How not to make a case for preserving the desk
In some editions of Wednesday's Local News section, a brief article and headline should have said an Army sergeant was killed in a blast in Afghanistan.
As usual, it doesn't take long to come up with a bunch of possible errors that "should have said" could plausibly be meant to cover:
Story misstated branch of service
Story misstated extent of injuries
Story misstated location of attack
A little head-scratching is still in order, though. Right there on Wednesday's local front is a brief article saying an Army sergeant was killed in a blast in Afghanistan. So why exactly are we running a correction? Because the lede and hed refer to the victim as an "Army officer."
Before you roll your eyes completely out the back of your head or blame the America-hating librul media, consider how the error might have come about. If the only uniformed people you're familiar with are cops, and you know that "officer" is a good generic term for cops of all ranks, it makes pretty good sense to extend that meaning to soldiers of all ranks.
The safety-net system that was built up as journalism became industrialized is supposed to stop things like that. The traditional* production line would have put at least three pairs of eyes on the story after a reporter:
- A line editor, who either assigned the story or approved the reporter's idea, made sure that the agreed 5-graf brief hadn't become a 30-graf first-person feature while everyone's back was turned, and sent it to the copydesk
- A rimrat, who smoothed out the rough structural work, tuned the grammar and style, cut and rearranged as necessary, and wrote the hed
- A slot editor, who made sure the hed and trims matched the specs on the page (and, at least at a glance, that the hed reflected the story's content), checked the suturing to guard against desk-induced errors, and sent the story to type
Why isn't that case self-evident to anyone who still has more than two brain cells wired together? Because editors do stuff like this, from today's 1A:
But it also is symptomatic of how unprepared -- or unwilling -- the United States is to return to the days when, for 45 years, America was obsessed with the idea that the next conflict would be in central Europe.
What's the big deal about that? Here's the original:
But it is also symptomatic of how unprepared — or unwilling — the U.S. is to return to those days when, for 45 years, America was obsessed with the idea that the next conflict would be in central Europe.
So ... the desk doesn't have time to open the AP Stylebook and figure out where staff sergeants fall in the great scheme of Army ranks, but it has time to make a completely meaningless** tweak in the 1A copy? Please. Even if, somewhere, there was a "rule" against splitting main verbs and auxiliaries (there isn't, although the blind fear of one seems to be driving this urge to tweak), is there nobody around to point out that "is symptomatic" isn't a verb? It's, like, a linking verb and a predicate adjective?
I'm in the camp that firmly, deeply, permanently believes we need more editing, not less, in the Brave New World of the intartubes. A desk that lacks a sense of proportion, an ear for when writing sounds good and a freshman-level knowledge of what "grammar" is and how it works is an awfully poor argument for the long-term virtues of the craft.
Please try to do better. I'm no longer a stockholder,*** but I'm still a paying reader, and this sort of stuff really yanks my chain.
* "Traditional" meaning post-hot-type; into the mid-1970s, there would have been yet another pair of eyes, in the form of a proofreader -- often a better speller than anyone on the reporting staff, and happy to call upstairs and remind the night desk that sergeants werent officers when he was in the Army.
** Except that it sounds worse the new way. Sorry.
*** Since the sale, I mean; I still have some of the Confederate money that passes for McClatchy stock.