Thursday, July 10, 2008

Apocalypse inch by inch

It's risky to infer too much about what a single correction means, but sometimes you get two or three in a row (or, as in this case, one correction and two so-far-uncorrected errors) that all point to the same thing. So this week's Freep is sort of like the Ghost of Xmas Future: a glimpse of the yawning void that lies ahead if you keep starving your copydesk.

First up, the correction, one of three that ran Tuesday:
A Sunday Local News article about the goals of Sue Martin, the new president of Eastern Michigan University, should have said University House, the presidential residence, is 10,000 square feet.

As we've discussed repeatedly, corrections should never say "should have said." For this case, let's narrow the options down to two:
1) The story "should have said" University House is 10,000 square feet because the First Amendment requires that features about university administrators always mention the size of their houses, and the reporter unaccountably left the figure out.
2) The story "should have said" University House is 10,000 square feet because what it actually said was something really stupid -- like University House, Eastern Michigan University's 100,000-square-foot presidential residence and a key fund-raising venue, is loaded with a catering kitchen, a built-in patio grill and heavy wooden doors adorned with the university's seal.

Slightly larger, in other words, than the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Versailles, Mo., that opened in 2006. Why didn't anyone flag this as it made its way into print? Well, when in your life does square footage become salient? Generally not, I'd suggest, when you're walking past the stately, ivy-covered home of the president or the chancellor or whoever lives up the quad from your J-school. More likely it's when you buy your first 1,000-square-foot bungalow (or watch your friends go through the process).

If your newspaper has made it worth your while to stick around for a few years picking up local knowledge, and pays enough that you can cover the down payment and the note, you might be such a homeowner. And the error alarm is likely to go off when a story says the president of Compass Point State lives in (click, search, click, search) something the size of a Wal-Mart. If not ...

Now. If you aren't given the denominator (is this one error in 10,000 chances or one in 50?), it's hard to say whether any particular gaffe is a symptom or a one-off.* But evidence always occurs in context. So here are a couple -- and these are desk-induced errors, not ones that writers made and editors missed -- the Freep hasn't corrected yet.** On Wednesday's 8A:

Irish march on, celebrating violent past
You'd like to think the Belfast dateline would be a clue. This is a story about Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Orange Order, which is a bunch of people who want to keep it that way. Making them "Irish" suggests that the newspaper doesn't pay much attention to the world around it.

And this cutline, under two mugs on today's 4A:
U.S. President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao. Jintao said China's per-capita emission is 'relatively low.'

Even if the dust is thick on your stylebook, there's usually a clue in the text as to which part of "Hu Jintao" is the family name and which part is the given name. And which one do grownups get on second reference?

Again, generalizing is risky, but three rookie errors in a row suggests more than just a lack of time (which I have no doubt is a factor). Basic statistical curiosity*** and elementary world knowledge used to be benchmarks of a good desk. Their absence suggests a pretty widespread lack of experience, which in turn suggests that the squeeze-and-buyout response to the industry's economic debacle is having a noticeable impact on quality.

May I propose a lesson for the glass offices? It doesn't matter how many posters you put up of inspirational slogans superimposed on cats doing improbable things. It doesn't matter how quickly you rename your beats "circles," or how often you babble about "interactivity." If your readers can't tell your supposedly professional product from the blog down the street, you don't have much of a claim on their loyalty.

* Traditionally, there should be at least three sets of eyes -- line editor, copyed, slot -- on a story after it leaves the reporter. The "assembly line" model evolved as a pretty effective way of regulating the quality of a huge amount of disparate copy against rigid deadlines.
** I don't recommend holding your breath and waiting, either.
*** The emphasis is on curiosity, not statistics. You can teach statistics.



Blogger Amy F. said...

It's worth noting that in Missouri, it's pronounced "Ver-sales."

1:09 PM, July 10, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Of course it is. There's a long tradition of pronouncing place names in America as though they were English words: Lima (lie-ma), Cairo (kay-roh), Medina (me-die-na) ...

Funnily, with just the headline, I was thinking of Notre Dame...

1:36 PM, July 10, 2008  
Blogger Fred said...

Heh heh. Lots of the streets coming out of downtown are named after the French families that owned the adjacent "ribbon farms," and the centuries have not been kind to them. "St. Antoine" sounds like Princess Leia describing the rebel base.

(Czarina and her mum are both natives, so I never want for correction.)

2:42 PM, July 10, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate to disappoint you, but the people of Northern Ireland are no less Irish (by law, even) than the people of the Irish Republic.

10:25 PM, July 10, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

But still, Irish means the Irish Republic, at least to most people reading that newspaper*. Just like American doesn't mean Brazilians or Canadians, except in specific contexts. Which headlines aren't.

* Unless it means, as I said, Notre Dame.

6:47 PM, July 11, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

OK. As I understand it, the Good Friday accord lets NI residents choose a nationality -- as it's interpreted, it lets you be Irish, but it doesn't make you Irish (which the majority probably appreciates). And again unless someone changed it while I wasn't looking, NI is represented in Westminster, not Dublin, so if you want to vote for a national legislature, it's not the Irish one. I'd be wary of saying that NI residents are all "legally" Irish.

I'm also wary of national and self-identity analogies, but compare it to the Arab Israeli situation for a moment. Arabs in (Green Line) Israel can vote and stand for parliament and do pretty much everything other citizens can do, so they're Israeli in some ways that NI residents can't be Irish. But a hed that referred to them as unmodified Israelis -- say, "Israelis mourn anniversary of state's founding" -- would be fundamentally misleading in the same way that calling the Orange Order "the Irish" is misleading.

7:16 PM, July 11, 2008  

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