Newsrooms work continuously to check language and facts
Last week I wrote a column about the possible effects of the health care bill. I e-mailed it to The Daily Sentinel late in the week before, as I do every week. The last sentence was: “Time will tell.” I read it again over the weekend, as I always do, and realized those three words were trite, hackneyed, a clich&233;, overused. Take your pick.
I e-mailed Editorial Page Editor Bob Silbernagel with a suggested change. The problem was that the change, although it wasn’t trite, wasn’t much better. Bob, being the good editor that he is, noted that and offered a suggestion of his own. That’s what eventually was published.
The story illustrates the process that goes on in the newsroom of The Daily Sentinel, and newspaper newsrooms around the country, every day. And, frankly, it’s one of the things I miss about not being in a newsroom every day.
The editing process, which works on many levels — too many to discuss all of them here — is one of the true joys of daily newspaper journalism. It is also what makes, to my mind at least, what you read in the newspaper the highest and best form of journalism yet to be devised. That collegiality, the give and take, that constant questioning and constructive criticism that is never-ending is what sets newspaper journalism apart from the other chroniclers of the first drafts of history. (The one exception to that may be magazines like “The New Yorker,” and its legendary fact-checking department.)
It’s a critical process that makes your newspaper a product you can trust. That’s not to say that newspapers always get it right. They don’t. Nor does anyone else. Nor will they. But the culture of a newspaper newsroom is such that every reporter and editor who walks into the room every day does so with one goal in mind: Do what he or she can to make sure the product produced that day is as credible as it possibly can be.
It happens in a structured and formal manner. Every story goes through at least two editors. An originating desk editor works closely with writers as the story is developed and written. That is followed by every story moving on to the news desk, where copy editors, the true unsung heroes of the newsroom, pick it apart, making sure subjects match verbs, participles don’t dangle, periods go where they should and not semi-colons, titles are correct, and scores of other minute details.
It always bothered me a little to get letters from readers who liked to point out some grammatical error in the paper. They were often right, of course, but it was difficult to pass those complaints on to a copy editor, who probably caught a hundred little errors on the same night he or she missed that one.
If copy editors do their jobs perfectly, their work will be invisible. They’re the kind of people who relish an animated debate about the nuanced rules that govern the use of that and which, or who and whom, or affect and effect. Strange? A little. Important? Unbelievably so.
And then there the many forms of informal critiquing that go on non-stop. It seems every editor has his or her pet peeves, and young writers are smart to learn them quickly. It doesn’t, for example, take a young sports writer at The Daily Sentinel long to learn not to write a “new record” has been set. It’s a usage that makes Sports Editor Patti Arnold a little crazy. Think about it.
There are plenty of other examples of idioms we hear in every day speech, but in a newspaper newsroom they are banned. They are chased down and put to death.
“Completely destroyed,” comes to mind, as do “free gifts,” “drowned to death” and “advance planning.” If something is destroyed it’s gone. All of it. If a gift isn’t free, it’s not really a gift, is it? If you’ve drowned, you’re dead. And it’s difficult — no, impossible — to plan after the fact.
Newspaper people know when to use “less than” and when to use “fewer.” They are not interchangeable. They know readers don’t know nearly as many acronyms as authors of government and business documents think they know. Sherida Warner, a copy editor at The Daily Sentinel, has made a career of killing acronyms. In Sherida’s perfect world, acronyms would be limited to CIA and FBI and not much more.
And they know if they don’t know something, somebody in the room probably does. Ask. If that doesn’t work, this always does: Look it up. They do that, too.