#ACESChat Recap with Christine Sweeney

#ACESChat Recap with Christine Sweeney

August 23, 2019 By Abbi Booth

Due to some technical difficulties, our #ACESChat was cut short on Aug. 21. Below is a full recap of our chat with Christine Sweeney from the CIA, discussing the role of a CIA publications officer.

Q1: Let’s start with some background. What types of products do CIA publications officers edit and how are these products important?

A1: Hello, editing enthusiasts! Thanks for being here. First, I’ll explain what the CIA’s Directorate of Analysis (DA) does, talk about the types of product that publications officers edit, and then get into the importance of editing for bias. #ACESchat

A1: DA analysts are on the forefront of protecting US national security interests in a fast-changing world. DA analysts must anticipate and quickly assess rapidly evolving international developments and their impact, both positive and negative, on US policy concerns. #ACESchat

A1: Although the CIA is not responsible for creating foreign policy, the analysis of intelligence on overseas developments feeds into the informed decisions by policymakers and other senior decisionmakers in the national security and defense arenas. #ACESchat

A1: This analysis is delivered in briefings and written products, such as the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) and the World Intelligence Review (WIRe), a website aimed at senior policy and security officials throughout the US government, including US military commands. #ACESchat

A1: DA analysts also draft memos or deliver briefings to respond to the specific questions of individual policymakers or to support upcoming meetings on key policy issues. #ACESchat

A1: Analysts work to develop their areas of expertise to anticipate future challenges and opportunities for US security interests. They collaborate with each other, other US departments and agencies, and foreign allies to achieve this important work. #ACESchat

A1: They also collaborate with production professionals, like designers, cartographers, and publications officers, who edit, design, package, and disseminate the analysis as appropriate for the content and its intended audience. #ACESchat

A1: Publications officers work on some complex technical topics and papers that vary in length – from one-page reference aids to 250-page intelligence assessments – although most products have fewer than 20 pages. Many of these are complex, with multiple visual elements. #ACESchat

A1: I hope this background helps demonstrate why editing for bias is so important to our work. Delivering intelligence to the country’s seniormost leaders in policy, the military, and law enforcement means the stakes are high to get it right. #ACESchat

Q2: What do CIA publications officers do and how is it different from traditional copyediting?

A2: Like most editors, CIA publications officers catch typos and prevent embarrassing mistakes! They make copy edits—grammar, usage, punctuation, etc. But a publications officer is also expected to be a jack-of-all-[publishing]-trades, at least in in some respects. #ACESChat

A2: In additional to being copyeditors, pubs officers are formatting specialists, proofreaders, project managers, and substantive reviewers. All of these aspects are important, but the last category is where a publications officer can really add value. #ACESChat

A2: They check analysis for inconsistency, lack of clarity, substantive bias, and poorly supported judgments. They must look out for certain words, phrases, or even tones within a paper that might come across as policy prescriptive or that convey bias to the reader. #ACESchat

A2: Although publications officers are not necessarily substantive experts in whatever region or issue the analysis focuses on, they provide a valuable perspective to ensure the text can be understood by a nonexpert customer – I like to call them “educated generalists.” #ACESchat

A2: The publications officer review is, in part, so valuable because of the lack of the editor’s substantive expertise. They lend a perspective that can catch something an analyst, their manager, and the rest of the review chain might have missed. #ACESchat

A2: CIA analysts are trained to check for bias while analyzing a problem, drafting a paper, and delivering a briefing. But publications officers are especially attuned to elements like word choices and sentence construction that could be unintentionally relaying bias. #ACESchat

A2: This is very different from editing at a company or business, where the goal might be to convince someone to make a decision or a purchase. We don’t want to suggest a decision – we want to relay clear facts and analysis so the decisionmakers can do their jobs. #ACESchat

Q3: What training do publications officers receive to check for these types of things?

A3: CIA’s Sherman Kent School provides basic analytic training and more advanced courses in specialized skills. All publications officers complete a months-long training in the Career Analysts Program (CAP) and take courses intermittently throughout their careers. #ACESchat

A3: CAP is the DA’s basic training program and introduces all DA officers to important critical thinking, writing, and briefing skills. Segments include analytic tools, counterintelligence issues, denial and deception analysis, and warning skills. #ACESchat

A3: The Kent School also offers a wide range of intermediate – and advanced-level training on analytic methodologies, substantive issues, and leadership skills – training that is usually also available to publications officers.

A3: Publications officers also receive training through the Editorial Resources Center’s onboarding program. The ERC offers sessions and training on substantive editing and copyediting so officers can continue to hone editing skills while developing intelligence skills. #ACESChat

A3: And throughout their careers, publications officers “read behind” other publications officers to provide a second edit and share best practices. This is the best way to learn the art of querying the author about analytic message. #ACESChat

A3: Getting a second read from another publications officer also helps eliminate bias. Just like our analysts, our publications officers bring diverse backgrounds and experiences to their edits, and someone’s unique perspective may catch something that others missed. #ACESChat

Q4: Can you give examples of the types of substantive edits that publications officers make?

A4: All publications officers use the DA Style Guide when editing, which provides great examples of the types of substantive edits that pubs officers make and helps them check for bias, especially in the form of key words to avoid. Here are some examples:

A4: “Subjunctive words. The DA is not in the business of deciding whether something is good or bad; therefore, words like fortunately and unfortunately should not appear in DA writing.” #ACESchat

A4: “Discerning the subjective overtones sometimes requires a keen ear: naturally, for example, may give the reader a sense of being talked down to. Regrettably, mercifully, interestingly, and other subjective words are vulnerable to the same kind of abuse.” #ACESchat

A4: “Stick with terms that focus on the world of our operational readers: motives and the actions that flow from them, choices, strengths and weaknesses, capabilities and intentions. Most of the time you can find a better way to express the thought.” #ACESchat

A4: “Qualifiers. Do not weaken judgments supported by direct evidence by inserting evidence by inserting words like apparently, evidently, seemingly, purportedly. Conversely, you cannot strengthen judgments based on weak evidence by using words like obviously, undoubtedly, clearly.” #ACESchat

A4: “These adverbs are an instance of modifiers that do little or no work. Often you will find adjectives that are open to the same criticism.” (This means these words can usually just be deleted and do not need to substituted with another word!) #ACESchat

A4: Phrases like the following betray sloppy thinking and detract from any serous presentation: anything can happen; it is not possible to predict; further developments are to be expected; it is too early to tell; it remains to be seen; only the future will tell.” #ACESchat

A4: “Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power” and “be objective; write as a reporter or analyst or administrator unless you are entitled to write as a policymaker.” #ACESchat

A4: The Style Guide also notes words that carry certain negative connotations. Examples: Regime. Has a disparaging connotation and should not be used when referring to democratically elected governments or, generally, to governments friendly to the United States.” #ACESChat

A4: Also: “Disinformation, misinformation. Disinformation refers to the deliberate planting of false reports. Misinformation equates in meaning but does not carry the same devious connotation." #ACESChat

A4: “Incident. Incident applies to a minor occurrence or event of only momentary importance. Incident is not the proper word to use in cases of major conflict or catastrophe. An invasion is not an incident; neither is an earthquake.” #ACESchat

A4: “Feel. Carries tricky emotional overtones. If a piece of analysis says the leaders of another country feel a certain way, the policymaking reader may conclude that the writer is identifying with those leaders.” #ACESchat

A4: In these examples, you can see how publications officers could make a small change that has a big impact. If appropriate to the context, changing “regime” to “administration” for a friendly ally or “feel” to “calculate” or “estimate” can remove possible bias. #ACESchat

Q5: Can you tell us more about how publications officers check for bias?

A5: Apart from specific Style Guide examples, publications officers check for other instances of biased language that usually relate to an unfair characterization of a person (or a place or thing) based on a trait. #ACESChat

A5: It could be something basic, like changing a gender-specific noun to a gender-neutral one (as in fireman to firefighter), or something more nuanced, like changing “Third World” to “developing countries” (we have a Style Guide entry about this). #ACESChat

A5: We also have to be mindful of current US policies; for instance, if a paper discusses a disputed area, but the US policy is neutral, we would also remain neutral in our language (and not say that the area is part of one country or the other). #ACESChat

A5: We also look at tone and audience. If a product is highly technical, an author may assume that only other people in that field will read it or that the audience has at least a basic understanding of the topic; we need to be advocates for the reader. #ACESChat

A5: Products can also use metaphors, colloquialisms, and similar language that can make a paper sound less formal or that connote a different meaning than what was originally intended. We should always check to see if a phrase can be interpreted literally. #ACESChat

A5: For instance, using a military-related word such as trajectory to describe the future course of a situation may cause us to expect predictable or linear change. Publications officers should be aware of these nuances in language and query the authors. #ACESChat

A5: We may never intend to be policy prescriptive, but our writing could come across that way accidentally—for example, a slip as small as saying that a country “should” do something as opposed to “could” do something. We must be vigilant and remember that words matter. #ACESChat

Q6: What happens when publications officers detect bias in a piece?

A6: A great thing about working at the CIA is that our analysts all receive the training we mentioned earlier on how to think critically, brief, and write, and they and their management are checking for bias during the review process. #ACESChat

A6: If something was missed and a publications officer catches it, we find that it was normally an unconscious or unintended bias—a phrase that authors never thought about the true meaning of, or a word that they did not know would change meaning culturally. #ACESChat

A6: When we point these out, we open a dialogue with authors to see if they intended it to be interpreted a certain way. Analysts will generally defer to our writing and editing expertise and readily accept our suggestions to clarify the language. #ACESChat

A6: Our publications officers know that in a difficult situation, they can rely on their management team, who will advocate for the officer and their message. Sometimes, we need help properly explaining what the problem is with a word or phrase. #ACESChat

A6: If a publications officer ultimately thought an analyst or manager was intentionally advocating a certain policy outcome through their analysis, the CIA has an office we can go to—the CIA Ombudsman for Objectivity, which guards against politicization. #ACESChat

A6: The integrity of CIA’s analysis is core to the values of the agency. Policymakers, decisionmakers, and the American public should know that our analysis is our best and most objective assessment of the intelligence we rely on every day to keep our country safe. #ACESChat

A6: This is part of the reason it’s so fulfilling to be a publications officer at the CIA. On a day-to-day basis, you may be editing grammar and changing words, but the implications of these words have resounding impact on our country after they leave the building. #ACESChat

A6: I’ll put in a plug here—we are always looking for more of the best, brightest, and most fastidious editors to join our ranks! If editing for the CIA—and helping to steward quality, unbiased analysis—appeals to you, check out our vacancies: #ACESChat

A6: Thanks for having me on today! Although our current technical issues prevent me from accepting questions at this time, leave some and I’ll look to answer them when the guest handle is back up! #ACESChat

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