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Study shows the value of copy editing

Consider the following sentence:  Their may be some mistakes, but we are the ones to place you’re trust with.

No news organization would print this sentence, and even the least grammatically sensitive people will be taken aback that I’m starting a blog post with it. But in an age of increasing pressure to push news out and keep a fresh digital presence, how important are such mistakes?

It’s a question taken up by Wayne State University Associate Professor Fred Vultee in an article forthcoming in the academic journal Digital Journalism. Copy editing, his results show, is good for business. Audiences can tell when an article isn’t carefully edited, and it affects their perceptions about the news and their willingness to pay for it.

For his research, Vultee found eight articles that were not edited well. This is important — he didn’t create these articles artificially for the study; the articles were actually published by news organizations. Drawing on his background as an editor at newspapers for 25 years, Vultee then copy-edited the articles to fix any mistakes in style, word usage, or grammar and to ensure that the articles were clear and organized. After testing and refining the copy-edited versions, Vultee had edited and un-edited versions of each of the eight articles.

Vultee then conducted an experiment with 119 students. He asked the students to provide their reactions to four edited and four unedited articles. Study participants rated each article on four dimensions:

  1. Professionalism, assessed by asking people whether they agreed or disagreed with statements like: “This story sounds like it was written professionally”
  2. Organization, measured by agreement with statements such as “It’s hard to tell what the writer is trying to say”
  3. Writing, where participants indicated whether they thought that “The story uses poor grammar,” among other questions
  4. Value, which included questions about whether participants believed that “Stories like this are worth paying for”

Overall, participants did not rate any of the study articles as particularly strong on professionalism, organization, writing, or value. The students’ value ratings were the lowest of the four measures, hovering near 8 on a scale that ranged from 1 to 24.

When comparing the edited versions to the unedited versions, however, the results were clear. Study participants rated the edited stories as significantly more professional, more organized, and better written. Even more, participants reported a greater willingness to pay for edited journalism.

Rating value Unedited versions Edited versions
Professionalism 10.167 12.774
Organization 12.408 14.489
Writing 11.571 14.151
Value 7.500 8.819

Data Source: Fred Vultee (2015): Audience perceptions of editing quality: Assessing traditional news routines in the digital age

AMERICAN PRESS INSTITUTE

Vultee analyzed whether the results varied depending on the participants’ gender, age, or ethnicity. One difference appeared. Women saw more value in the edited compared to the unedited articles, but men did not. This same gendered pattern did not appear for professionalism, organization, or writing, however.

One other factor consistently affected what people thought of the edited and unedited stories. Study participants who felt that they had a different political leaning — either more left-leaning or more right-leaning than the media in general — rated the edited versions more positively than the unedited versions. Those who believed that the media shared their political views were less likely to see meaningful differences between the two story versions.

Digitally savvy young people picked up on editing differences and reacted negatively to unedited content.

There are limitations to the study, as with all research. We don’t know how much people would be willing to pay for better editing and it’s not clear whether the results would be the same if the study were conducted with a non-student population. What is noteworthy, however, is that digitally savvy young people picked up on editing differences and reacted negatively to unedited content.

For news organizations, this research confirms the importance of copy-editing. As newsroom job titles and duties have shifted in response to increasingly digital audiences, attention to the basics of news editing continues to play a valuable role.

Next steps

Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to analyze:

  • Newsroom qualities that allow stories with less stringent copy-editing to be published.
  • Which forms of copy-editing matter most in the eyes of news audiences. This could be done by editing some features and not others and then experimentally testing how audiences respond.
  • Changes in the number of editing staff and use of the news by audiences to see if there is a relationship.

Citation

Fred Vultee. (2015). Audience perceptions of editing quality: Assessing traditional news routines in the digital age. Digital Journalism. doi: 10.1080/21670811.2014.995938

  • Elizabeth Spiegel

    “Study participants who felt that they had a different political leaning — either more left-leaning or more right-leaning than the media in general — rated the edited versions more positively than the unedited versions. ”

    This suggests to me that editing is even more important if you wish to persuade those who do not agree with you of the validity of your point of view.

    • Elizabeth–you’re the lucky winner for bringing home a great take away from that example about why editing is so crucial. You make a great point.

  • I read stories from many different sources and have come to believe that editing has gone by the wayside because it might interfere with publishing a story first, even without facts.

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