Student guest post: Overhauling the copy editor’s arsenal

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the ninth of those posts. Danny Nett is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is online managing editor and columnist at The Daily Tar Heel.

Let’s face it: The need for a copy editor to be socially conscious is more pertinent than ever.

With the surge of #BlackLivesMatter, queer rights and other critical movements into mainstream awareness, it’s not enough for an editor to pack the usual wide arsenal of grammar, style and fact-checking skills. We should also be coming to work with an understanding of the diverse and nuanced communities that have been thrust to the forefront of American politics.

When we don’t, we end up with stories like the infamous “I Got Three Grindr Dates in an Hour in the Olympic Village,” in which a straight Daily Beast reporter essentially catfished athletes and posted identifying information of multiple people from countries that criminalize homosexuality.

Or if I’m looking closer to home, you can end up with a piece suggesting there should be a fence built to keep Durham crime out of Chapel Hill. Or you end up with the swath of articles that misgender trans victims, like a recent piece on the death of Symone Marie Jones that ran in The Charlotte Observer.

This isn’t a call-out post — as a fellow editor, I know firsthand that mistakes are going to happen in the workflow of a daily publication. But when it comes to covering members of some of the most marginalized communities in our society, we have a responsibility to do our due diligence.

I read a lot of stories that still call a trans person by their dead name or the wrong pronoun — or unnecessarily discuss details of their transitioning. I also hear a lot of fellow journalists justify these decisions as “explaining” trans people to their readers.

In these instances, I think about two sections in particular from the SPJ Code of Ethics:

  1. “Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.”
  2. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

There are plenty of ways an editor can help contextualize trans experiences to a cisgender audience without being harmful. Rather than discussing a person’s surgical history or what name they were given at birth, discuss how health-care plans typically don’t cover hormone treatment and surgery for the transgender community.

Or talk about how legislation will directly influence the lives of queer young people or the fact that trans women of color face incredibly disproportionate rates of violence.

Looking at a broader sense, there are tons of things a journalist can keep in mind when editing stories about marginalized identities.

  • For one, make sure you’re not only covering a community when something is wrong. Celebrate the high points, too. And while you’re at it, check through the sources in every piece you edit. Make sure they’re not all cis, straight white guys.
  • Also, don’t be afraid to get input from other sets of eyes in the newsroom. Editing is a team sport — and chances are, the people in your newsroom will bring some different perspectives to the table.
  • Even if your staff is pretty diverse, take the time to educate yourself. Read up on experiences of people from different communities than you. Identities coverage shouldn’t be parachute journalism; so just like you’d do your research for an unfamiliar town, do the same for identity-based communities.

If you’re looking for other resources — particularly for updating your publication’s style guide — some other good points of reference are NABJ, AAJA, The Diversity Style Guide and GLAAD.

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