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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.



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