Tag Archives: stephen glass

Skepticism: A copy editor’s best tool

1 Feb

The job of a copy editor extends way beyond grammar and spelling errors. Not to trivialize these important aspects of making a great article, an editor needs to be alert and ready to challenge both questionable story points and other information. Situations like what happened with Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke have proven that the shortcomings of editors have resulted in the deceit of audiences and a serious blow to the credibility of their respective publications. But what about the mistakes and oversights that occur on a daily basis?

According to a piece by the former managing editor of the Hartford Courant, it sometimes takes large-scale upsets to remind us of the importance of going over stories with a fine-toothed comb. Training editors not only in technical skills, but to practice using their own good judgement to question information and be able to point out a story’s flaws and weak spots.

Our biggest weakness is not the occasional dishonest reporter. Our biggest weakness is unchallenged information.

Fact checking is not merely something to do in the wake of a serious PR nightmare; it’s a practice that needs to be refined and put to use with every story that reaches the copy desk or before a reporter clicks “submit.” While depending on fact checking as a basis for news stories is a debatable issue, fact checking should be a major part of the writing process for every single article.

The Portland Oregonian uses a method with its editors and reporters that involves going line by line through the story to ensure that every bit of information has been covered by the reporter and can be backed up with legitimate data, logic and evidence. Although tedious, this kind of dedication to preventing the presentation of unconscious bias or misleading facts should be considered a  model for all publications and online media. This list on ACES outlines 10 tips for copy editors looking to be more wary when reading stories, including paying particular attention to dates, consulting maps for directions, and checking recent stories about similar issues. Having some hard-and-fast rules when editing stories can help prevent common mistakes that can often be the most lethal to story credibility. These questions to keep in mind also remind editors to polish ledes and headlines, as well as keep both big-picture ideas and details of a story in check with the overarching circumstances. In addition, one of the more elusive aspects of a story are statistics. Numbers are generally unfamiliar to journalists and writers, and without concrete proof, they’re incredibly difficult to verify and, therefore, deserve special attention.

Whether or not an editor uses a system or relies on their own best case-by-case judgment, it is his or her responsibility to their readership and credibility to be curious to the best of their abilities.