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.

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.