Monday, December 24, 2012

Math is hard. Let's go editing!

Kids, are you ready to be a copy editor? What's your first reaction to the hed above?

If it's something on the order of "uh, 2012 minus 63 is ...," step forward. You're ready to work nights, weekends and holidays keeping the world safe for democracy, right up until your job is consolidated somewhere else:

HAMPTONVILLE, N.C. -- A North Carolina soldier who died during the Korean War is finally resting in his native soil, 63 years after his death.

The diffusion of the headline suggests the Miracle of Roboposting. The error isn't being repeated so much as it's being ignored; as the wire services themselves noticed back when they began working on stylebooks, you can save a lot of time (and labor) if you can simply run stuff as it arrives. So where did the error begin?

The Winston-Salem Journal reported ( that Sgt. First Class Harold Brown was buried Saturday with full military honors at Mountain Grove United Methodist Church in Yadkin County.

Not at the originating paper, where the lede is vague ("at last") and the hed rounds the number off to "after 60 years."

Brown enlisted in the Army in 1947 at the age of 17, rising to the rank of sergeant by the beginning of Korean War three years later. He was reported captured on Dec. 12, 1950, when his unit was overrun by Chinese forces. His was reported dead about two weeks later, likely from exposure to the harsh North Korean winter.

The AP got the date of capture from the original (and tightened "enlisted voluntarily" down to "enlisted," so someone was paying attention to something). The "his was reported dead" looks like a sloppy cutdown of "
his death was reported as Dec. 30, 1950." (The Army Times fixed "his was reported dead" but missed the "63 years" in the lede.)

So what happened? It could be a simple wrong turn -- noticing that the dates didn't quite add up to 62, the editor went the wrong way: 63, rather than 61 (even though a nice "more than six decades" would have been fine). But it's the sort of wrong turn that's easy to stop when editors follow the basic rule of numbers: When you have two numbers, do something to them. Make sure they add (or subtract) up to what they say they do. 

That's true even if one of the numbers isn't stated. "Korean War" may not look like a number, but if you think of it as a whole set of implied numbers -- dates in this case, deaths or MIAs in another, duration of demilitarized zones in a third -- the kinds of comparisons editors make will suggest themselves.

The original story could have used more help than it got. Someone left a "21-gun salute" in the second graf but made sure an approximation in the fourth was rendered as "just more than three years," rather than the perfectly correct "just over" (my inclination is to count this as an editing error, as it's the sort of thing writers usually don't inflict on themselves). But the wire version should be a reminder that editors' jobs are never done. When you print someone else's error, it becomes yours.

And that's really the message for all you junior league players out there. We put wars, calamities and assassinations in the wrong year on editing tests for a reason: People do the same thing in real life.

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Blogger Darla-Jean Weatherford said...

Ummm...2012 - 1950 is 62, and give or take a few days, that's what we're looking at. Your 61 would have been as far off as their 63, wouldn't it?

12:44 PM, December 24, 2012  
Blogger Theophylact said...

The numbers sprang to mind, but also "Must have startled his family when he walked in the door."

1:53 PM, December 24, 2012  
Blogger fev said...

@Darla-Jean, I prefer the rounded to the exact here for a couple of reasons: there appears to be some uncertainty about the date of death, the story strikes me as more "about" the decades than the years, and I'd generally prefer not getting involved in an argument over "62 years" vs. "almost 62 years." (And 61 isn't wrong based on the evidence, even though I consider it bordering on spurious correctness.)

I think it's plausible that someone noticed how close to the bubble the story was -- within a few days of a change in years -- and just took the wrong fork in the road.

2:28 PM, December 24, 2012  

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