If you’ve spent any time in a newsroom, you’ve likely encountered a dispute between reporter and editor over whether a single word is the most objective and accurate choice. It’s a ubiquitous argument because journalists are, after all, wordsmiths who should care deeply that their work be unbiased. But this premise assumes there is such a thing as true objectivity.
Journalists have long called into question the existence of objectivity and the practicality of it as an ideal. These folks don’t advocate for biased or partisan journalism. Rather, they promote journalism that understands the inherent subjectivity of its creators so it can be adjusted for in service of the whole truth. (Lewis Raven Wallace’s 2019 book, The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, is a compelling look at this history.)
As this argument spills out of newsrooms and into our audiences’ social feeds, it’s more important than ever to consider how notions of objectivity play out in copyediting.
If we acknowledge that the method is objective, not the journalist, then we acknowledge that journalism is a series of choices that, ideally, bring us toward the truth. The words we use are among those choices.
My work at Resolve Philly—a nonprofit challenging the field of journalism to be equitable, collaborative, and informed by community voices and solutions—focuses on inclusive reporting. The goal of the new initiative I lead, Reframe, is to help journalists use humancentered and community-informed language and reject labels like illegal alien and ex-con that flatten nuance and promote stereotypes.
When explaining my work to fellow journalists, I occasionally get called “the PC police” or similarly dismissive terms. But more often I get skeptical, wellmeaning questions about whether an alternative term suggested by people with lived experience of a social issue is biased. “If I use the word they want, isn’t that just spin?”
My answer: either way, you’re spinning—toward or against this group. It just depends on which direction you want to go.
For instance, consider the phrases overdose prevention site or safe injection site, used to describe medical facilities where people use drugs under supervision and access other services. A journalist once told me they prefer safe injection site because it’s accurate; these sites are often associated with the use of injectable drugs. Plus, a local harm reduction advocacy group preferred overdose prevention site because neighbors of its proposed location were more sympathetic to that phrase. Using it, the journalist posited, would be biased toward advocates.
As an industry, we often assume that aligning our words with those who are underserved or vulnerable is “advocacy” and thus not doing so is the neutral option. But choosing a phrase that promotes opposition to an issue is just as ideological as choosing a phrase that promotes support.
That’s because words are defined in relation to each other. Their presence cannot be unlinked from the absence of alternatives. The task of the modern copy editor is not to use the most neutral, objective words. It is knowing that there is no such thing. Every word choice is just that: a choice.
Objectivity and Copyediting was originally published in Tracking Changes (Spring 2020 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.
Header Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.