Sunday, December 09, 2012

History's worst hed

For those who didn't catch last week's inaugural edition of the ACES editing chat* on Twitter, too bad. You missed a good time and lots of fun stuff. One point I wish we could have drawn out further was the positive side of the copy editor's presence -- the stuff we do that doesn't go into a file of great catches to be brought out for the annual review.**

Editors do more than lie in wait to pounce on the unwary split infinitive. Many of the most important things we fix aren't "mistakes" in any syntactic or factual sense. When readers are judging the professionalism or writing quality of an article, one of the things they're seeing is whether you write for the people you cover or for the people who buy the product. Are you impressed that the cops are doing their job, or are you going to tell us about the events that brought the cops to the scene in the first place?

There is, thus, no worse hed imaginable in the history of the world in space than "Police investigate." That is what cops do. When four people are found dead in a house late on Tuesday, that's the sort of thing that gets my attention on Wednesday morning -- not the procedural fact that the people we pay to investigate stuff are investigating stuff. There's a reason that, back in April 1865, the New York Times wrote that "the President ... was shot by an assassin," rather than "Police investigated the shooting of the president."

I don't mean to single out either the writer of the amazingly silly Freep hed at left or the equally silly Observer homepage hed that showed up -- oh, confirmation bias! -- mere hours later on the same day. If those were accidents, we wouldn't have had identical "Police investigate shooting death" heds appearing three months apart in the Freep, much less the remarkable array of "Police investigate" heds that a quick search turns up at Charlotte. This is stuff writers do, and editors let writers get away with doing, because they're obsessed with process at the expense of outcome.

Granted, it's hard to go wrong when you write the story exactly as it appears on the press release. But it's even harder to go right that way. If editors want to underscore the importance of their craft in a way that makes a difference when layoffs are on the table, it's nice to be able to point to errors kept out of print. It's equally important, if not more important, to turn process into substance. Readers can tell the difference.

* Join in future editions at #ACESchat, 4 p.m. Eastern (US) time on the first and third Tuesdays of the month.
** Though by all means you should have such a file; it's where you store the instances of "duck fight" that you kept out of stories about the Blitz.

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Blogger Adam said...

Fred, it's been a good bit since I stopped by the blog. Glad to see you still fighting the good fight. This post brings back memories to my internship at the Freep when I had written a headline somewhat similar to the ones you mention here. The next day the copy chief took me under his wing and very kindly reminded me I could do better because he'd seen me do better. It can be easy in the daily grind to let something become routine. The best editors I worked with were the ones who never let that happen.

11:38 AM, December 10, 2012  

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