Copyeditors, Substantive Editors, Proofreaders…It’s Time For Bias Editors

There are copyeditors, stylistic editors, substantive editors and proofreaders. The many tasks they oversee seem to cover everything there is about editing. But not so. One more specialty is required. Now we need bias editors! Print media (mainly showcased through journalism, though nuanced in non-fiction books as well) has always been subject to heavy amounts of bias. The Copyeditor’s Handbook puts bias editing under the task of copyeditors [1], but as anyone reading the news will find, it just does not always cut it. Editing out bias needs to be a trained focus. Not all bias is deliberate; sometimes it happens in writing without the author realizing it or intending to include it. Despite my best efforts, it may happen in this essay! Bias editors would help resolve these instances of biased writing before a publication went to print.

Sometimes bias is necessary. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, after all, and some things are deemed significant only by those who are biased towards finding them important. According to the American Press Institute, “studies confirm that half [of] blogs contain just the author’s opinion” [2]. There is no doubt that there is a place for opinion, but there is a difference between bias and opinion, just as there should be a difference between news articles and opinion columns. Laying the Foundation differentiates between fact, opinion, and bias in the following way, and offers reasons as to why bias may be created:

Fact: a piece of information presented as having an objective reality; knowledge or information based on real occurrences;

Opinion: a view, judgement, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter; a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty;

Bias: an inclination of temperament or outlook, especially a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment;

Ways that bias may be created: the writer has incomplete information; the writer is deliberately trying to persuade the audience; the writer’s experience is influencing the writer’s attitude [3].

Bias can take different forms, such as omission of facts or details, photos being framed to include or exclude certain details, names, titles, and descriptions of people, and even tone used when writing an article. It is important to remember that facts can be validated from third party sources, where as bias cannot be validated.

When preparing articles (or essays, books, etc.), one step towards ensuring bias does not make its way into the writing is to represent multiple voices, especially those most invested in the event, product, service, etc.. Another is to ensure those voices are free from stereotypes. The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper suggests that “in order for a story to be balanced, all communities to which a particular subject is relevant need to be interviewed and heard” [4]. Including all communities is something that they admit to missing in the past themselves. For example, The Daily Bruin covered a story on UCLA’s addition of more all-gender restrooms on campus, but did not include interviews from either transgender or non-binary students — that is, individuals most likely to primarily benefit from all-gender bathrooms. In another example, The Daily Bruin failed to include input from deaf students or other students who may actually use closed captioning when covering an article on the closed captioning of BruinCast UCLA lectures. Such oversights may not be intentional, but certainly risk skewing the outcome or voice of an article.

Being that news articles are formed with the written word, it is not surprising that language can play a big part in how an article includes or does not include bias. For example, an article describing someone as an ‘ex-con’ will paint a very different picture in a reader’s mind than a description saying the same person ‘served minimal time 20 years ago for a minor offence.’ An article’s diction and visual elements (such as photos, framing, and placement) can suggest stereotypes that take away from the message’s truth. It is important to consider the implicit messages an article conveys and ensure fair and balanced perspectives in writing.

This is not to say copyeditors cannot effectively edit for bias — it would likely not be in their job description if they couldn’t. It is only to say that with the many duties they have otherwise (mechanical editing, ensuring consistency of correlating parts, language editing with regards to grammar and diction, etc.), and the many ways bias can present itself (as previously mentioned), it may simply benefit all parties and the writing itself to have a specialized position with bias editing as the main focus.

Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees that removing bias from writing would be beneficial. The American Press Institute writes that “one can even argue that draining a story of all bias can drain it of its humanity, its lifeblood. In the biases of the community one can also find conflicting passions that bring stories to life…The job of journalists is not to stamp out bias. Rather, the journalist should learn how to manage it” [5]. To be clear, I am not arguing that articles should not represent conflicting arguments from communities or individuals — simply that bias in the journalists own words should be limited as best as possible in order to let the reader come to his or her own conclusions based on honest reporting of the whole picture. Student News Daily points out that it is “important for media outlets to provide accurate headlines that do not spin a false narrative.” They use a series of example headlines (“Office to Aid Crime Victims Is Latest Step in Crackdown on Immigrants” from The New York Times; “New US office seeks to aid victims of crimes by immigrants” from The Washington Post; “A new federal office will seek to assist victims of crimes committed by immigrants” from The Los Angeles Times) to point out how readers may, at a glance, make incorrect inferrances [6]. The articles are actually about illegal immigrants who commit crimes, rather than all immigrants. Poor word choices such as these could lead to further bias against immigrants, as well as accusations of xenophobia, which could be avoided with a more accurate, and less bias-leading headline.

Bias in media writing can be difficult to navigate, but if left unchecked stands dangerously close to turning into fake news. A research guide provided by Boston University Libraries defines fake news as that which cannot be verified or found anywhere else, appeals to emotion, and may be written by authors who are not experts [7]. The point of fake news, it seems, is to make money. Companies post outlandish headlines, “click baiting” audiences only to make money off the advertisements that pop up surrounding the fake article. It is not so much of a stretch to argue that biased articles, edited to reflect a certain spin or perspective, serve to provide just as many click bait opportunities for readers. Koichi Hamada, Professor Emeritus at Yale University, states that “such reporting, which may be delivered even by traditional news organizations, can be very damaging” [8]. He goes on to describe an instance of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s address in Akihabara, whereupon being heckled responded, “I am not addressing a crowd shouting like you!” In the following news reports, his words were reported as unprompted, leaving out the context of the heckling crowd, distorting the events and Abe’s character. Such an instance of biased reporting may or may not be intentional, but upon audiences hearing the whole story such biased framing may tarnish the reputation of the reporter and/or agency reporting the story. In a time when fake news and biased arguments seem to be running amok, it may benefit the editorial copy desk to have a safeguard in the form of a bias editor to ensure that articles are framing the whole story.

Koichi Hamada may say it best when he confirms, “the state of…politics today does highlight the need for voters everywhere to have access to complete and objective accounts of what is happening in their country and the world. Only then will they be truly empowered, as a democratic system requires, to make informed choices about their collective future” [9]. There is no doubt that it is important for the average, every day media consumer to understand the methods media use to showcase bias, and to be able to distinguish between fact, opinion, and bias. But as an extra precaution, and to ensure newspapers (and their writers) maintain credibility, having bias editing become a new, standardized step in the editing process is likely to benefit all in the long run.

 

 

[1] Amy Einsohn, The copyeditors handbook: a guide for book publishing and corporate communications (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).

[2] “Understanding bias.” American Press Institute. October 09, 2013. Accessed November 25, 2017. https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/bias-objectivity/understanding-bias/.

[3] Determining Fact, Opinion, and Bias: Foundation Lesson. 2012. Laying the Foundation Teacher’s Lesson Plan, Dallas, TX.

[4] Kakade, Namrata, Melissa Young, Donna Tang, and Brendan Hornbostel. “From the copy desk: Editing out implicit bias in the newsroom.” Daily Bruin. April 21, 2016. Accessed November 25, 2017. http://dailybruin.com/2016/04/21/from-the-copy-desk-editing-out-implicit-bias-in-the-newsroom/.

[5] “Understanding bias.” American Press Institute. October 09, 2013. Accessed November 25, 2017. https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/bias-objectivity/understanding-bias/.

[6] “Media outlets must provide accurate headlines.” Student News Daily. May 03, 2017. Accessed November 24, 2017. https://www.studentnewsdaily.com/example-of-media-bias/media-outlets-must-provide-accurate-headlines/.

[7] Wishinsky, Susan. “Fake News and News Bias: Fake or Real?” Research. Accessed November 25, 2017. http://library.bu.edu/fakenews.

[8] Hamada, Koichi . “Fake News and Biased News.” Project Syndicate. October 31, 2017. Accessed November 27, 2017. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/fake-news-disinformation-japan-politics-by-koichi-hamada-2017-10.

[9] Hamada, Koichi . “Fake News and Biased News.” Project Syndicate. October 31, 2017. Accessed November 27, 2017. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/fake-news-disinformation-japan-politics-by-koichi-hamada-2017-10.

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