Commentary

Something’s wrong here

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Commentary

Journalism today faces a nearly universal and very simple business problem that almost no one  in the business talks about: quality control.

To be perfectly honest, too, the problem often applies to this website as much as any other. The headline above is something of a double entendre given that it’s quite possible that upon reading further you will find where the author forgot to dot an “o”  or cross a “y”.

Oops. That should be dot an “i” or cross a “t.” Somebody messed up and hit adjacent keys.

Back in the old days of journalism, which seems like only yesterday but could be years gone,  multiple editors protected the product from these sorts of screw ups.  A city editor or more often an assistant city editor read through each reporter’s copy looking for errors of fact, organization, style, grammar and spelling. Then the story moved to a copy editor who double-checked the grammar and spelling and sometimes also caught a factual error.

“Important” stories might get read by three or four or five editors. There was a high value placed on clean copy just as there is a high value placed on clean wash and the wash water staying in the washing machine.

How much would you trust Whirlpool or Maytag or whoever built the machine if it always had leaks, minor or major. Not much, I’d guess.

That’s the media’s problem. Our sloppiness these days does more to undermine our credibility than any possible political bias for the simple reason that the sloppiness is irritating and looks unprofessional.

And its become rare to read more than a handful of stories on any site on any given day without stumbling across mistakes of some sort. God forbid that you read a story that covers subject matter with which you are intimately familiar.

The odds are you might find something wrong enough to make steam come out your ears.

Not new

Some of this has always been the case, of course.

As a reporter who was trained more as a scientist than a journalist, as a reporter who has written about environmental issues in Alaska for decades, and as a reporter who worked in a time when newspapers were stinking rich and reporters could be given amazing amounts of time to work on very detailed science stories,  I can testify that even then it was not always easy to take complex scientific theories and/or data and break it down into simple terms the average reader can understand.

Mistakes happened. A summary came out just slightly wrong. Something like that French, German or Italian story the Google translator turns into English…..

“The world of cycling through in recent weeks one of its most intense moments full of racing with the season of the classic ‘Ardennes’, the triptych of evidence (Amstel Gold Race, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege) which bridges between the Flemish tests (Flanders and Roubaix at all) and the big stage races with the Tour of Italy in May.”

OK, maybe not that bad, but bad enough to make the late, wolf-activist Gordon Haber or Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Sean Farley or some other scientist say something less than kind

It was always unsettling. Most reporters actually want to get things right. I remember waking up in the middle of the night in the days before ready internet access and calling copy editors to double-check something I’d written because I thought it might be wrong.

Now, there’s nobody to call. I am the reporter, the city editor and the copy editor. It’s not a great arrangement. When you’re processing up to 15,000 words in a week, errors are going to liquor. Online spell checkers are of limited help.

They won’t, for instance, flag “liquor” where you meant to write “occur.”

Not to mention all the other things they miss.

Unbelievable

What got me thinking about all of this was a stupid fat bike story that had the history of fat bikes twisted upside down and sideways. Where the story appeared is irrelevant. There seem to be a lot of writers struggling with fat-bike history although all one has to do to get it straight is type “fat bike history” into Google.

The first story that pops up is “A Brief History of Fatbikes,” a 2014 report from the Adventure Cycling Association. The story gets the timeline right. It generally credits all the key people involved in development. It is a good summary.

But sadly, the world seems full of journalists who don’t know how to use Google. Can you say, “two men were taken to the hospital after they suffocated?”

Let’s see, we type S-U-F-F-O-C-A-T-E-D into Google and what do we get? “Suffocated…die or cause to die from lack of air or inability to breathe.”

Dead people go to the morgue, not the hospital. So either the men were “overcome by gas,” which can mean anything, and taken to the hospital, or they were in fact suffocated and taken to the coroner.

These are the kinds of mistakes city editors and assistant city editor used to catch daily, and on the rare occasions that they missed something this obvious, the copy desk backed up the play. I was saved by copy editors many times over the years, and I never thanked them enough.

Today they appear to be an endangered species. At bigger publications, they’ve been ruled too costly. At smaller publications like this, they’re simply unaffordable.

We all pay the price.

Today, if I sign on the computer in the morning and read an entire story (even one I’ve written) without finding a typo or some stupid error, well, I’m happy as a fig in sit. That I rarely find myself happy bothers me because the lack of quality control has to affect how people view journalism.

I know it affects how I view journalism.

There are reporters I just won’t waste my time reading anymore because I know something is almost sure to be wrong in their stories. And not debatably wrong, as in slanted to one side of a  two-sided over which people can have fun arguing,, but straight-up factually wrong as in the sun revolves around the earth or Cooper Landing is on the Seward Highway.

Drives me nuts. Especially when I catch myself doing it. But I don’t have a clue as to how to make all this better.

Ideas anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

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5 replies »

  1. There is no easy fix or method to solve sloppy journalism other than to filter the writing through several competent, knowledgeable editors. Regardless of the great care a writer may take, errors will still occur. Editors are indispensible to good writing. Writer and editor, the two go hand in hand.

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    • totally agree, William. no matter how much Dave Barry and i might once have cursed editors over a drinks. he had written a humor column that jokingly contained the phrase “insert here” in several places. too many copy editors across the country had helped out by trying to figure out what was supposed to go in the “insert here” and inserting it. my problem with editors was their desire to make things “better” that didn’t need to be made better. they often filed the important rough edges of live reporting from the field with the end result a rustic log cabin became something of a suburban McMansion. not necessarily bad, but different. the year i won the American Society of News Editors award for deadline reporting (highly prestigious silliness in its day) i made a point of filing my Iditarod stories slightly past deadline and then going black so nobody could call me back to ask, “how about we change this to yadda, yadda, yadda.” they had just enough time to get spellings and grammar cleaned up and move the story to the press. the plan worked perfectly. but despite this, many of the editors never did learn that when working with competent writers, “he who edits least edits best.” even after i explained to them exactly what had happened, they didn’t get it. but back in those days, we were at one end of the pendulum swing. there were a lot of editors with too little to do. they had to do something. and now, sadly, the pendulum has swung wholly the other way. i’m a pretty damn good editor, but it’s awfully hard to edit one’s own copy. after a certain number of reads, the words start to blur together and misspellings, missed words, misused words and bad punctuation become easy to miss.

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  2. You’re right Craig, and I don’t know the answer. I just know the quality of staff writing deteriorated substantially over the last 25-30 years. In my last years in business, I read everything that went out of the company because most was so bad.Most of today’s staff people can’t write and don’t seem to really care. Guess you’re on your own.

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