What one alumni magazine editor learned when she hired a sensitivity reader

Is it time for your publication to hire a sensitivity reader?

MAYBE! Today, I want to share what this experience looked like for Shay Moser, managing editor of W. P. Carey magazine,

In this interview, she shares what prompted her decision, how she integrated the work into her process, pricing and timing details, and the larger lessons she learned.

Okay, let’s do this!

First, what prompted the decision to hire a sensitivity reader for your magazine?

With the BLM movement last summer and more, we wondered where we could improve the magazine design and copy. A colleague suggested looking at Editors of Color. I found a woman who has experience as a freelance editorial consultant, providing strategic copy development and editorial insight for major educational institutions.

I reached out to her, did the lengthy paperwork to bring her on as a vendor, and hired her to review every biannual issue of the magazine from now on.

What were you expecting or hoping to find out?

I was worried about what we’d learn from her. Were we being authentic in the copy? Did we share problematic language? Did we show internalized bias as it applies to race, culture, gender, physical, and mental ability?

We weren’t doing poorly in these areas, but we could improve (as everyone can) once you learn what’s better. It was enlightening!

Can you give some examples?

We learned why we should avoid “disadvantaged teen.” She wrote, “The best practice for inclusive language is to use people-first language and language that is empowering.” So, we changed it to “high school students facing multiple barriers.” Also:

  • Use “woman” instead “female” (e.g., woman dean, women leaders, women professors).
  • Avoid the term “minority,” as it reinforces ideas of inferiority and marginalization of a group of people. Use “people of color” or “Black.”
  • Avoid unnecessarily gendered terms like:
    • Change “fellow man” to “fellow people.”
    • Change “freshman” to “first-year student.”
    • Change “chairman” to “chairperson.”

Were there other ways she helped you identify areas for change?

Design-wise, she pointed out where our graphic figures are stereotypically men or women vs. speaking to the inclusion of non-binary individuals.

Let’s talk nuts and bolts: can you share a few details about costs and timing?

Our sensitivity reader charged $60 an hour for our 44-page magazine and said she’d have it done in seven business days from receipt of content. She got it to us in exactly seven business days (I sent it to her on Feb. 20 and she returned it with her comments on March 1). I’ve seen a range of $30 to $60 per hour. Here’s what the Editorial Freelancers Association recommends. Also, here’s another resource about diversity style guides for journalists from The Open Notebook.

At what point during the publication process was she seeing copy/design?

As part of the sensitivity reading, I sent her the designed PDF of our magazine so she could review the copy for authenticity, problematic language/framing, and internalized bias as it applies to race, culture, gender, etc. She looked at body copy, titles, headings, captions, and imagery. For images and illustrations, she asked, “Who is pictured and why? Is there context provided? Are there other images to balance out the narrative? She also reviewed media such as videos, charts, and interactive tools related to the magazine. I sent it to her at the same time that I sent it to leadership for review and before it went out to our external proofreader (March 1), so it worked out, thankfully.

Was there anything you thought a sensitivity reader might do that she didn’t do or that you learned that you shouldn’t expect from a sensitivity reader?

No, but in the agreement she sent me, “Sensitivity reading is not a guarantee that others will not have issues with the published work. Everyone has biases, including me. Hiring me as a sensitivity reader does not absolve your work from possible criticism, nor do I speak for every person who falls within your scope of work. Hiring me is not an endorsement of any project. You will receive a detailed critique of the content detailing what is working and any problems noted.”

Anything else you want to share?

Another company I learned about is Black Editors & Proofreaders Freelance Editorial Professionals. I wouldn’t doubt there are more businesses like this out there. There are also other articles around this, but this topic came up in the CASE College and University Editors CUE Digest and I recommended Editors of Color to someone.