Copy Editing for Diversity
Editor's Note: Ron Smith is a Visiting Faculty member for Poynter's "Advanced Copy Editing" seminar this week. He prepared the below as part of a session on diversity. The seminar participants were primarily copy editors; the lessons are relevant for all journalists.
Diversity is a word journalists often hear. In fact, you can't go to a conference without hearing about it. But you can walk into just about any newsroom in the country and never see it.
While it is good to talk the talk, it is even better to walk the walk. This presents special challenges for copy editors. We are the last defense. And in order to do a good job, we must educate ourselves before we can educate the newsroom.
The important thing for us to remember is that we are journalists -- and we must look at the big picture and ask the crucial questions.
hallenge copy. And challenge yourself. Is the writer making assumptions that are not backed up in the story? Is the art re-enforcing or adding to a stereotype? Copy editors need to be critical thinkers. And in order to do that, we must also educate ourselves about subjects we know little about.
pen your mind (and a book). Take time to get to know your readers and community. Go to a lecture, read an ethnic newspaper, learn a new language. By being proactive, you increase your value to the paper and more importantly, your personal knowledge -- which always comes in handy on deadline.
lease look at the big picture. If a story is dealing with minority groups in college, but only discusses African Americans, perhaps there is a problem. Other groups deserve attention, too. Be careful not to have stories about race relations that are in cast solely in black-vs.-white terms. And speaking of pictures, please be just as aggressive in looking at how art plays a role in telling a story or re-enforcing a stereotype. I worked at one paper that ran a story that reported that whites made up the majority of people who were on welfare in a particular county. Yet the photos for the package featured two black women, one Latina, and one Mexican man. Once it ran, the story outraged readers, much to the chagrin of the reporter, who had tried to debunk a myth.
our perspective is good, but apply the Golden Rule when you edit copy. How would you feel if you or a family member were portrayed as the subjects of the story you're reading? Raise issues accordingly. This does not mean that we should give preferential or special treatment. This means that we should go out of our way to make sure a story is fair and balanced. In other words, we should do our jobs.
nlighten others. As you become more in tune with the readers in your community or more educated about particular issues, share your knowledge. Hold a brown bag. Invite a member of the community to share his or her expertise with the desk. Take time out to discuss things other than production deadlines. The more you talk, the more things get on everyone's radar and the less chance mistakes have of getting into the paper.
edicate yourself to remembering this one point: Diversity is not just racial; it can be political, and it can also be economic. And also remember that no one person speaks for any one group. There are leaders who are black, but there is no such thing as a "black leader." Any community includes a wide spectrum of people. Would we ever say "white leader?" Say what you mean, and be specific.
ncomplete descriptions alienate and infuriate readers -- especially those from minority groups. Nowhere is that more prevalent than in police reporting. When describing a suspect, make sure the information is complete and useful. It makes no sense to say a suspect is 5 feet, 11 inches tall, weighs from 150 to 170 pounds, and is a Hispanic man. That could be anyone. Does the suspect have any distinguishing characteristics? What color is his hair? Is it wavy or curly, or is it straight? What about his skin color? Is he dark or light? Make sure descriptions have meaning, and make sure they are necessary.
ake the time to develop a rapport with reporters, editors, and artists in the newsroom. If you have a good relationship now, when you raise the thorny issues later, you will get a better response. It is hard to blow off someone you know. But it is easy to do so when she is the Faceless Copy Editor.
rganizations can play a role in helping us learn more about the communities we cover. Try to identify the ones in your paper's area that can help shine the light on groups that never get in your paper's pages.
emember: Diversity is always a work in progress. But most papers get a failing grade in it because they are too lazy to go beyond the obvious. When you go back to your newsroom, raise the flag and reach for the skies.