Saturday, August 29, 2009

Big boo boos

I was a news junkie almost as soon as I could read. A fresh newspaper in the mailbox out front was an invitation to me, a perfect way to start the day by connecting to the latest goings on in the world.

The older I got, the more critical I became. I wouldn't just read the paper: I'd pick it apart, critiquing the articles, photos and layout. All the while, I'd marvel that an unseen team of journalists and production wizards could produce this monumentally complex literary jigsaw puzzle each and every day. And as soon as they were done with one, they'd start over on the next edition. It was amazing then, and even today, in the age of the Internet, it remains so.

I'd also marvel at how clean the end result always seemed to be. Finding a typo or some other kind of error was a rarity - if I stumbled across more than one over a two- or three-month span, they were having a bad run. They obviously had editors who pored over the content at every phase of production, sweating the little things so readers would never have to contend with anything less than readable, relevant copy.

I wish I could say this is still the case. Sadly, it's a rare day that I don't find some laughable mistake in the paper. It's a pervasive enough occurrence that I often wonder who's doing the editing, and if he/she fully appreciates the personal and professional accountability associated with putting out a sellable product. Some days, it seems there's no one editing at all.

To wit, today's paper. Not only does Canada's lone female astronaut "mavel" at the current state of the International Space Station, but automotive columnist Joe Duarte apparently had his name changed to "Columnist Name". These aren't errors in body copy or mistakes buried in something they grabbed off the wire. They're headlines, and I noticed them from half a room away. That no one's minding the store is painfully obvious, and it saddens me.

I get that newspapers are hurting as the economy transitions online and advertising-based businesses try to adapt on the fly. I appreciate that relentless budget cuts have decimated the newsroom and reduced the multiple layers of editors to perhaps one or two overworked souls who are fearful for their jobs. I can put two and two together and conclude that the error rate will increase as a result.

But as newspaper publishers and editors-in-chief spill endless ink explaining how they've embraced the new economy and are rapidly evolving their product to continue to add value, I can't help but think how inexcusable boners like this are ultimately perceived by readers and advertisers alike. (Short answer: not very well.) It smacks of disrespect to the paper's stakeholders, that its people can't be bothered to finish the job, and don't care enough about their constituents to pull out every last stop to put out a quality piece of work. It suggests laziness in an era when other, better produced vehicles will happily go the extra mile to meet the community's needs.

I'd like to be part of the solution, but I doubt this entry will be read by anyone in an editor's office. Workflow and process in an Internet-enabled newsroom can go a long way toward fixing mistakes like this - mistakes that continue to drive readers away and reinforce to advertisers that the vehicle needs fixing. I remain optimistic that someday soon I'll actually be able to have this conversation with an editor or publisher who wants to do something about it.

Your turn: Everyone makes mistakes. Am I making too big of a deal here or is this justifiably be seen as another chink in conventional media's armor?

18 comments:

bobbie said...

All too true. This type of mistake, as well as all the simple type-o's are just inexcusable.

Same thing is true of what they laughingly call "news" on TV. When someone makes his or her living at a job, speaking to the public, wouldn't you think they could take the trouble the find the correct pronunciation of names of people and countries?

Pamela said...

when I was in college, the student newspaper had a typo about the big open house on campus.
"dorms open for pubic viewing."

I see typos quite often, but usually it is in the body of the article.

another error I see is "factual" material. That bugs me A LOT.

Mojo said...

There's a teacher-cum-comedian whose name escapes me at the moment who did an entire bit entitled "The The Impotence of Proofredding".

I remember my technical writing teacher in college when I see bloopers like this. You know the guy I'm sure. The one who could quote the Harbrace College Handbook and the Chicago Manual of Style like an evangelist quotes scripture. Maybe better. And I think how apoplectic he'd get over serial commas, misused semicolons, run-on sentences in papers for his class. I can only begin to imagine what something like this would do to his blood pressure. But for one semester at least, I was prepared to defend every single punctuation mark in anything I wrote.

But as much as technology has done for journalism, it's also done a few things to it. Spell check has replaced proofreading to a degree, and the more sophisticated word processors get, the more reliant on them we become. And we forget that spell check doesn't distinguish between "to", "too" and "two". Or even "where" and "were". Or my personal favorites, "they're" "their" and "there" and their cousins "your" and "you're". All perfectly spelled, and all "to" frequently, perfectly wrong in the context in which "their" used. (See how I did that? Object lesson I think "its" called.)

But our current generation of elementary students is already submitting homework assignments prepared and vetted by Microsoft. (Perhaps the Microsoft College Handbook will be the next venture, who knows?) They aren't learning the proofreading skills their parents had to learn because they don't actually have to read their work after it's written, just look for the red and green squiggles. And as more of these students matriculate into the world of professional journalism, these gaffes are only going to become more common. Of course, their audiences will be just as ignorant for the same reasons, so perhaps no one will notice.

Maybe this is how Old English became Middle English became Modern English. What will we call the next variant? Post-Modern Internet English? And will the dictionary for this New World Language include things like OMG, BFF, and alternative spellings like "ur" and "(me) 2"?

Anyway. There's no mistake in this entry to the Big Theme.

That is, unless Firefox didn't catch it.

Thematic Photographic 63: "Big" v.4.0 - "Big Bird"

Star said...

Years ago, while perusing the Philadelphia Inquirer, a major newspaper in the 5th largest city of the US, I saw they used the word there when they should have used their. Not buried in a paragraph somewhere. In a rather larger column heading and in bold type. I was stunned. I oould not believe it. I wanted to call and ask if they just overlooked it, or, heaven forbid, did they use only spellcheck to proof read. I did not. I hope someone did.

Klaatu said...

I find newpapers to be the last bastion of eloquence.Particularly the N.Y. Times and the National Post. If you want to fear for the future of language, not only it's propriety, but its use of influence, listen to A.M. radio.
The local announcers are to put it bluntly... idiots. Then there are the syndicated shows.Rush Limbaugh...etc. Lies,mistruths,hatred,damn lies, and statistics.
Ooooh, and T.V. news. The old maxim, If it bleeds, it leads.
Reporting of fear and danger breeds fear and danger. Good news is left in the wake of ratings.
It is all about dollars. More advertisers, lower paid staff, higher profit margin.
And let's put our content on the web for free. Yeah, that'll work.
Remember when the National post tried charging for a web paper. No one paid, 'cause it was available for free elsewhere.
But this is all a moot point. The new generation of text users can't spell anyways, so won't notice grammatical errors.
P.S. Did you ever notice and wonder that Phonics isn't spelled phonetically? ( Foneks? Fonix?)

Klaatu said...

Gerry Dee. The comedian Mojo is trying to rember is Gerry Dee.
Go on the Comedy Now page of the Comedy Network in Canada for clips.

Linda said...

Carmi, if I was a free-lancing proofreader for the local paper (in EVERY city I have lived in, by the way!)and was paid by the WORD for every error I found, I would be RICH. You're not making a big deal of this. It becomes part of the dumbing down of our countries. Our children are taught to write by "creative spelling" in the hopes that they'll get it right eventually. It's a shame.

Anonymous said...

Grammar and spelling mistakes are the most common mistakes I see, and I just don't understand it. I've heard friends say, "I know how to spell it, I was just writing fast". How does that make sense? If you know how to spell a word right, why would writing it faster make it wrong in a way that's not a typo?

Mark said...

I couldn't agree more. I worked as a journalist in my former career (well, in-between career), and at the weekly paper where I started, part of our job was to proofread other reporters' stories before they went to press. When I went to the company's daily, we didn't do that, but the editors were excellent and dedicatd.

It is a shame that the quality has gone down, and I'm a bit concerned at the quality of reporting we will get once the newspapers are gone. Not just because of the format, but because of the attitudes in so much online journalism. So many opinions are included in pieces called "articles" that probably should be called "columns."

It's too cheap and easy for someone not serious about news to publish their words for the whole world to see.

Of all the professions in which I've worked, the journalists I've worked with have been by far the most ethical people (i.e., they didn't break rules in order to make their jobs easier). I know this isn't the case with all news outlets, but I fear it will become even more rare as the trend toward online news sources continues.

Thom said...

I have to say that I don't think that anything is error proof and some things are just going to slip by the cracks if you will. It's sad and even with all the budget cuts and downsizing going on now, it should be avoided. But I think this personally is a fact of life. :(

Hilary said...

Frank and I were just talking about this sort of thing today, as we have in the past. I told him about your blog content today, and he help up the Sports page from the National Post where their headline had an awkward repetition of a word. It's everywhere and frequent.

Sleepypete said...

I don't trust most of the British media at the moment, there's usually a slant on the presentation even if what they're presenting is actually accurate. Which even in the case of a broadsheet like the Telegraph isn't guaranteed.

They ran a story a few months ago that accused the RN of being behind orange lanterns in the sky over Liverpool, running it as a UFO story. Which the Register (who I do trust) picked up on as a RN vs UFOs Interplanetary War story. Amusing for the Register poking fun at the Telegraph (and correcting the howlers), embarassing for the broadsheet.

So much inaccuracy and dumbing down, it can be quite painful when you see the laughable stuff the media says about what you're working on. Even if they're given the chance to ask if what they're saying is accurate, they decline to take it.

Proof readers - I was in the room when an engineer tried to explain to the head of graduate training that he didn't need to spell correctly because he was an engineer. (the response wasn't pretty)

Wrong ! One thing credibility hinges on is your quality of English (insert alternate language as appropriate!). If there's errors there, they will get spotted. And it doesn't help convince senior staff that you need to spend their money if your credibility balloon has already been popped by poor language skills ...

I trust the Register, cos their angle is usually "how much fun can be get out of this story" but I distrust the big people like BBC and NewsCorp because they're usually too dumbed down, slanted to their own angle or just plain wrong.

Tabor said...

I think with the big need for critical thinking and better communication in this rapidly moving world, there is very little room for typographical and grammatical errors.

momemts in time said...

In the old days (rose tinted glasses here)the journalist would compose on the typewriter spelling almost everything correctly and it would be taken apart and corrected by the sub editors, section editors, news editors and Editor who had all been journalists. But you still had howlers; although in the UK some were claimed to have been intentionally introduced (when there were issues over technology changes) by the typesetters. Today perhaps there is too little time for checking as we rush to have everything 'now'. (In Afghanistan the US even timed bombing / shelling so that it could go out live on the main evening news programmes.)

I make a huge number of typos when using a PC (much fewer on the Mac because the keyboard is so much better). Some rely not only on Microsoft Word but also on its spell / grammar checker and auto-correct facilities: fatal.

Perhaps sometimes new technology is the culprit and how long before children’s’ essays are written in text speak, or voice activated programmes become the normal. In the past if I wanted to do a report I would dictate it and the typist would then type it for me, far more quickly than I could, and it would be accurate (even when computers / word processors were introduced). Nowdays most organisations do not have typists or secretaries and everyone spends longer at the keyboard. Is it progress? More people spend time typing now than ever before so more mistakes is a forgone conclusion.

My bugbear though is poor layout in documents. Why should I take seriously something in Times New Roman, with single line spacing, no paragraph separation, very small margins all round, and excessive use of bold and underlined text. Have they not heard of using 'whitespace' to make the page more attractive...

Pat said...

I feel the same way. Even businesses writing press releases and blog entries today have a hard time with basic spelling and grammar. I wrote a post about it not long ago: http://patdryburgh.com/blog/the-business-of-grammar/

The London Free Press is one of the worst offenders, though it's not limited to the local writing. I constantly find errors in the articles gleaned from the AP and from Sun Media's articles as well.

Hickup said...

That's what you get for $0.75. ;-)

Neither item bothered me one bit. But who am I? I'm just the average reader...you know, one of the many non-journalist, non-editor types who read the paper. You know...part of the 99.95% of the readership.

Heck if they didn't make mistakes, Letterman would be out of a job.

Rather then knit-pick about misc nothings, like your 2 examples, why not concentrate on the articles that are truly written wrong...the content.

The car article's author caught my eye. Made me chuckle and gave me momentum to read it.

Oh yeah, I also drive an '09 Pilot and love it.

Carmi said...

"I'm just the average reader...you know, one of the many non-journalist, non-editor types who read the paper. You know...part of the 99.95% of the readership."

And how many of you are left? If demographic trends continue, you may be the only reader left before long. The dwindling ranks of average readers like you will continue to dwindle as long as the folks who create what you pay for show no desire to inject any quality into their product.

"Heck if they didn't make mistakes, Letterman would be out of a job."

So what you're saying is lack of attention to detail doesn't concern you. Unlike you, I don't particularly relish paying for half-hearted, unreadable content.

"Rather then knit-pick about misc nothings, like your 2 examples, why not concentrate on the articles that are truly written wrong...the content."

I think you missed my point. They muck up the little things as well as the bigger things. The content is, to put it bluntly, lame. Anyone who reads the auto section, for example, can immediately tell these folks won't be competing for top tier editorial slots at C&D anytime soon. Their advice column is consistently painful to read. In many cases, they source content from the bottom of the writing barrel. But if that meets your needs, then who am I to quibble?

"Oh yeah, I also drive an '09 Pilot and love it."

Um, ok.

Anonymous said...

Carmie...take my comments as just that...a comment. No need to take it apart because I disagree with some of your points, but totally understand your gist.

I just care less about it then you.

Heck, my eyes roam for interesting titles and content that differs from the rest on the page or section. Oh, and I love Dilbert and Dear Annie, so can you can gauge what tickles my fancy and wonderful intellect.

As we are democratic, you have the right to buy or not buy the paper if you don't find it satisfying. But, buying it and complaining can only be too painful...no?

As far as the paper ever departing, I'd like to say that I'll take a newspaper over a laptop while making my morning deposit any time. The only disadvantage is the ink smudges.

Damn, those ink smudges to hell!