Guest post: With locations, be specific

UNC-Chapel Hill students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the 13th (and last) of these guest posts. Stephanie Yera of Coral Springs, Fla., is a senior majoring in journalism and peace, war and defense with a minor in Mandarin. Her favorite extracurricular activities are traveling, meeting people, browsing grammar Web sites and eating Cuban food.

Whether it’s Southern California, northern France, Central America or New York’s Upper West Side, compass directions and geographical regions play an important role in setting the stage for a story. It is the copy editor’s responsibility to make sure locations are stated correctly and as informatively as possible. Copy editors must consider the effects different presentations of locations can have on the content of the stories they’re working on. Chicago’s South Side may be a part of the Midwest, but the two locations connote two very distinct images in a reader’s mind.

International news stories are particularly susceptible to a lack of specificity. Reports about the “East Asian” global market are published constantly, we hear people talk about “Africa” all the time and see stories about the “Middle East” in our newspapers every day. Without a greater emphasis on specificity, it’s difficult to make sense of it all. Copy editors should encourage reporters and one another to be more specific about story locations whenever possible.

Some stories, however, do not lend themselves to specificity, and in those instances, a copy editor should be very careful to avoid the tempting pitfalls of generalizations and blanket geopolitics — in particular, the still perpetuated notion of “Western” and “Eastern” worlds. Volumes of books and publications delve into the histories and studies of the significance of these terms, but even without the consideration of their layered meanings, it should be obvious to copy editors that they simply do not work as appropriate localities in news stories. The Western world is an ideological one, not a physical one, as is the “Muslim world” of the “East.”

Yet news stories continually refer to them as if they were concrete entities.

One news report published by The Associated Press about the 2009 U.N. racism conference reads, “Israel is not mentioned anywhere in the declaration prepared for the current meeting, which seeks to avoid any offense but has angered many in the Muslim world for its failure to point the finger directly at the Jewish state for its treatment of Palestinians.” What is meant by the Muslim world in this context? Is it necessarily referring to the Muslim populations of the Middle East? Are the Muslim-majority regions of Northern Africa and Southeast Asia included? Is it referring to all the Muslims of the world collectively in a manner akin to that of the Roman Catholic Church?

In reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements at the conference, the report also reads, “The walkout came after Ahmadinejad accused Western nations of complicity in violence against Palestinians surrounding the foundation of Israel.” If Western nations are those found in the Western Hemisphere, are the nations of Central America and South America included, or does the Western world only extend as far south as the Florida Keys? Does the Western world encompass all of Europe or just Western Europe?

Another news report in The New York Times about controversial statements made by Hong Kong native actor Jackie Chan reads, “The Communist Party has long argued that the people of China are ill suited for Western-style democracy.” If there is such a thing as “Western-style democracy,” it’s hardly uniform throughout “the West.” Again, the blanket term of “Western” seems to be referring only to a few nations — if not just one nation — in the Western Hemisphere, so why not simply get more specific and eliminate ambiguity entirely?

Of course, the targeted readership of these stories can probably make educated assumptions about which particular nations comprise the Muslim and Western worlds, and many readers likely do not question the terms. But it should be a goal of copy editors to rid publications of such ambiguities and generalizations. An American readership will likely assume Western-style democracy refers to American democracy, so why not go with it? The report in The New York Times could have more accurately read, “The Communist Party has long argued that the people of China are ill-suited for democracy in the style of the U.S.”

Even if it seems obvious that the Western world refers to the nations of North America and Western Europe in most contexts, make it explicit for your readers anyway, and whenever possible, get more specific. A little research and probing are part of the job description, after all. Perhaps, in time, we will successfully wean ourselves from such easy generalizations and blanket geopolitics.