Standard question: Have media’s language rules changed?
There was a time people thought the Internet changed everything, like whether businesses needed to have a product or make money. The dot-com crash was a reminder there are still rules, although the business models of companies such as Facebook show they have evolved.
Something similar is happening with journalism.
The Internet is causing the convergence of every kind of journalism: Newspapers and television stations are online, and their employees are blogging and tweeting as well as crowdsourcing and using content from citizen journalists with Twitter and YouTube accounts. When the e-Ink screens used on the Kindle and Nook reach their ultimate form, computer screens will be newspapers that stream video. And so on.
There’s a reshuffling of the rules every time a technology is introduced, though, and I wonder what’s going to happen to grammar, punctuation and spelling. The standard has been to pay attention to the details, since big stories don’t succeed unless the information going into them holds up, and readers can’t trust that information if they lack confidence in the most basic building blocks of a sentence. You need to be able to impart information coherently. You can’t confuse “its” and “it’s” constantly, you can’t misspell the names of public figures or even private citizens, you need to know the difference between Kendall and Kenmore squares and, in Cambridge, between Walter Sullivan, David Sullivan, Michael Sullivan and Eddie Sullivan. (Or at least that there is a difference.) And if you claim to provide news, you need to be perceived as objective, or what you write will be rejected as propaganda.
Yet a website to which Cambridge Day has linked innumerable times — Talking Points Memo, where information provided by some 24 journalists in blog format is trusted by nearly 2 million unique visitors a month — is unabashedly left of center and has rejected constantly the hiring of copy editors that would keep it from embarrassing errors. Huffington Post is another example of a huge and widely read site where copy editors are scarce and errors are said to be common. (I don’t visit the site frequently enough to know, but the mistakes are discussed online.)
Those errors aren’t rare, and the genius behind the site, Joshua Micah Marshall, is probably the worst offender. (It’s a sign of changing times that I use the term “genius” without irony. It is truly inspiring to see his work as a reporter, editor and steady-footed but fearless entrepreneur.) I am not alone in noticing, since the flow of errors has kept up even as Marshall has grown the site over the course of a decade, expanding from a one-person blog to more than two dozen workers putting out a series of websites from Washington, D.C., and New York. None of those workers, though, are specifically copy editors, and it shows. (For the record, I e-mailed a résumé to Marshall in 2009 asking to be the sites’ first copy editor, but never heard back.)
Strangely, the posts seemed copy edited more consistently more than five years ago, when Talking Points Memo was a much smaller organization.
Here are a few Talking Points Memos flubs from recent days, with emphasis added:
March 30: “Colbert first pointed to Gingrich’s remarks on March 7 when he said the U.S. should immediately institute a no-fly over Libya and remove Muammar Qaddafi from power. ‘Do it, get it over with,’ Gingrich said at the time.” (The author means a no-fly zone.)
April 6: “Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) said, ‘It would end Medicare as we know it and funnel Medicare dollars directly into private insurance companies’ pockets.’ Indeed, Baucus went father than most.” (The author doesn’t even mean “farther” instead of “father”; in fact, it should be “further.”)
April 12: “I figured: there’s gotta be a story behind this. Turns out there is — and it has to do with the group behind C Street, the evagelical flop house up on Capitol Hill that caters to philandering evangelical members of Congress.” (This sentence holds at least four errors, or at least four things copy editors at most traditional news organizations would have “corrected,” but the main thing would have been caught by simply running a spellcheck: “evangelical” instead of “evagelical.”)
April 28: “As I noted yesterday, there’s a vast sociological literature demonstrating that after the central prediction of apocalyptic cults goes unfulfilled many of members of the group will not give up but rather intensify their belief. And so it goes with birtherism in the aftermath of the release of President Obama’s ‘long form’ birth certificate … Second comes what I now term ‘Forensic Denialist Long Form Birthers’. These are the folks who going on very theories deny or doubt the authenticity of the document released yesterday … More creatively, Jerome Corsi, author of the swift boat smear and leading birther now calls the Nordyke twins — two girls born one day after Obama — represent the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of birtherism because the numbers on their birth certificates are lower than Obama’s notwithstanding being born a day later … Phil Berg for instance argues that a school boy Obama renounced his US citizenship and took Indonesian citizenship when he lived there as a child.” (Again, there is so much sloppiness and questionable language here that pointing it all out could take more space than the quoted material. But at least the author could have talked about the “various theories” rather than the “very theories.”)
May 3: “The new account dispelled any notion that bin Laden was armed or used his wife as a human shield when a U.S. assault team entered his room, killing him with two bullets, one to the body and one to the head. The new account revises what John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, told reporters Monday: that he believed Obama had a gun, although he said he wasn’t sure bin Laden shot any rounds, and that he was using a woman as a human shield, most likely his wife. The White House first revised Brennan’s account in a background briefing with reporters Monday night … The President and his national security team is still determining whether to publicly release photos of Osama’s slain body. Carney acknowledged that the photos are ‘gruesome’ and there are concerns that the photos are inflammatory and their release could stir a backlash in Muslim communities. He also wouldn’t confirm or deny the existence of a video of Obama’s burial at sea.” (It wasn’t President Barack Obama that had a gun or was buried in the sea; it was Osama bin Laden. And why call bin Laden “Osama” at all, especially when there’s such opportunity for error? In an example of inconsistency, the site was referring to the terrorist as “bin Laden” only a day earlier.)
Only the last item was corrected and reposted, possibly because it stands out as the only one of these examples where the errors themselves became a topic of conversation among commenters.
“This is a mess,” one reader says.
“I agree. A total mess,” another replies. “Cringy and unbelievable! It’s confusing, it’s dangerous, and it’s sloppy. I love TPM but I never thought I would see this mistake here.”
A third commenter, though, had an interesting take on why the errors didn’t matter:
hey, guys this is a new-age blog not a 20th Century newspaper with a printing press… their urgency to get a story out is different and they edit it on the fly, so the info can be disseminated quickly … Either you are all neophyte bloggers or you are just trolls trying to make TPM look bad, but the standard protocol for correction on the blogs is to TELL THEM ABOUTIIT OFFLINE so you don’t sound like anal impulses.
Anyone who didn’t know that yet does now.
JUST BE COOL!
… it is what we call “interactive” and you should feel honored when it happens that you have an opportunity to help make a good thing better …
If you aren’t smart enough to decipher the meaning through the mistakes, go find a newspaper or magazine to critique.
Urging people to once again “get over it,” the commenter doubled down on his “troll” comment: “Anyone who can’t decipher the meaning of a blog despite its technical errors is just one of them.” [Emphasis added.]
That’s ridiculous, obviously. But it’s interesting to see someone stating such a taxonomy of news gathering and assuming it to be widely understood and accepted. How far down the slope is the commenter willing to slide toward having to “decipher” what a blogger is trying to say? Is he willing to accept the same level of copy editing in the blogs of the online versions of The New York Times or Atlantic? Does he really think newspapers and magazines are for people too stupid to read blogs? Is he aware that “new age” has a distinct meaning, like “Victorian”? (Or was he just having difficulty expressing himself, especially considering he refers to people who read blogs as “bloggers,” which is a definition I’ve heard nowhere else — and I say this as a blogger, newspaperer, magaziner, radioer, movier and televisioner.) Finally, is he aware Marshall has said, “I don’t think of it as a blog … I think of it as a news organization, a news website. That’s what it is.”
One of the defining characteristics of copy editors is that they cannot stop their nitpicking ways. Having worked as a copy editor and being a strong believer clear language is worth the effort, I won’t be backing away from trying to get grammar, spelling and punctuation correct in my posts. (And every failure I catch after publishing is humiliating).
Sometimes I look at Talking Points Memo, though, and wonder how much it matters.
Never give up. Some of us notice and appreciate not having to decipher what you write. I’ve never worked as a copy editor, but I’ve worked as a secretary and paid for law school by typing papers and typesetting resumes and magazines. The level of copy handed to me was often appalling, especially copy for an academic journal aimed at teachers of remedial courses at the college level (ponder that one for a moment), which the typesetters voluntarily cleaned up and turned into English sentences and paragraphs.