Whenever Wendell Barnhouse is inspired, we are happy to feature his thoughts on this site. Here’s his latest…
by Wendell Barnhouse
Your Veteran Scribe spent most of his professional career as newspaper writer and editor. For those unfamiliar with that medium, it was a daily deliverance of words, pictures and advertising with local, state, national, international news plus sports, business, obituaries, comics, crosswords and either Dear Abby or Ann Landers*.
In addition to unpaid overtime and crappy salaries, the banes of newspaper professionals’ existence were the typo (short for typographical error) and the correction. A typo could be a dropped word, a misspelling or an incorrect conjugation.
The correction was far worse. If an error of fact was made and later discovered, the paper would print a correction. Often, the reporter or editor who made the mistake would have to provide a superior with an explanation of how and why the error made it into print.**
Newspapers don’t carry the weight (literally or figuratively) of Moses’ tablets, but each day they are figuratively carved in stone. Typos, errors and subsequent corrections are forever preserved. Had God’s hand or concentration slipped, one of the Commandments could have been “Thou shalt not chill.”
Current digital delivery systems make newspapers quaint and antiquated. Compiling and writing content, crafting headlines, selecting photos and putting ink to newsprint 365 days a year is a process that once provided the public with a daily dose of digestible information.
Thanks to Bill Gates, Al Gore and microchips all – emphasis on ALL – the information is just a click away. To borrow from Hedley Lamarr***, “a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.” YVS likens the instant and incessant information flow to drinking from a fire hose.
(We pause here to admit that most editors YVS worked with would have reached this point and asked, “When are you getting to your point?”)
The web sites that post news stories provide great opportunities. Unlike newspapers, there are no space restrictions. Plus, if there is a typo, the post can be corrected and reposted. Same with a correction – though truth be told those corrections won’t be read or noticed unless the reader revisits that post.
The convenience of correction combined with the hellbent desire to post posts now plus the business model that basically ignores the editing process has turned digital journalism sloppier than a teenager’s bedroom.
Because of the etched-in-stone nature of newspapers, the editing process in the “good ol’ days” was tedious. A story would be submitted, and an editor would comb through each sentence, making corrections and edits for clarity (and, sometimes, length). The story would then be sent to the “slot” (a term from the main hands-on editor). He/she would edit the editing. Then, after the composing room would finish putting together a page, a before-print facsimile of the page would be “proofed” by yet another editor. At least three sets of eyes would examine stories varying in length from 75 words to 1,000 words.
YVS, who admits to spending an appalling amount of his semi-retired time perusing the “interwebs,” reads stories with an editor’s eyes. Those eyes see far too many typos. Three examples – all from major, well-financed web sites – from the weekend:
- A story in The Athletic after the third-round of the U.S. Open: But even as Woods electrified the galleries and charged up the leaderboard, Woodland rallied with three birdies in his last eight hole to tie for sixth, his best finish in a major. (Holes, not hole.)
- A story on CNN’s website about the Nxivm sex cult trial: “… said he was revered by his students and some saw him as the smartest men in the world.” Either “one of the smartest men in the world” or “the smartest man in the world.”
- A story on ESPN.com about the ill-fated and short-lived Alliance of American Football: “Neuheisel and Ebersol dropped the conceit.” Concept?
YVS can imagine you, Dear Reader, imagining the author as a combination of “old man yells at cloud” and “get off my lawn.” Guilty.
Also, Dear Reader, you might be asking, “What’s the big deal? One typo in an otherwise excellent 1,000-word story is not a felony.”
True. And false. While the angst over a minor mistake shouldn’t detract from the story, it does indicate a lack of care and feeding. Accuracy and integrity are two of the major support beams for journalism.**** Discerning readers should give pause and ask, “If the verb isn’t properly conjugated, can I trust the reporting and the writing?”
The answer, 99.9 percent of the time, is “yes, the reporting and writing is trustworthy.”
But slippery standards and decaying due diligence might soon drop 99.9 to 99.8 and then 99.5. Failing to strive for accuracy and integrity can lead to real-life Idiocracy.
Anyone who questions the danger of accepting low-bar clearance only need to keep daily tabs on the man living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
- *Who were sisters! Crazy, no?
- **At Sports Illustrated, we had to file a written statement to our boss that would include the error, the correct fact, and an explanation as to why the error occurred. Most of the time this only occurred after a reader wrote in to correct us—known as a “challenge.” My favorite challenge was when a reader wrote in to correct our story as to how many brothers Brett Hull had. As the reader in question was Brett Hull’s mom, our reporter knew that he was going to have to take the L on that one.
- ***Who doesn’t love a Blazing Saddles reference, but Wendell’s editor would probably advise him to name-check the classic comedy since it’s more than 45 years old and most millennials have no idea what it is.
- ****At SI, our lawyers knew that the first step the opposing side would take in a libel suit would be to demonstrate how lax SI could be with facts and typos, etc. Hence, the SI Reporters bureau, colloquially known as “the bullpen,” where mostly twentysomethings fresh out of college or J-school cut their teeth as fact checkers. Hey, we all wanted to go out there and kick some Cobra Kai ass but the higher-ups thought we needed to learn how to paint fences and sand doors first. Ultimately, they were right.
You may recognize some former SI fact-checkers. A partial list: Jeff Pearlman, Seth Davis, Jon Wertheim, Grant Wahl, Josh Elliott, Steve Rushin, Paul Gutierrez, Ashley Fox, Dave Fleming, Tim Crothers, Chad Millman, Mark McClusky, Chris Stone, Steve Cannella, Austin Murphy, Ivan Maisel and Pablo Torre. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some other big names in the biz.