Sharon Chapman is the feature editor of the Austin American-Statesman and has been editing for 20 years. Chapman started her career path by attending The University of Kansas. Once she graduated she went on to be a writer before making the jump to copy editor. After a successful start in editing she finally made her way to being the feature editor at the Austin America-Statesman. With Chapman being a accomplished editor and gracious enough with her time we started talking about the relationship between reporters and editors.
In class, we read about this relationship and how it’s important that both parties understand each other and respect each other’s work. There is an obligation to us to make sure that we are editing writing in a way that keeps the meaning of the writing the same. We also learned about our need to make sure we aren’t making the writing more difficult to read. We also learned about the use of jargon and how we as editors need to be able to spot this and use more conversational words. Chapman said this about working with writers and not trying to oppose them:
“I think over time you get to know each other and you build up trust. So hopefully the writer comes to trust you and so when you do give feedback that’s a little more on the constructive criticism side or when you ask for changes they trust your instincts. And also you have to have a relationship where they feel like they can push back if they don’t agree and you can talk it out. As an editor, you have to be very aware that you don’t want to change things just because you would have done it differently, you want to respect their voice. But also you serve the story and make sure it is working.”
After that, we went on to talk about legal issues and how much an editor should think about this when he is making decisions on stories. In class we learned all about how we need to be careful about how we frame stories and we need to make sure that we are using accurate legal terms. Although Chapman hasn’t had many issues with this personally, she still had this to say:
“I think in general each organization has their own guidelines, but I think they’re all pretty much the same. Most media organizations have lawyers on retainer and [decisions] would be really talked out with the editor and the writer and then they would probably take it to the editors above them and then at some point they would get lawyers involved and make sure that it would hold up legally. It just always gets always gets talked out ahead of time.”
This isn’t the only legal matter we talked about; we also explored the idea of sensitive language and framing of stories and how we decide if we can run them or not. In class we learned about how careful we need to be when selecting how we go about stories even though there are some standards that help us like if the person is a public figure. However, this will still always be a difficult choice for an editor. Is this a common dilemma for a real editor though? Chapman said:
“It can come with editing, if we are talking about swearing, of course, we take that pretty seriously or if it’s pushing the envelope a little bit subject wise, you just want to make sure that it’s worth it. You’re not going to do that for no reason.”
After this, we talked about being fair and how this applies to everything including headlines. In class, we talked about headlines giving a good representation of what the story is about and how they should still be fair. Is this really how newsrooms operate though? We all know that headlines that are written in a deceptive and provocative way can actually help a website make money, however, this compromises credibility and could hurt you in the long run. Chapman agreed and said:
“It’s a balance, we have to be very aware to not write things that could be considered click bait. We have had a couple of really great social media editors who have kind of helped us shape our approach to things, especially on the web. We’re looking for something emotional that kind of grabs the reader but without being super manipulative. We may try to be emotionally manipulative but not in a bad way or an unfair way.”
Continuing along the lines of fairness and accuracy, we talked about the use of footage and photos. There are many times when photos are taken of graphic events or situations where there is a dilemma. Does the picture or video add to the story and make the whole package that much more impactful? It is possible but this could also hurt you depending on how the audience receives it, this has a lot to do with us knowing who our audience mostly is and understanding the paper and area we are writing and editing for. Chapman isn’t directly responsible for these decisions but said, “Anybody would weigh whether it was valuable to run those or not. You have to see if there is news value or not also.”
All in all, editing can be a very difficult task but the items that we talked and learned about all year do apply to real-world scenarios. Sharon Chapman is some proof of that and agreed with much of what we learned. We also know that editing is about more than just grammar and using proper style, and while that is important I think it’s more important that we try our best to edit for clarity and for fairness. Chapman even said the biggest mistake new editors make is “getting caught up in the minutiae.” We should strive to help the writer to tell the best story possible and maintain a good working relationship all around while still working in the readers interest.