Student guest post: Can an app replace a copy editor?

by andybechtel

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Laurie Beth Harris is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and Southern studies. She is the copy desk editor for The Daily Tar Heel and a former intern for WRAL.com.

In late January, The Washington Post released a prototype of its new TruthTeller app. This app fact checks a live political speech, with the help of PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and The Washington Post.

TruthTeller takes what the speaker says, figures out the factual elements and provides links to previous fact checks of similar facts verified. It removes the human element from discerning fact and fiction in political discourse and leaves copy editors with the question — is this the future of copy editing and fact checking? Could our jobs be replaced with an app?

Granted, this kind of technology, while not the first of its kind, is not advanced enough yet to be able to be applied to fact check everything a copy editor edits. But fact checking a basic news story not a far stretch from fact checking a live speech — an algorithm is able to write a basic sports story now.

The technology behind the TruthTeller app relies upon providing facts verified by humans. For live political speeches, TruthTeller has the potential to be extremely useful for checking claims on the fly. Beyond quickly checking facts, a program can’t replace the work of a good copy editor.

Spelling and grammar check has already proven that spelling correction can be automated, but we all know that spelling and grammar check also has its limits. How many times have you written a grammatically correct sentence, only for Microsoft Word to underline it in that annoying shade of green?

Automated fact checking has the same limits. For example, let’s say someone claims that tuition at UNC-Chapel Hill will rise by 20 percent next year. The fact-checking app might bring up the result of a link to a news story tuition proposal for a 20 percent increase, a proposal which later fails. The facts and numbers look the same on the surface, but one small element changes the situation entirely. A fact-checking app can make the process easier, but a human still has to be on the other end, making sure the results are logical and relevant.

Besides just checking facts and grammar, copy editors ask the question — does this make sense? Do the facts presented make sense in context of each other?

A program cannot read an article for clarity or logic. A program doesn’t read with an audience in mind. A program is simply reading the letters and words alone, all implications and subtleties are lost. Until we can write a script to read for continuity and understanding, the work of a good copy editor cannot be replaced by an app.

That’s not to say that such applications don’t have a place in the future of copy editing. There’s no doubt that such programs have the potential to vastly improve the accuracy of publications and catch errors than a human would simply miss. The key is integrating developing technology with the existing system to produce more accurate and precise editing.

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