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Why newspapers get things wrong

It should have been a pleasant morning. The sun was out. I had brewed the coffee. Kathleen and I were sitting in the living room reading The Sun peaceably. Then Kathleen looked up from a page and asked a question.

“Doesn’t mnemonic begin with an m?”

Sighing, I reached for the page, and there it was, a mention of an acronym that people use as a pneumonic device. Grrrrrr.

When I was carrying on about the unreliability of Wikipedia some time back, a reader asked in a comment where I got off criticizing Wikipedia when newspapers are full of errors. It’s a question that deserves an answer.

The enterprise

Composition of an encyclopedia presumably offers more time for research, writing, revision and editing than a daily newspaper. A former colleague used to tell aspiring journalists that being a reporter is like reporting to work at 9 a.m. and being assigned a term paper that has to be researched and written by 5 p.m.

Multiply that effort by the number of reporters filing on a given day, and move their articles to the copy desk to be produced in a section over a span of about three or four hours. The copy editor who calls up one of those stories does a limited amount of fact-checking, lacking the time to duplicate all the research that went into the article; raises any necessary questions about focus, structure, organization, tone, and any legal or ethical issues that may present themselves; corrects errors of spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage and house style; formats for typesetting and writes headlines and captions.

The copy editor understands that he or she can catch and correct 19 errors, and that if a 20th makes it into print, readers will conclude that the paper is operated by idiots. *

The personnel

Copy editors are expected to possess a fund of general knowledge, and many of them have a degree of expertise in one area or another, but they are not experts. They are not, for example, like the scientists who do peer review of articles in their field for publication in professional journals.

For that matter, reporters are also generalists. There is always a possibility of some error sliding through a gap in knowledge.

The resources

Editing is time-consuming and expensive, and the commitment to it varies widely among newspapers. An entry in the stylebook of The New York Times that I have always found charming advises that if a question arises about transliteration from the Russian, one of the Russian-speaking members of the staff should be consulted. As newspapers, compelled by rapidly falling revenue, reduce their staffs drastically, the number of errors rises in proportion to the number of editors discarded.

The facts of the matter

Newspaper journalism is done in a hurry, but the presence of a copy desk is an indication of a commitment to do all that is possible, with limited time and limited resources, to verify the accuracy of the published material. And when we get something wrong, we correct it, promptly and publicly.

If you think that copy editors are botching an easy job, let me invite you to come by the desk some evening and see how well you can do under the circumstances.

 

* Not long ago, one of our copy editors received a cover story for a section. It moved to the copy desk more than an hour past deadline. It was longer than the budgeted length, so the page had to be redesigned on the fly. It had a large number of components, and in one of them the copy editor pressed for time, mistakenly identified a Sun columnist as a Sun reporter.

No doubt you gasped. Identifying a columnist as a reporter is a reduction in caste, and you can expect to hear about it. Columnists are jealous of their status. Some years ago, the editor of the paper deprived a columnist of his column, and the columnist initiated a grievance through the union, on the apparent understanding that a column brings with it, like an appointment to the federal bench, lifetime tenure.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:47 AM | | Comments (12)
        

Comments

I feel part of the problem is over reliance on spell checkers built into whatever software one is using. If you spell a word wrong, but the way you typed it is another word, as is the case here, the spell checker will never alert you. As you mentioned, even an alert, knowledgeable pair of eyes might miss it. One might aim high (mnemonic) but hit a bit lower (pneumonic).

Do you give the copy editor partial credit for knowing that the word had a silent beginning consonant?

There is no partial credit on the copy desk.

My favorite Sun error occurred just a few days ago. Someone wrote "sow cow" when they meant "salchow," as in difficult skating manoeuvre. And it wasn't even a triple.

Dahlink, that goes along with the push to write English as she are spoke.

Perhaps, RiE--but I think the Sun is lucky that PETA didn't wind of that one!

John, you neglected (out of modesty, no doubt) that copy editors are also among the most, if not the most, maligned, derided, and growled at caste in the newsroom. If only it were merely thankless drudgery.
I've done the job and will never do it again. No, not even to save my children's lives. They're old enough to get jobs on a copy desk if it comes to that.
It was the one job I was always glad I didn't do particularly well. Serendipitously, my failures vouchsafed eternal banishment from any desk in North America, for which I will remain forever grateful.

amusing read on a mix between fact checking and Wikipedia:
http://tech.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=09/02/10/2211220

Interestingly enough, it a recent case, it seems that somewhere along the editorial chain at the Sunday Times of London, somebody introduced imaginary facts... in an article about Wikipedia:

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/shane_richmond/blog/2009/02/09/giles_hattersley_admits_wikipedia_error

Namely, the newspaper accused Wikipedia of having a libelous biography on their journalist Giles Hattersley.

Problem: no such biography existed. And the howler could have been avoided if somebody at the Times had bothered to simply check using a Web browser (takes 5 seconds).

Isn't that the beauty of Wikipedia: Here today, gone tomorrow without a trace. Perhaps said biography did exist when the article was written but removed as soon as the article appeared. Or, possibly, The Times did check, saw the bio, and complained, whereupon it was removed by the volunteer editors, who probably fear lawsuits more than posting errors.

@Retired in Elkridge: The thing is, Giles Hattersley himself acknowledged the error and blamed it on the editorial chain.

Furthermore, you are wrong about the "gone tomorrow without a trace" - Wikipedia logs all changes.

Finally, a lawsuit against whom? According to European Union directive 2000/ 31/CE, hosting providers, including the Wikimedia Foundation, have no general obligation of monitoring the content they host - they are not responsible for content until notified. Responsibility in such matters is personal - that is, it is the person who posted the libel in the first place who is responsible, not unrelated volunteer editors.

The deadline element, I believe, plays a big part in newspaper errors. Copy editors don't have the luxury of time when they're assigned to peruse a piece. Of course, readers have all day to read them in the comfort of their living rooms.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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