers and assess if it is appropriate, whether it will offend and if it will be understood in the same way by all groups.

When the word train is hurtling downhill unimpeded, copy editors need to be the brakes that stop the run-away vehicle.

A checklist for copy editors

Steve Buttry, the Lamar Family Visiting Scholar at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, wrote a good article Feb. 2 for PBS MediaShift about “Why Journalism Professors Should Teach Accuracy Checklists.”

That led to a Twitter discussion about using checklists and the kinds that are out there. I noted this one from the Detroit Free Press that covers every area of the newsroom: DetFreePAccuracyChecklist (The list is focused on newspapers, but can be revamped for any type of publication.)

Following a checklist when copy editing is like using a recipe to bake. Everything might turn out just fine without the recipe, but it’s best to get the ingredients and proportions right.

I have a checklist of my own for copy editors. I admit that I co-opted parts of the above checklist and some others I’ve read in developing it. It’s broken down into the types of editing you might be doing on the copy desk.

Here it is (and re-edit it to fit your needs if you like it):


Critical editing

  1. Does the story make sense?
  2. Are all of the major questions answered?
  3. Is the story fair? Who or what might be missing?
  4. Is the background complete enough that all readers will have a sense of relevance?
  5. Are there any sensitivity issues in either individual word usage or description?
  6. Do links go to something that is relevant to the story and that answers the questions raised? Are the links from a trusted source of information? Are there any bias issues with the links?

Accuracy checks

  1. Are the names correct? Are they spelled the same in every instance? (Check against headlines, cutlines, other display text.)
  2. Are the ages and dates correct?
  3. Are the titles correct — check for people, but also for businesses, institutions, books, works of art, etc.
  4. Are the locations, addresses correct?
  5. Did you check the phone numbers against directories or call the numbers?
  7. Did you check website URLs to make sure they work?
  8. Did you check the links to make sure they work?

Grammar and spelling

  1. Did you do a spell check? (1A: Have you checked the spelling of any foreign words?)
  2. Did you check major grammar points: subject-verb agreement, pronoun use, antecedents, parallel construction?
  3. Did you check word usage?

Display type

  1. Is the headline accurate and balanced?
  2. Have you checked the headline, cutlines and display type against the story copy?