The copy desk: Empowered to question

Over the course of my career, there have been numerous times where I walked into my managing editor’s office and said “we need to hold this story.”

I remember a specific time when I thought the story was too one-sided. Sometimes it was because there were “facts” in the story that we didn’t back up — and I didn’t think we could back them up.

The strongest memories I have of doing this were when I thought the story made a statement or assumption in the first or second paragraph that wasn’t backed up anywhere else in the piece or that the story just wasn’t fair.

Some of these stories could be fixed before the newspaper’s deadline. But I remember others that couldn’t be — and in fact, a few ended up never being published

I have never felt afraid to speak up about a story or that it was beyond my duties to do that. As a copy editor, I am the last barrier between that story and the public, so my duties are to make sure that the story is acceptable in every way — not just in spelling and grammar.

(I’ve had the good luck to work for some excellent editors who were always willing to listen to the copy desk. So all of those trips to the ME’s office resulted in some sort of action. More reporting work or pulling the story. I was never blown off.)

I was thinking about that when I read the CJR’s report on the Rolling Stone’s UVA campus rape story. Especially when I read this quote: “These decisions not to reach out to these people were made by editors above my pay grade.”

My news editing students at the Missouri School of Journalism asked me what I thought the biggest take-away was from the CJR report. I think they thought I was going to say something about the value of verification (which is vitally important), because digital verification is my project right now.

But I told them this: As copy editors, you should always feel empowered to question a story, and you should never be afraid to bring those concerns to the top editors. It’s your job as both the representative of the reader and as the quality control department.

That’s the crux of the top spot on my fact-checking check list: 1. If you read something and a question pops into your mind, run with it. Don’t ignore it.

Of course, the final decision for something might be “beyond your pay grade.” But for copy editors and fact checkers, it should never be beyond your pay grade to bring up your concerns, strongly make your case, and ask for action. Don’t just present your question and return to your desk. Get an answer.

Maybe the answer will be “here’s why we think it’s OK the way it is.” Then you can make a decision on how sound that reasoning is and what you want to do or where you want to go next.

But don’t be timid. Copy editors can never be timid.


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