Being a copy editor is like working for the Standards and Practices department of a broadcast network. We know the guidelines for what should be published, and we sound the alarm when we see that acceptable practices have not been followed or when we spot something that should not be published.
When I worked on a newspaper copy desk, the editors (and readers) relied on copy editors to enforce standards of taste, mindful that all ages might be reading the newspaper at the breakfast table. Copy editors were to raise a question when a raw description of a crime came through or when a curse word or other coarse language showed up in copy. The standards changed over the years; I remember the first time a certain barnyard term appeared in a quote. Copy editors might not have had the power to take such language out, but they could flag it, citing the newspaper’s style guide or even just commonly understood practices and traditions. We used to say that it helped to have a dirty mind because we saw problems that had slipped past other editors.
And just like the broadcast standards and practices staff, copy editors at the newspaper had a hand in enforcing fairness and balance, not to mention preventing defamation, presentation in a false light, or invasion of privacy. As the lawyers who conduct libel training say, it’s the seemingly unimportant bit of type that will come back to haunt you—the caption on an inside photo, the front page promo to a story elsewhere, the possibly defamatory reference to an action that isn’t even central to the overall story and is buried deep on the jump. Copy editors as the ultimate detail-oriented people were often the best at detecting potential problems.
I am reminded of one time when I was among the copy editors and others who failed to notice a detail that led to a problem of privacy. We happened to publish a photo showing children’s addressed letters that included clear images of the children’s return addresses. The children were then subjected to letters from inmates at the state prison. I was mortified when I realized what I had overlooked.
Copy editors in other organizations also might play a role in helping the publications convey the message that the organization considers important. For example, if a copy editor works for a professional association, he or she would be attuned to how that profession is depicted and to the words that might be chosen to describe the profession. So a casual reference to “incriminating” in an article about lawyers or accountants might raise a copy editor’s antenna and call for an edit or at least a query.
In the publications that I copy-edit, we have practices for fact checking that involve a writer or an editor putting supporting documents in the content management system so others can check facts or ensure that proper practices were followed. Our copy-editing checklists include making sure that those documents are there. We are authorized to be diligent in asking for the documents or links that back up what is in the copy.
But among the most important standards that copy editors can help enforce involve preventing plagiarism and fabrication. ACES has focused on those issues in the past couple of years, including producing Telling the Truth and Nothing But, a free e-book that defines plagiarism and tells organizations and individuals how to detect dishonest work and prevent it from being published. The e-book is filled with links to resources.
One of the best training sessions I’ve ever attended was former New York Times editor Bill Connelly’s examination of the infamous “Jimmy’s World” fabrication in the Washington Post. That session is regularly presented at the ACES National Conference.
Most copy editors I know have a keen sense of our standards and practices role. We take it very seriously and are especially offended when we detect dishonesty. Forget the Grammar Police label; I’ll take the badge from Standards and Practices.