Readers view well-edited articles as more professional, more valuable and of higher quality than articles that have been minimally edited, according to new data presented Friday at the American Copy Editors Society conference in New Orleans.
“We can make a compelling case for what editing does as journalism continues its transformation,” said Wayne State University professor Fred Vultee during his presentation.
This was the latest data from a project Vultee began in 2010 as an ACES initiative to measure reader perceptions of the value of editing in online articles. (Read a brief summary of last year’s findings here.)
The continued loss of copy editors at news organizations due to layoffs and buyouts has created a need for organizations like ACES to collect data that helps convey the value of the people who focus on editing content, rather than creating it.
“We know [editors] add value, but since they don’t add content it’s been hard to make a specific case of how they add value,” Vultee said.
In summarizing his research, Vultee’s presentation included two key points:
- Routine editing makes a statistically significant and moderately strong difference in how audiences perceive the professionalism, writing quality, organization, and value of news articles.
- Many of those effects persist across demographic categories and assorted preferences for media use
Scroll down to the final section of this post to read about the study’s methodology. You can also read a recap of Vultee’s findings on the ACES website.
Two of Vultee’s findings stood out to me.
The first is that data from female respondents suggested women see edited content as being more valuable than their male counterparts.
The concept of value was measured by asking participants to offer responses to two statements about a story they had just read: “Stories like this are worth paying for” and “This is the kind of story you could get for free anywhere.” They rated the truth of those statements on a seven-point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”
So does this mean women are more willing to pay for edited content? Maybe, and it should be studied more.
Here’s Vultee’s relevant slide:
The other interesting finding came when Vultee removed the journalism and communications majors from the data. With them gone, participants who primarily get their news from Internet sources — though not from the websites of legacy media organizations — still rated the sample edited articles as being more professional than the other articles.
That’s good news for editing.
But edited articles are judged more professional by a smaller margin when compared to the responses given by people who get news in print.
Rather than concluding that editing isn’t as important to these Internet-focused news consumers, Vultee offered a different perspective on the data.
“Maybe it means we need to produce platform-specific stories,” he said.
Vultee suggests that Internet news consumers have different expectations or criteria for professionalism. Rather than write one version for all platforms (Web, mobile, print, etc.), the same information needs to be written and edited to best suit the way it will be consumed.
“To me it is self-evident you don’t have the same editor doing all of that,” he said. “You can make the argument that we need more people doing this [editing work], rather than fewer doing this.”
Two other interesting findings from his data:
- The political views of participants were factored into the data, with surprising results. “The people who think you [in the press] are part of a right wing plot or a left wing plot both see value in editing,” Vultee said. The ACES recap of his findings summarized it this way: “People who rank their political views as to the right or the left of the media consistently see unedited stories as worse and edited stories as better than their counterparts in the middle.”
- The TV viewing habits of respondents had an interesting effect. Vultee found that “heavier and lighter TV users tend to rate edited articles about equally, but heavier TV users are significantly more lenient toward nonedited stories than are lighter users.”
From May to December 2011, Vultee recruited 119 students at his school, Wayne State University, to participate in the study.
The study asked participants to read a total of eight articles, some edited by Vultee, some shown as originally published. Participants were then asked to rate a series of statements about the articles on a seven-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Here’s a sample of the statements that were part of the “professionalism” section of the study:
- This story doesn’t always use the right words.
- This story uses poor grammar.
- This story looks like it was written in a hurry.
- There are a lot of mistakes in this story.
Vultee gathered his sample of articles from Patch.com, broadcast websites, and newspapers that run copy from a broadcast partner. The goal was to find copy that went online with a “publish first, edit later” approach, he said.
Relying on his 25 years of experience as a copy editor, he edited the sample articles to produce the edited versions shown to participants.
I asked Vultee to explain a bit more about how he came to classify the original versions of these articles as “unedited,” and he offered this information:
I don’t know that the stories hadn’t been edited, and it’s entirely possible that some of them had been. “Unedited” in this study is a concept rather than an observation. These are articles that fit the “web-first” idea of putting stuff up before it’s had a traditional scrubbing for syntax, coherence, etc. Unedited stories were, roughly, stories as I saw them on the Web, and edited stories were those stories with an exposure to traditional norms of editing.
Some other details about the participants from his presentation:
- 61% of participants were women, 39% men
- Most (57%) get their news from ‘the Internet’
- Average age, 23.97; median age, 21
- Mostly white (42%) and black (37%). Most other participants (11%) were South Asian.
- English is the most common home language (77%).
- About 66% spend less than 1.5 hours a day getting the news.
- Most (53%) spend 2.5 hours or more/day on the Web.
Correction: In yet another example of the importance of copy editing, this post mistakenly called the American Copy Editors Society the American Society of Copy Editors.