Copy Editor, I Feel Your Pain

Friday, January 13, 2006

Copy Editor, I Feel Your Pain

In the mid-1980s, as a copy editor at the Arkansas Gazette -- having the pride-filled moniker of "oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi River" -- I was tasked with editing news stories and writing headlines for the daily newspaper. So it's easy for me to understand the challenge (and frustration) of being assigned the task of writing a headline for the Virginia DNA story.

If you haven't heard, Virginia just completed DNA tests that confirm the guilt of the man whom the state executed in 1992 for the rape and murder of a woman. The Washington Post publishes a smaller tabloid edition called Express, and this morning's edition of Express carried this front-page headline:
DNA Test Backs Va. Execution
Well, not exactly. The DNA test confirms or "backs" the conclusion that the executed man, Roger Keith Coleman, was the person who committed the rape and murder in question. But no DNA test can back or confirm the use of the death penalty.

For death penalty opponents, the concern about wrongful executions is only part of what motivates them.

I doubt the copy editor was completely satisfied with that headline and its subtle implication. She or he may even have felt that death penalty foes might be annoyed with it. But there are only so many letters and so many words that will fit inside a 2-inch wide column.

The copy editor who wrote this headline for the San Diego Union-Tribune had it easy -- a lot of space to work with.

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