Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Making the desk look bad

Stumble a bit when you get to the end of this lede?

For decades, heart disease death rates have fallen. But a new study shows a troubling turn -- more women under 45 are dying of heart disease due to clogged arteries, and the death rate for men that age has leveled.

You should. That's an out-and-out error introduced by the desk. Have a look at the papers that fronted it (among them the Arizona Republic, Orlando and Palm Beach, the Strib and the PiPress, Eugene, and Austin and Fort Worth) and you'll see that the last clause is -- correctly -- "the death rate for men that age has leveled off."

This sort of violation of the first-do-no-harm rule is one of the reasons writers don't trust copy editors. First, it's an outright error. The verb that means "flatten out" is "level off." It's of the type sometimes called a "phrasal verb," one that gets its meaning from the combination of verb and preposition. You can't "correct" it by taking off the preposition, because that leaves you with a different verb (you can, and should, look it up). It's the difference between "some copy editor really screwed up" and "some copy editor really screwed." Writers hate it when we make them look dumb, and old Mother Tongue sheds a quiet tear at this deformity.

Second, editing resources are finite. This was true even before "work smarter, not harder" became management-speak for "do more work with fewer people and less time." Time you waste on "correcting" stuff that isn't wrong is time you can't spend on fixing things that are wrong or raising questions about stuff that might be wrong.

As in? This lede from Sunday raises interesting questions:

LAS VEGAS -- Hillary's back on top.

After the rockiest two weeks of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton regained her footing last week with a strong debate showing Thursday even as her two chief rivals may have hurt themselves.

One, under what circumstances are candidates identified by given-name-only on first reference? Is it because Clinton's of the female persuasion, or is there some nonsexist motive you can point to? Two, don't you get a better story if you simply delete the original lede and start with the second graf?

Third -- gee, what's this doing on the front page Tuesday?

Poll: Clinton losing ground to Obama in Iowa

Did public opinion change that fast? Is Washington Post brand survey data that much more magically better than anybody else's? Is generalizing from nonsignificant changes smarter or dumber than generalizing from focus groups? Are we just going to keep running this story until we get it right (and how will we know; if the New York Times moves a story tomorrow based on its own survey, where's that going to play?). Is the Democratic race getting more coverage than the Republican race because it's more important or because most of the people making news decisions are Democrats?

Oh, and a bonus: If the total sample for the poll is 500 and one-third of those rate Iraq the most important issue, what's the maximum margin of sampling error at 95% confidence for the preferences of voters who consider Iraq the most important issue?

We could ask lots more editing questions. Why, for example, does your religion editor follow one style on transliterating "Quran"* while the rest of the paper follows another? But we can't ask them if we're wasting our time editing errors into other people's copy. Grr.

* Like Fox News, the religion editor reverts to the style AP dropped early in the decade. Is that deliberate? How does it fit with your general policies toward transliteration and language sensitivity? Should you be asking questions like that in-house, before somebody of less generous spirit asks them for you?


Blogger Old Word Wolf said...

It's all good, good, good; and the teach-and-delight-with-a-giggle part's not overlooked. Demystifying phrasals today is on par with the earlier pronoun roundup ("like ducklings," I think you said). I know your students are "getting it." Cheerio.

3:34 PM, November 20, 2007  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Yeah. I mean, it's not like we think Bill's running again, you know?

And on a slightly tangential note, wouldn't it be nice if people like Wolf Blitzer asked ALL the candidates questions?

5:59 PM, November 21, 2007  

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