Editors have moral obligation to their writers

The ethical terrain traversed by editors in the business press is largely terra cognita. We have a responsibility to serve readers with stories told in a clear, correct, and compelling way. Our primary ethical obligation: to the readers.

We have a secondary obligation, too, to the companies that employ us and indirectly to the staff members who work alongside us. We owe our companies what any employee owes an employer: an honest day’s work in pursuit of the company’s interests.

Our obligations to those constituencies are not equal. The ethical obligation to readers comes first, and we are to repay our readers’ trust even if it means publishing an unfavorable review of an advertiser’s product, for instance. Our ethical obligations are ranked. This is a foundation for all of journalistic ethics, and remembering it helps us untie all but the most perplexing ethical knots.

There is a third constituency with a claim on editors, however. As the professionals charged with modifying, checking, and presenting writers’ words to readers, we have an ethical responsibility to those writers. This aspect of editorial obligations is not often explored in ethics guidelines, but it is both real and important.

Berne Convention includes a moral right

Modern publishing is possible in large part because of copyright law, which establishes ownership in various rights to creative material. In 1886, the United States signed the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, an international agreement that standardized elements of copyright law across most of the world. Today, nearly all countries abide by the terms of the Berne Convention.

This does not mean the copyright law is uniform, however. In Europe, copyright law recognizes not just the assignable rights outlined in American law, but also a non-transferable right, the so-called moral copyright. This right was added to the Berne Convention in 1928, but different countries implement it differently. The United States barely implements it at all.

The moral right is defined this way in Article 6bis of the Berne Convention:

“Independently of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.”

In plain English, this means that even after creating a work for hire and signing over all transferable rights, European freelance writers retain the right to see that the published works express their views accurately. Authors who disapprove of the work copy editors have done on their work have a legal basis for action against the publisher.

U.S. copyright law does not recognize a “moral” copyright of this kind. The United States stipulated when it joined the Berne Convention in 1989 that the moral copyright was sufficiently protected by existing slander and libel laws. Specific protection of moral copyright is provided only by the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which applies to paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and photographic images under certain circumstances.

Excluded from protection are “any poster, map, globe, chart, technical drawing, diagram, model, applied art, motion picture or other audiovisual work, book, magazine, newspaper, periodical, database, electronic information service, electronic publication, or similar publication.”

U.S. protection of the moral copyright thus does not currently include text and it does not apply to material published in magazines or online.

(The U.S. Copyright Office is conducting a study to assess “the current state of U.S. law recognizing and protecting moral rights for authors, specifically the rights of attribution and integrity.” The Congressional consideration of moral rights has been underway since 2014. The study sought public input by March 9, 2017, but might announce additional meetings for public comment.)

The right of authors to see that published works reflect their views accurately is not part of American copyright law. The question before us is this:

Do editors have an ethical obligation to ensure that published works represent their authors’ ideas, opinions, and expression accurately?

Consider a freelance author who compares a CEO’s strategy or corporate marketing program to a historic military campaign. Do editors have an obligation to retain that comparison in the published article?

Clearly, any obligation to freelance authors must be subordinate to the obligations editors have to readers and to employers. Does it follow, however, that editors have no obligation to contributing writers to ensure that published pieces reflect writers and their work in a way that writers approve of? Such an obligation would have consequences not just for opinion pieces and product evaluations, but for news articles and feature stories as well.

The American editors we spoke to had, in general, not considered this issue. “I promoted an ‘edit hard’ philosophy everywhere I worked,” says BZ Media editorial director Alan Zeichick, “and I didn’t worry much about writers’ egos. We paid for the articles; they were ours to edit as we saw fit.”

Zeichick describes the author-editor relationship as a partnership: “Writers contribute subject-matter knowledge; the editorial staff contributes knowledge about how to communicate ideas clearly and compellingly, and about the particulars of communicating with our audience. When each respects the other’s contributions, things run smoothly.”

That doesn’t mean things always run smoothly. “Yes,” Zeichick says, “writers sometimes got their noses bent out of joint. I thought of those writers as unprofessional and didn’t work with them again.”

Michael Swaine is editor and publisher of PragPub, a journal for software developers. He says he tries to maintain a balance among the reader’s time and experience, the writer’s intention and voice, and fidelity to the actual text. “Fidelity to the text and to the author are not the same thing,” he says. “Sometimes my edit better expresses the author’s intention, sometimes even the author’s voice.”

In conflicts, editors have last word. But….

Some editorial organizations email or fax edited galleys to authors prior to publication. This practice is generally considered part of fact-checking. The goal is for authors to catch errors that were introduced during copy-editing.

In practice, some authors, particularly inexperienced ones, interpret receiving galley proofs as an invitation to rewrite the article, reconsider their positions, or reverse changes made by the editorial staff. That creates a dilemma for editors. Freelance authors sometimes ask for such sweeping changes at this stage that articles no longer fulfill the editors’ ambitions for them. In my experience, writers sometimes tried to soften their language and qualify the strong statements at the heart of the article, giving themselves some “cover” when the article is published but reducing both its accuracy and its value to readers.

Esther Schindler, a tech-industry writer and editor since 1992, says the ethical obligation to writers is real. “The article has the author’s byline on it, not mine,” she says. “I respect that act of creation.”

Schindler says she almost always sends authors copies of marked-up documents for review. Authors have an opportunity to accept changes, respond to queries, and read feedback. “In 95 percent of cases, that takes care of it,” she says, “and the author knows he is a participant in the process. When the author objects to a change I listen, but as editor I make the final call.” Schindler estimates her approach leads authors to voice objections less than one percent of the time.

“My editors never wanted to publish a piece that had been edited to be substantially different from what I submitted,” says freelance writer Warren Keuffel. “Almost all the disagreements I had with editors were stylistic, or perhaps a matter of emphasis. I was always able to negotiate a satisfactory compromise.”

If a disagreement couldn’t be easily resolved, Keuffel says, he would rethink his relationship with the publication. “I think that if I were faced with a situation like that, I would seriously question whether I was in the right place. I would acknowledge that the editor had the right to modify my piece, but I also had the right to withdraw it if edited beyond what I consider acceptable. And if I did withdraw the piece, I would consider my relationship with that editor over.”

The kinds of changes authors find objectionable often arise when editors fact-check quotes with sources who were interviewed for articles. It is not uncommon for people who are quoted to experience “quote regret” and seek to soften or deny the very statements that make articles newsworthy. The ethics of quote regret are complex and beyond the scope of this article, but I suggest that the author’s insistence that the article include the statements attributed to sources be considered not only as a bit of evidence to establish what the source actually said, but as an ethical obligation to publish the author’s account of the interview as written if the author objects to revisions.

If a disagreement over editing changes cannot be resolved and the author or the publication decides not to publish the article, the author should be compensated according to the publication’s ordinary kill fee policy and rights to the article should remain with the writer.

BZ Media’s Zeichick doesn’t ordinarily share edited articles with authors prior to publication. “In only a few cases have I shown writers an edited version of their work and give them an opportunity to comment,” he says. “That was generally for executive contributions, where a CEO ‘author,’ publicist, and legal department had to sign off. But those ground rules were understood going in, so it wasn’t a problem.”

Otherwise, Zeichick says, “I go back to the writer only if the story missed the mark, or if there are problems in structure or content.”

Zeichick affirms an ethical obligation to freelancers and other contributors. “In general, you shouldn’t knowingly publish something under the author’s name that the author does not approve of,” he says. If the author gets wind of changes during a fact-check conversation, for example, Zeichick says, “then it’s a conversation and negotiation.”

Recommended guidelines

When possible, authors should be shown copies of edited work in progress and offered an opportunity to review and make comments on changes. If this is not practical on a regular basis, then authors should be consulted when the editor believes editing might change the meaning of a section of the text.

When an author objects to necessary changes, the editor should explain the need for the changes and effect a compromise if possible.

When a compromise cannot be struck, the article should be removed from the publication lineup.

Other obligations to writers

The “moral integrity” obligation to staff and freelance authors is just one of the ways editorial integrity applies to the editor-author relationship. Most of the rest fall under the umbrella of honorable business practices:

  • Resolve payment disputes and delays quickly.
  • Ensure that only those editors with authority to assign articles make assignments to freelancers.
  • Do not extend the scope of agreed-upon and compensated work with repeated requests for additional information without negotiating additional compensation.
  • Make the assignment of editorial rights explicit.
  • Establish as liberal a kill fee policy as practical to compensate authors for good-faith work that is not published.
  • Pay authors a competitive fee in recognition of their contributions to your publication’s success.

J.D. Hildebrand, a member of the ASBPE Ethics Committee, began his publishing career in 1983 when he joined the staff of Portable Computer as assistant editor. He has edited a series of well-regarded publications in subsequent decades and has spoken on fact-checking and other ethical issues at Folio:Shows and other venues. He currently works as a freelance writer and editor.

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