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Prone to error

People are no damn good, and copy editors know it.

No proper copy editor gets misty-eyed over Rousseauan claptrap about people’s inherent goodness and innocence corrupted by society. Copy editors understand that we are all bad to the bone, that on any given day, any given group of children is just about this far away from Lord of the Flies.

People lie. Spouses lie to each other. Parents lie to their children, children to their parents. People tell lies to deceive and comfort themselves, but more often to others, including newspaper reporters. No one is under oath when talking to a reporter. In recent weeks, for example, on two occasions people have knowingly provided false information for obituaries in The Sun.

So copy editors are suspicious characters. They are not being paid to sit at the desk for an eight-hour shift admiring the copy, but examining it for errors. And they are not sitting at the desk for an entire shift trusting the copy, but thumping and prodding it for dubious statements to see if anything gives way.

These are some of the things a copy editor taps a story for, to see if anything rattles:  

Exaggeration. Any claim that something is the first, the only, the largest of its kind is automatically flagged for inspection. Superlatives are not to be trusted.

Anonymous sources. Readers wonder about stories with anonymous sources, and with good reason. By definition, an anonymous source has something to hide. It may be a good reason — and at The Sun, there are two legitimate reasons: apprehension of physical harm if the source is identified and apprehension of significant economic harm. Reporters are not supposed to grant anonymity casually, just to spare someone embarrassment.

Unsupported statements. Single-source stories make editors sit bolt upright. Anything that comes only from a single source — a person, a document — without support, without independent confirmation of its factual accuracy, can’t be trusted. Has The Sun been burned by stories with single-source information in the past? Oh yes.

Quality of the support. Who or what actually backs up the source? Is the person a figure of credibility? Does the person verifying the source have an interest in the statement? Have reliable reference works been cited? Better not mention Wikipedia.

Copy editors as well as reporters live by the motto of the Chicago’s City News Bureau: IF YOUR MOTHER SAYS SHE LOVES YOU, CHECK IT OUT.

Tom French, a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times with a national reputation, makes it his practice to go over the final draft of each story he writers, marking each statement of fact and confirming to his own satisfaction that he can vouch for the accuracy of each one.

Such an approach is unworkable for newspaper copy editors, who lack the staffing and time for extensive fact-checking. That makes it all the more important for the copy editor to zero in on anything in an article that sets off the little editing alarm bell in the head. “That doesn’t look right. That doesn’t smell right. I’d better check that out.”

The Sun, like other newspapers, has had to deal periodically with instances and plagiarism and fabrication by members of the staff. In the cases in which such lapses have been detected before publication, it was typically on the copy desk. That is why that on well-regulated newspapers, each copy editor’s work is checked by other copy editors. What one overlooks, another can catch.

Of course we turn a gimlet eye on the work of reporters. We do the same for one another.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:58 AM | | Comments (2)


Good one. I've been forwarding this article around the Wikipedia lists too :-)

There are some quick steps you can take in lieu of full-blown fact-checking. Running names and proper nouns through the newsroom library or a search engine is a start.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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