Thursday, August 21, 2008

How not to make a case for preserving the desk

Another day, another misshapen correction downtown:

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
No one ever said the assembly line caught everything (people have been collecting errors since Gutenberg first left the "L" out of "public"), but it did turn into an effective way of compensating for a lot of the haste of daily news production. And the story in question might have gotten the requisite number of checks. But I'd still class it among the growing body of evidence that people who want to improve the business by shucking off the editing functions are barking up the wrong tree on the wrong side of the moon.
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.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

And just to confuse things, a sergeant IS a "non-commissioned officer", which could lead, via a drop of the modifier, to him being called "an officer"...

8:35 PM, August 22, 2008  
Anonymous rayb said...

Sorry, but I made the mistake myself a couple of times whilst covering the USMC of calling a sergeant an officer and got whacked for it by said gentleman. It may be semantics out of the context of the service, but you call a sergeant "sir" and he's going to get quite riled. It's one of those things you understand more once you've been inside the mind of an NCO.

9:17 PM, August 22, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

One does run into some delicate (or really undelicate) social negotiations of language in these dealings. Glad I made most of my mistakes on that front in the dim past and was generally chastised by mildly sympathetic officers (and NCOs). With a few exceptions that Ray probly heard on the other side of the room-- eg, the hed that referred to a child-molesting corpsman as a Marine.

The Missourian made the mistake early in the Iraq debacle of calling a Marine a soldier, and as a consequence of the complaints, a few editors decided that everything in a uniform was technically a "Marine." Got pretty challenging, trying to point out that Army airborne divisions don't generally have their own naval infantry.

10:01 PM, August 22, 2008  

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