Editing news copy is unpredictable by definition. Yes, you can anticipate a regular story flow—Supreme Court rulings and travel in the summer, elections and back-to-school in the fall.
Until this year, we as editors could anticipate dealing with certain topics, such as natural disasters, and learn more about them with training and guidance. Most of the time, we don’t have to be an expert for too long in any of these situations.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and upended the entire system. Which, well, makes it pretty consistent with the rest of society.
Sure, public health experts have been warning about the possibility of a pandemic for quite some time. But I don’t think many of us were prepared to deal with a problem of this magnitude or duration.
And just like in those cycles where news editors have to become experts on hurricanes or the Oscars, many of us suddenly have had to learn the heck out of public health—my basic knowledge was simply wash your hands, cough into your elbow, and stay home when you’re sick—economics, and virology. Oh, and a ton of terms that weren’t in common usage before March 2020.
How are we supposed to style coronavirus versus COVID-19? What about covid lowercased? Are there significant differences between social distancing and physical distancing? Is the ’rona too colloquial? Is global pandemic redundant?
These were all style questions we have had to decide. Often I felt like I was on my own. Few things are more frustrating than a crisis where so many of the answers were “We’re not sure yet; we’ll let you know when we know.” All this while lots of us have had to navigate working from home for an extended period of time, furloughs/layoffs/pay cuts, sheltering in place, a toilet paper shortage, and increasingly strained interpersonal relationships. (Looking at you, my two roommates. Grr.)
Looking back, I wish I’d talked with my bosses and other editors about what style choices made the most sense. Knowing what I know now, I wish I’d tackled some issues more consistently. For instance, I wish I’d started editing out military-style language for what is a public health problem, e.g., “the battle against COVID-19,” “a weapon against the virus,” etc.
I think I didn’t because my usual communication methods were so altered. It wasn’t like I could just whisper questions over my shoulder to my bosses. It all had to be done via email or Gchat. It’s harder to read the other person’s tone when it’s just text—and those alert noises are incredibly distracting.
Some weeks, every single thing I edited was about the pandemic. I know my error rate increased. Heck, even the cute stories about pet adoptions were related to the pandemic! The one feel-good trend in 2020 has turned into stories about veterinary clinics being backlogged and overwhelmed in 2021. Unintended consequences are everywhere.
When the day comes where I have to explain what happened to someone who was born after the pandemic, I’ll do my best to describe the all-consuming fear and chaos. There wasn’t a single day I wasn’t scared that I would get a text saying someone I loved had gotten sick and died.
Even after the pandemic ends, I'll follow local health regulations, continue to wash my hands and stay home when I feel sick. I am grateful that I was able to get a vaccine, and I hope everyone who needs it can get theirs too.
Copyediting news in the age of COVID-19 was originally published in Tracking Changes (Summer 2021 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.