Copy editors are central to news organizations. In this essay from Copy Editor, they discuss when to speak up, why, and how they help safeguard the truth.

More than two decades have passed since the Pulitzer Prize Board withdrew its award for feature writing from Janet Cooke, a 26-year-old Washington Post reporter, when her page-one article, "Jimmy's World," about an 8-year-old heroin addict turned out to be mostly fabrication. The recent scandal over plagiarism and deceptions committed by New York Times reporter Jayson Blair brings that sorry tale again to mind. Now The New York Times is actively seeking to strengthen its safeguards against publishing news that isn't fit to print.

Helping copy editors do their part in safeguarding the truth has long been a crusade for William G. Connolly, who was a senior editor at the Times until his retirement in 2001. Ever since Janet Cooke's fraudulence was uncovered, Connolly has been using the manuscript of "Jimmy's World" in a seminar he calls "How a Copy Editor Could Have Averted Disaster." Guiding copy editors in spotting the inconsistencies and implausible situations and descriptions in Cooke's article, Connolly aims not only to sharpen copy editors' eyes for suspicious details but also to embolden editors to ask questions — as he believes is both our right and our obligation. In Connolly's view, "Any responsible copy editor, faced with the kind of questions 'Jimmy's World' raises, would stop in his or her tracks." He calls the Cooke controversy "a cautionary tale for all newspaper editors, especially copy editors."

Inspired by Connolly, Copy Editor recently asked a range of copy editors across the country — at daily newspapers, national magazines, book-publishing houses, and corporations — for their own cautionary tales, about situations in which material that came across their desks seemed to go too far in some way and to demand questioning. One piece of advice for copy editors resounded: Speak up!

The elusive truth

"It's not feasible for us to check every fact in every story every night," says John McIntyre, who is the copy-desk chief at The Baltimore Sun. "We rely on people to have the alertness and judgment to notice things that don't seem right, and to follow up on them thoroughly." McIntyre, who is also president of the American Copy Editors Society, remembers when a copy editor on his desk went online to check a place name in an article by a staff reporter and discovered on a website a sentence that was identical to one in the article.

"But she didn't stop there," McIntyre says. More research turned up six passages on two websites which were identical to passages in the article. "She came to me and said, 'It looks as if we've got a serious problem.'" The piece was killed, and the reporter was suspended without pay. McIntyre emphasizes that "the copy editor not only spared the paper possible damage to its credibility but also saved the reporter's job." He explains, "If the story had run, he would have plagiarized and might well have been fired."

Few situations facing copy editors are so clear-cut. In fact, the director of the Ethics Program at The Poynter Institute, Bob Steele, says he believes that copy editors may have the hardest job in the newsroom. "At the same time that you're applying a strong check-and-balance oversight to the facts," says Steele, "you must do the same for contextual authenticity — the meaning of words, the connection between facts, the relation between headlines and leads and the bodies of stories."

McIntyre: "It's not feasible for us to check every fact in every story every night."

Even diligent, subtle editors can fail to catch accomplished liars, however. Last April The Daily Star, in Oneonta, N.Y., published a page-one story that, according to a subsequent apology to readers written by the paper's editor, Sam Pollak, "wasn't remotely accurate." The story was about a 27-year-old sophomore at Hartwick College, a local school, who claimed to have spent his spring break at Fort Drum preparing soldiers for urban warfare in Baghdad. Pollak had held the story until the writer could provide a second source, but, as he wrote to his readers, "we got burned anyway."

The student had fabricated the story and, as it later appeared, contrived the voice of the second source as well. "We had — seemingly — confirmation on the story," Pollak told Copy Editor. "As far as we all knew, our reporter had reached his second source. There was nothing much to question. We did an awful lot right on the story. It wasn't a case of copy-desk error." But with his readers, Pollak took a different tone: "Could we have done a better job with the story? Certainly. Several so-called facts about [the student's] background were not given proper attribution. We also could have asked for more sources and phone numbers." In apology, Pollak added, "Our instincts were good, but perhaps they should have been better."

On the defensive against the offensive

Does the job get any easier when the author is writing fiction? Not necessarily. Elaine Chubb, a copy editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (who also edits copy for this newsletter), recalls copy editing a novel for a previous employer; the novel was set at a New England summer camp for boys, and the author used the real names of towns. "He used a deliberately crude style of humor," Chubb recalls, "and one recurrent joke was about the high incidence of mental retardation, due to inbreeding, in these small towns. I was offended, and believed that people in that area might well be stunned to read this and find their hometown skewered in this way." Chubb turned in the manuscript to the editor with a memo urging him to consider whether the jokes went overboard. In the end, the names of the towns were changed to fictional ones.

What constitutes potentially offensive language is a special challenge for Sherri Langton, the associate editor at the Bible Advocate Press, the publication agency of the General Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day). "Christian editors face a different set of questions," Langton says.

For example, last year, in an article titled "The Curse of Ham," published in the Bible Advocate magazine, Noah was described as sleeping "in his birthday suit." "When I first read the description," Langton recalls, "I didn't see anything wrong with it. I actually thought it was very refreshing." But the press's director of publications — who, says Langton, "is always thinking about what the reaction of our conservative audience will possibly be" — didn't agree.

Although the readers of Playboy magazine are not likely to object to anyone dressed in a birthday suit, Lee Froehlich, who has been copy chief at the magazine since 1991, considers it "the highest calling of a copy editor to bring to the attention of editors matters of indelicacy, insult, and indecency." In Froehlich's experience, the language most likely to offend Playboy readers has to do with race or ethnicity. "I think mediocre writers exaggerate inflections in the hope of capturing spoken English. But they mostly do it with people of color, Southerners, or foreigners," says Froehlich. "It is disrespectful and makes it look as if we are amused by the peculiar way a person speaks."

McIntyre: "It doesn't matter by whom or when a legitimate question is raised."Anne Glover, assistant managing editor of Florida's St. Petersburg Times, recalls "a huge firestorm of discussion" among her copy editors over an article's depiction of an Asian witness to a murder. "He mind his own business, smoke his cigarette, drink his beer ... I can't believe, today he die," the witness was quoted as saying. "Many of my copy editors thought we had held this man up to ridicule because we didn't paraphrase or clean up the quote," Glover reports. But she agreed with the position taken by the story's editor, who argued that if the man had appeared on television, his words would have been heard exactly as they were spoken. Glover found the quotation powerful, and was "loath to paraphrase it or clean it up without an extremely strong reason."

Picture this

When choosing photographs to document the recent war in Iraq, editors across the country struggled to balance readers' sensitivities against their responsibility to accurately reflect the news of the day.

For Sherri Langton, the "news of the day" has a different meaning, and finding appropriate images to illustrate it in the Bible Advocate is particularly difficult, she says. "We have a real problem when we're dealing with images of Christ. One of the Ten Commandments is that you shall not make any graven image." On the day Copy Editor called, Langton had had to pull an image showing a robed character whose face, though hidden behind text, was not hidden enough. But Christ isn't the only problem. "We do a lot of teaching articles, and when you have one on the sovereignty of God — well, how are you going to illustrate that? There aren't a lot of good images of God out there," Langton says. "We usually resort to something in nature, something that won't offend people."

Others have found that the potentially offensive image can be as easy to miss as a simple typo. Not long ago one of the copy editors on John McIntyre's staff at The Baltimore Sun was reading the page proofs of a story about a Purim festival at a local synagogue. "There was a photo of a 9-year-old boy festooned with balloon sculptures," McIntyre recalls. "The copy editor noticed something no one else had noticed: not the photographer, the photo editor, the slot editor — no one. The kid was sitting with a large sausage-shaped balloon on his lap." McIntyre says the story illustrates a point that is crucial to operations on the copy desk: "It doesn't matter by whom or when a legitimate question is raised."

Working in the corporate-communications field, Joseph Sefter, a copy editor at Fidelity Investments, reports that when material reaches his desk, it has already been "so heavily committeed" that problems seldom arise. But he remembers a photograph scheduled to run in one of the company magazines which showed a man driving a convertible while talking on a cell phone. Although Sefter suggested the photograph be replaced, the editor in charge went ahead with the image — only to draw several letters of complaint from readers. "I'd rather not have been vindicated," says Sefter. "I'd rather the editor had simply seen my point."

Questions and more questions

"You don't have to stop the entire production line just to convene a few colleagues to discuss something," says Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty at The Poynter Institute. McBride has written extensively on how the news media handle stories of rape and, in particular, the delicate matter of whether or not to print the names of victims of sexual assault. "When it comes to issues of privacy," she says, "the first thing a copy editor needs to do is clearly articulate what values are at stake and what alternatives are available."

Connolly: "It's true that you can't have a great newspaper without great reporters ... But you also can't have a great newspaper without professional, skilled, experienced copy editors."This means asking questions, she explains. "What does the person whose privacy is being invaded think? What would others in that same position say? Have we accounted for all the stakeholders in the reporting process? What is my gut reaction? Does our newsroom have a written policy regarding this?"

McBride reports that many newsrooms have only rumors of standard practices or "oral traditions" when, she argues, they should have written policies. Although copy editors who describe their jobs as the last line of defense may consider such scrutiny and deliberation impractical, in her view what is most practical is a copy desk that fosters "discussion, dissension, and a decent process for decisions."

The kind of copy editor McBride describes sounds very much like the kind William Connolly looked for during his years of hiring copy editors for The New York Times. Connolly says he tried to hire "activist copy editors," who were always ready to pose the necessary questions: Does this compute? Where did this fact come from? Where is the attribution? Who is the expert? Have we talked to all sides? Are we being responsible and fair? "It's true that you can't have a great newspaper without great reporters," Connolly says. "But you also can't have a great newspaper without professional, skilled, experienced copy editors."

This piece originally appeared in the June-July 2003 issue of Copy Editor.