Copy editing and anonymity

The Web site for the McClatchy Washington bureau includes this statement on anonymous sources. The policy is written largely from the point of view of reporting.

Anonymous sourcing, however, is not only an issue for reporters. It affects copy editors as well. After all, we have to edit these stories, and sometimes we are deciding whether to run them at all.

In my days on the wire desk at The News & Observer, we ran into this problem almost every evening. The New York Times and The Washington Post would have an exclusive story that relied heavily (or entirely) on unidentified sources. Should we run the story in our paper?

For years, that is what we did. We routinely ran anonymously sourced wire stories, edited them and wrote headlines for them. Some of these stories were blockbusters on the front page, others inside. On occasion, some reporters on the staff would point out an apparent double standard: The paper frequently published wire stories with anonymous sources, but our reporters could only use them in extreme cases — in reality, almost never.

That changed in 2003, partly because of those complaints but also because some anonymously sourced stories were wrong. Luckily, we dodged Judith Miller, but the one we got burned on was about Jessica Lynch, the soldier held captive during the Iraq war. In the Washington Post story we used about the rescue, an anonymous source described how Lynch had fought with her captors when she was first captured, firing her weapon and dodging the enemy.

It turned out that Lynch hadn’t done those things. Later that spring, we ran a Chicago Tribune story that clarified the story of her capture and rescue, and dispelled some of the mythology that had been built around her service in Iraq.

At that time, we began to restrict our uses of anonymously sourced wire stories. The new policy required the approval of the managing editor, who made it clear that he was reluctant to grant permission. We had to make a case for why an anonymously sourced story was important. Did other wire services have the same information? Were they using anonymous sources too? Will there be a way to verify in the near term what this anonymous source is saying? These questions all played a role in these decisions.

Copy editors, including those working the wires, should question the use of unidentified sources the same way others in the newsroom do. Copy editors should also be included in the conversation when a newspaper, magazine or Web site sets a policy on using these sources. We’re as responsible as everyone else in guarding our credibility.

Bill Clinton gone wild!

OK, no one wrote that headline for the story about Bill Clinton’s recent interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, but some came close. The former president became “testy” (as The News & Observer headline described it) when he was asked about his record on terrorism. This column by Howard Kurtz labels it as “Clinton’s finger-wagging moment.”

Here are some other headlines:

  • Clinton, Fox anchor battle in interview — The Associated Press
  • Bill Clinton: I got closer to killing bin Laden — CNN.com
  • Purple faced rage — The Drudge Report
  • Clinton sets the Fox News record straight — The Huffington Post
  • Bubba boils over — The Boston Herald

Selling the front

Several community newspapers in North Carolina owned by The News & Observer Publishing Co. are selling off a portion of the front page to advertisers. Starting this weekend in The Durham News, the ads for a Toyota dealership will go across six columns and be three inches tall — a significant chunk of real estate.

Pushed or polled?

The practice of push polling is a devious one. It diminishes the work of legitimate surveys that the media and others use to find out what people think. Push polls, designed to change the minds of respondents rather than gauge their opinions, typically have questions with loaded language.

Defense attorneys in the Duke lacrosse case may have used a push poll recently. The attorneys for the accused players say they were simply seeking information, but the wording of this question, as reported by The News & Observer, indicates otherwise:

If you heard that two strippers were hired to perform for some men and one was saying she was locked into the bathroom and the other one was not there; and one said she was raped and the other contradicted her statement, one time saying she did not think anything happened, then later changed her story; and that the rape victim had changed her story several times; and then you learned that she had said she was raped at another time and nothing happened with that charge, would you be likely to believe a rape occurred?

Whew. That’s a 96-word question. Is it a fair one?

Use your allusion

Leave it to The Drudge Report to allude to Murray Head in its coverage of the coup in Thailand. In case you have forgotten or missed it at the time, Head’s song “One Night in Bangkok” was a big hit in 1985, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.

At least Drudge didn’t go with “Hungary Like the Wolf” for its headline on the unrest in Budapest.

Runaway photo

Here is an example of the danger of using a file photo with a story that makes an allegation against someone. This headline and picture from The Huffington Post site linked to a New York Times story about people “crashing” popular marathons with counterfeit credentials. (Those numbers on runners’ chests are called “bibs,” by the way, and are bootlegged or scalped online.) Would-be runners do so because the number of applications to participate in races such as the New York marathon far exceeds their capacities.

HuffPo has made the error of dredging up a file photo of a marathon and coupling that image with an accusatory headline. The result could bring legal trouble if any of the faces are recognizable. Editors should always use caution when using old images to illustrate a situation like this one.

I feel possessed

The confusion about plurals vs. possessives continues. Such problems tend to turn up in signs or advertising (as noted here). This example is from the start of a story in The North Raleigh News. The restaurant in question has two owners, as explained later in the story, so let’s change “owner’s” to “owners” in that first sentence. And yes, the establishment has “Clubb” as parts of its name. We’ll have to live with that.

My biggest blunders

It’s easy for blogs about editing to be consumed with errors found in print and online. To be sure, we can learn from these mistakes, but we have to be careful not to slip into the “gotcha!” attitude.

In the interest of full disclosure and just because I am in a confessional mood, here are my two biggest blunders as a copy editor. Luckily, neither became blog fodder:

  • As an intern at the News & Record in Greensboro, I misspelled “astronaut” in a headline. I typed in “astronuat,” and it ran that way in 42-point type for all editions.
  • As wire editor in Raleigh, I made Donald Rumsfeld the secretary of state in a summary paragraph (the bold-face lead-ins that come between a headline and story text). It ran on the front page for all editions. This same error happened again recently at that paper, but I am not to blame this time.

In both instances, I felt horrible when I found out about the error. I wanted to give up and go home.

My supervisors, luckily, were forgiving, if a bit unhappy. They knew that they too had made mistakes in their careers. I took my punishment (filling out a correction form and submitting it to the managing editor) and moved on.