During my time working for The Greyhound, the student newspaper of Loyola University Maryland, I noticed a somewhat disturbing trend over the course of four years: people thought editing was synonymous with proofreading.
That is, section and copy editors alike would come to an article, read it through checking for misspellings and errors in punctuation use, correct any such errors, and then approve the article for publication. The problem, however, is that any article could have all the words within in spelled correctly, and yet still be factually inaccurate.
“There going to they’re friends’ house.” Nothing spelled wrong there, but the usage is incorrect.
“About 40 percent of the funding will be used for the new dormitory, leaving the school with about 20 percent to use on other projects.” Again, nothing spelled wrong there, but why don’t the percentages given add up to 100?
To be a good copy editor is to be an obsessive fact-checker. Your publication’s reputation, quite literally, depends upon it. Factual inaccuracies damage your credibility, make readers distrustful, and embarrass you, both personally and professionally. Fact-checking ensures that information given in any story, from hard data to certain quotations, are appropriate, correct, and do not misrepresent information or people in any way. Four elements comprise the “shortlist,” so to speak, for quick fact-checking–items in a story that you should be watching for and noticing right away.
- Names. Always look up someone’s name. A little skepticism toward writers never hurt anyone. Assume they’ve misspelled every name in the article, and you’ll have no choice but to double-check the spelling to make sure they haven’t.
- Titles. Is Jane Smith the “administrative assistant” or the “assistant administrator”? They don’t mean the same thing; be sure the article doesn’t make it sound like they are the same thing.
- “Hard data.” Numbers and figures. Add up percentages. If an article gives a breakdown of how a $3.3 million budget is to be spent, add up all the numbers in the breakdown to be sure they equal $3.3 million. Cross-check figures cited to the source material; make sure, first, that the numbers given in the article are correct, and then make sure the numbers given are applicable.
- Captions and photos. Does the caption accompanying the selected photograph make sense? Does the caption describe correctly what the photo portrays?
Naturally, to employ legions of fact-checkers is economically impractical for many publications. Editors often rely on writers to have done their due diligence in reporting and writing the story. But the process works most effectively when journalists conduct their reporting, research and writing methodically, and when editors approach stories skeptically. And treat fact-checking as something separate from, but equally as important as, proofreading.