Sunday, February 29, 2004

Keeping it straight

I thought for years that the most difficult and most important part of a copy editor's job is writing headlines. Heds are read more than anything else in the paper. They decide whether and how much the rest of the text is read.

And while I still find headlines to be the most difficult of my duties, I no longer think they are the most important. They are a close second to fact-checking.

While this is one of our most menial tasks, it can have the most impact on readers. A word spelled wrong, a bad phone number, a mistake in a name -- all undermine a publication's credibility. Why believe we can get the big stuff right when we screw up the easy small stuff?

This article, published last month in the Oregonian, is a good reminder on why to sweat the small stuff. It also sheds some insight into what the Oregonian is doing to get it right.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Just write a straight head, already

More bad passion puns than you can shake a Bible at here.

Some (least) favorites:
Police called to cinema as passions rise
Passions rise for Mel flick
Passions about 'The Passion'
Passions stirred over 'Christ' movie
Passions run deep

And I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Passions of the Christ" would be two entirely different movies.

Related: Those last three words aren't a subtitle [The Slot]

More on same-sex marriages

There's a great post from David Seinberg, who is on the board of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and is chair of the San Francisco Chronicle's Style Council, here on ACES message board.

He points out his objections to the term "gay marriage" (including a couple I hadn't considered), gives the Chronicle's entry on the topic, and clears up a couple of other questions (when "queer" is acceptable, for example).


Take some time to read this thread at Testy Copy Editors on big mistakes. You'll read headline stories of people being killed prematurely, people being "assinated," alleged robbers being libeled. (The thread started last year, died off for a bit and has sprung back to life.)

What's nice is that in addition to sharing stories of other people's misfortunes, many editors own up to their own mistakes -- now, years later, that they can be at peace with them. I always like reading these stories because I know I'm not alone in screwing up.

My most recent error happened just last night. I was in charge of compiling the "people column," mixing in all the gossippy tidbits from all our wires. I was diligent about checking with other departments if I pulled something from their wire. "Are you taking Rosie's marriage?" No. "Who else has stuff on 'Passion'?" Everyone. "Are you using that Tyson piece?" It's all yours.

So I had checked the Mike Tyson item with two departments -- but not the most important one, sports. I got distracted right after I wrote down the number. And, of course, sports was using it. An alert co-worker found the repeat after the first edition. I made my apologies and quickly subbed out the item for the next edition.

Once I was done with the self-flagellation, it was time to see what I could learn from the experience and move on. Today's a new day (but one in which I won't screw up, let's hope).

It may not seem fair that we are held to higher standards than employees who makes countless errors every day. But I don't have a problem with that. If it is our job to erase errors, few things could be worse than our inserting them.

However, you're not going to be fired for one mistake. You may be fired for making a habit of them. So own your error and try to never repeat it. Explain how it happened, but never excuse it.

And then go back and read this thread; it might make you feel better.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Objective curiosity

This Poynter page has an interesting list of newspapers' headlines on a same-sex marriage story.

How different are they?
Judge Says Gay Marriages Break the Law [Chicago Sun-Times]
Judge lets gays marry [Melbourne Herald Sun]
Judge Urges Halt to Same-Sex Marriage [Miami Herald]

This can be a good exercise. Poynter has a space for people to leave their comments on which headline is most accurate. But either no one has left any, or it's difficult to find them.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Editors gone wild

Tomorrow is Mardi Gras, which translates to Fat Tuesday. Just in case it comes up, here's a reminder: It's krewe, not crew.

Any other suggestions? Happy parading!

A close call

It's safe to say we'll be seeing more of Ralph Nader now. Here's a little bit about him and some of the facts that might come up in those election stories:

Born: Feb. 27, 1934
Birthplace: Winsted, Conn.
Residence: Washington, D.C.
Races: This is actually is fourth race for president. He was a write-in candidate in New Hampshire in 1992, and he received about 2 percent each of the Democratic and Republican vote. He ran as the Green Party candidate in 1996 and 2000.

In the famed 2000 election, people usually identify two states in which his candidacy made a difference: Florida and New Hampshire.
FLORIDA: Nader got 97,488 votes. Bush won by 537.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Nader got 22,198 votes. Bush won by 7,211.
He won 2.7 percent of the vote and was on the ballot in 43 states.

Just a warning

I'll be on the road Monday through Thursday, so I'll have less time to post. But feel free to carry on with your comments!

Sunday, February 22, 2004

OK, I admit my obsession

A few sites on polling:
Follow Bush's job ratings [Poll Report]
Follow Democratic polls [Poll Report]
A better tutorial on margin of error []
Margin of error calculator [American Research Group]
If you like numbers way more than I do [Daily Kos]

And one on political contributions:
Money map [Fundrace]

Cliche-spotting and self-congratulation are the new black

Things that are the new black [Matthew Thomas]
Everything is the new everything else [A Capital Idea]
Blank is the new blank [Google]
Blank is the new blank [Google news]

Saturday, February 21, 2004

An editor's faux pas

Every time I read "L. Paul Bremer," I stop and think, "Should that be Bremner?"

The end has no end

Few large papers published any "Howard's end" headlines when Dean dropped out. (Thank you.)

But I thought I'd publish a few of the headlines that did run, for comparison's sake, as seen on their Newseum PDFs.

New York Times:
Kerry and Edwards Square Off
As Dean Abandons Campaign

Washington Post:
Dean Bows Out
With an Asterisk

Democrat Still Seeks Supporters' Votes

USA Today:
to duel
as Dean
drops out

Chicago Tribune:
says he's
out, not

Ex-governor ends
White House bid

Los Angeles Times:
Leaves It
to Kerry,

Fiery campaign flames
out without a single win

Dallas Morning News:
For Dean, it's all over but the shouting

Democrat bows out but vows
to build on tone of campaign

Any comments, especially on that Dallas head? I know there was a split in the newsroom of people who loved it and people who were displeased.


Bill Walsh has updated The Slot, this time with a reader question. He covers Web site vs. website and e-mail vs. email, and when it's OK for compound words to move from two words to one.

Already know all that? Then find out why Bill approves of webmaster and webcast.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Covering the news, CYA

Who's the headline writer when a paper's owner is a headline maker?

Should be interesting for the San Francisco Examiner.

He's got this SND thing down

Do you design as well as edit? Check out's recent posts on the SND design contest. There's some interesting insight.

And don't forget to read the comments. There are a couple of SND gems in there.

Worth checking out

Richard Lingeman of The Nation reviews "My Times: A Memoir of Dissent." It is John Hess' account of his 24 years at the New York Times, and it sounds like an account both enlightening and deflating.

Here's an excerpt from the review:
Hess's critique of his alma mater is interesting because it is substantive--avowedly political from a leftist perspective. While copy editors were fussing with reporters over ledes and style, "monstrous falsehoods were passing into print, unchallenged." Hess retells the story of how Kennett Love, the paper's man in Tehran, covered up the CIA's role in the 1953 coup and recites other examples of missed stories on the US Imperialism beat now in the public record.
And here's an excerpt from the book:
For my sins, my first assignment at The New York Times was to edit Fin-Biz copy, which was so slugged after the hostile merger of two news desks, Financial and Business, whose jurisdictions were never clear; it had sometimes happened that both would report the same event on the same page. One day a sports editor and I spent a lunch break debating which of us had to cope with more appalling material. My colleague called it a scoreless tie, then conceded a point. He said he'd asked a friend who was a bank officer what he thought of the Times's business coverage. The banker replied that it was excellent, authoritative -- "except in banking, where they don't know their ass from first base."

We do catch some errors, too

I should also point out that I love the point made in the Post's change to its corrections policy. Corrections will no longer include blame, such as "due to an editing error" or "based on a reporting mistake."

Some reporters were pissed because they didn't want someone thinking a copy editor's mistake was the reporter's fault.

But the Post's executive editor, Len Downie, said tough, "pointing out that editors who often catch reporter mistakes are never given public credit, so should not have blame attributed to them in such a public way."

I think most editors would be glad to take the public blame for their errors if they got equal time for each error they prevented. (Of course, I'd never espouse such a policy. But it sure is fun to think about sometimes.)

It's about time

Was anyone else shocked to read the Washington Post's just-changed rules on editing quotes in this Editor & Publisher story?

The old rule: Unless difficulties with the language are relevant to the story, as in an article about teaching English to immigrants or a profile of Yogi Berra, it is advisable to correct minor errors of grammar and usage. Such locutions as hafta, gonna, gotta, whaddaya and woulda should be spelled out in correct form unless they are stressed for effect.

The new rule: When we put a source's words inside quotation marks, those exact words should have been uttered in precisely that form. Sometimes we will want to avoid humiliating a speaker by paraphrasing in grammatical form an ungrammatical statement, or by presenting in a form acceptable for publication a statement that includes profanities. When we do so, however, we should not use quotation marks. A paraphrase should not be treated as a quotation. At the same time, we should not deprive our readers of the statements of legitimate news sources who characteristically speak so ungrammatically, or use such profane language, that we cannot quote them verbatim.

What are papers doing, cleaning up quotes?

This seems like one of the easiest rules of journalism: Quotes are sacred. You don't mess with them. You don't clean up grammar. You don't second-guess word choice.

This is one thing AP is actually crystal clear about: "Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage." Never.

That means if you're editing a quote that has an error, you don't change it without first talking to the reporter. Even obvious errors. Quotes are sacred.

But it doesn't mean you have to write the quote exactly how someone pronounces it, any more than you would change the spelling for someone with an accent. Hafta should be have to. Gonna should be going to. I do agree with that part of the Post's old rule, and the new rule doesn't appear to change that.

This seems so elementary to me that I'm shocked it isn't the rule everywhere. But this Testy Copy Editors thread makes clear that this is not the case.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Today's political note: More on polls

If a candidate's lead is less than a poll's margin of error, we can't say he's ahead. Most of us have that part down. But nor can we say that it's a "statistical dead heat" or "statistical tie." As the AP stylebook puts it, that's inaccurate if those numbers aren't the same, and "if the poll finds the candidates are tied, say they're tied."

How must the results be worded? AP gives guidelines.

Here are some examples:
1. Say Kerry has 43 percent and Edwards has 40 percent and the poll's margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The 3-point lead is within the margin of error; therefore, say the candidates are about even.

2. A poll in Kansas shows Bush with 52 percent and Kerry with 44 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. Bush's lead (8 points) is more than the margin of error but less than twice that number (9 points), so we can say Bush is slightly ahead or has a narrow lead. (Don't forget that AP calls for margins of error to be rounded to the nearest half-point or full point.*)

3. A CNN poll says that in a head-to-head match-up, Kerry and Edwards lead Bush. For Kerry, it's 55 percent to 43 percent. For Edwards, it's 54 percent to 44 percent. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points. Because Kerry and Edwards both lead by more than 8 points, it's safe to say that they're leading. (Note that there are other problems with this story, though: It doesn't point out that the 1,006 adults surveyed were registered voters. You just have to infer that.)

* Here's the technical stuff: This Survey USA poll lists the margin of error here as 4.3 percent. This number is determined by taking 1 over the number of respondents (549). You get 0.00182149. Then take the square root of that, 0.0427. Then, per AP, round it to the nearest half-point, for 4.5 percentage points. Since there is such a precise way of determining the margin of error, I'm not sure why AP requires this specific rounding. I've sent a note to stylebook editor Norm Goldstein; we'll see if he responds.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

A simple request

Please, no more "Howard's End" headlines tomorrow. Pretty please.

Muslim? Arab? Persian?

Slate's Jack Shafer takes the New York Times to task for a gaggle of problems in the story "Arabs in U.S. Raising Money to Back Bush."
The story seems to switch indeterminately between Arab and Muslim. And then it throws in some Iranian and Pakistani information to really mess things up.

Slate needs an Explainer on this. Oh, wait, it already published one, kind of:
Alone among the Middle Eastern peoples conquered by the Arabs, the Iranians did not lose their language or their identity. Ethnic Persians make up 60 percent of modern Iran, and modern Persian is the official language. (Persian also has official status in Afghanistan, where Dari, or Afghan Persian, is one of two official languages.) In addition, the majority of Iranians are Shiite Muslims while most Arabs are Sunni Muslims. So Iran fails most of the four-part test of language, ancestry, religion, and culture.
Here's a list of Arab countries:
Palestinian areas
Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates

Middle Eastern countries that aren't Arab:

He wrote it before I could

Read Tom Mangan's comments on journalists blogging. Reading comments from New York Times' digital editor, Len Apcar, is enough to make anyone's blood boil:
Blogs are a fine medium, says Apcar, and he's been introducing staff-written blogs to in recent months -- and hints that more experiments are to come. But in terms of a staff member writing a personal blog: forget it, for the most part.
Mangan points out an obvious problem here: It's called freedom of the press.

Perhaps the culprit?

Chris Wienandt points out a quirk in Word that could lead to all kinds of spell-check problems:
I don't know what program Dow Jones uses for writing and editing, but any place that uses Microsoft Word or a variation of it (as we do in CCI at The Dallas Morning News) should be aware of a nasty "feature":

Word will automatically change spellings without your realizing it if you have a certain option selected. Unfortunately, this option isn't under the Spelling and Grammar section of Tools. It's called "Automatically use suggestions from the spelling checker," and it's under the Tools-AutoCorrect menu, cleverly hidden away under the list of entries, away from all the other checkboxes. TURN IT OFF! It's very dangerous.

Hear hear

"The story was fine. I wish the headline had said 'ATT in Play: It's a Jump Ball.' But headline writers have to work on deadlines, too, just like you and me. This business would be a lot easier if the stories didn't have to have headlines." -- NYT executive editor Bill Keller on a 1A head saying Vodafone was the favored buyer of AT&T Wireless, only hours before Cingular Wireless made the winning bid.

Just like magic

I finally took the time to fix my permalinks. Voila! Link away, friends.

The power of the language

A San Francisco judge gave lawyers a lesson in punctuation Tuesday when he refused to accept their court order because of a misplaced semicolon.
The judge told the plaintiffs that they would likely succeed on the merits eventually, but that for now, he couldn't accept their proposed court order because of a punctuation error.

It all came down to a semicolon, the judge said.

"I am not trying to be petty here, but it is a big deal ... That semicolon is a big deal," Warren said.
The order asked the city to "cease and desist issuing marriage licenses to and/or solemnizing marriages of same-sex couples; to show cause before this court."

The judge wants "or" instead of the semicolon. Maybe more discerning judges could put a stop to some of the terrible legalese spit out by courts every year. Then again, there's more wrong with the language of the order than a simple "or" could fix.

Related: Rules Grammar Change -- English Traditional Replaced To Be New Syntax With

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

So sue me!

The Recording Industry Association of America filed another round of lawsuits today. Take care that these stories -- and your headlines -- do not say that downloaders are being sued, as this CBS headline does, as well as hundreds of other stories online.

The RIAA is suing people who distribute these songs -- the uploaders, not the downloaders. These are often one and the same, as most of the file-sharing software makes any songs in your download folder available for others to download.

You can use file sharer or file swapper or computer user to mean both.

And a reminder that we've covered before: AP says "copyright" is the noun, verb and adjective. "Copyrighted" should be used only as the past tense of the verb. So, people are downloading copyright songs. But bands copyrighted the work so it wouldn't be stolen.

Help a blog out

The Campaign Desk is on a valiant quest for accuracy, and we should heed its call.

It points out that in the never-ending stream of stories about Bush's National Guard stint, reporters continue to get a fact wrong: how early Bush received a discharge from the Texas Air National Guard.

AP has reported -- with other news outlets following its lead -- that Bush left six months early. But that's not right. Campaign Desk does the math for us:
President Bush served five years, four months, and five days. Which in turn means he was released from his obligation seven months and twenty-five days, or approximately eight months, early.
Don't believe it? Do the reporting yourself:
Let us offer you a little help, AP. Down in Texas, Lt. Col. John Stanford of the Texas Air National Guard -- 512-782-6856 -- is waiting for your call. He's the guy with the straight facts concerning Bush's discharge.
So, to repeat. Bush left the Guard nearly eight months early. Not six months. And not seven months, either, unless you tack on the 25 days.

Your bosses will thank you for your attention in this matter. If not, let me know, and I'll send you a sticker for a job well done.

Monday, February 16, 2004

So much style that it's wasted

I noted before that the 2003 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook was out of print and should be available mid-February. Looks like this is mid enough for AP to make copies available again.

Order here.

One more reason to scour that wire copy

Gawker shares a Dow Jones Newswires memo from Neal Lipschutz, senior editor for the Americas (what a great title), in which he bans the use of spell check.

You read that right: Dow Jones bans the use of spell check.
We have had too many incidents where the use of the spell-check program within our editorial production system (news station) led to our publication of errors on Dow Jones Newswires. Most typically, this has involved the inadvertent changing, based on a spell-check suggestion, of a proper name of a person or company into a non-related word. For this reason, spell-check should no longer be used by reporters or editors in the Americas when writing or editing for publication on Newswires.
Spell check is sketchy if you're haphazardly clicking "change all." But there are ways to mitigate the danger.

If you edit in a Word-based program, never click on the "ignore" or "ignore all" button with your mouse. While you're looking at the text, your mouse could be drifting to "change" or "change all."

Instead, learn the shortcuts: Most people using Word should be able to hit [alt][g] for "ignore all" and [alt][i] for "ignore." (I use "ignore all" for everything but correctly repeated words, such as The The or Duran Duran, when Word won't let you ignore all. Then you must just ignore.)

Perhaps our friends at Dow Jones don't have this privilege in editing software. Still, the errors must have been serious indeed for such a serious proclamation. One would hope there'd be a way around banning useful technology.

I don't know the answer

If someone allows a reporter to use his quote only if he isn't named, the reporter will often write that he is speaking on condition of anonymity.

This sounds wrong to me, and I always want to add a "the" -- he spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But I can find several other examples that use this phrasing: on condition of reciprocity, on condition of repentance, on condition of good behavior, on condition of progress. So it's not just a journalism cliche.

Is this a phrase I'm not familiar with? Does anyone have an answer better than "it sounds good"?

UPDATE: I should mention that Bill Walsh covers this in "Lapsing Into a Comma," preferring, as I do, the the. He says on condition of anonymity is "grammatically flawed." But he doesn't explain how.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Sharing isn't always nice

Today's grievance: If you're in a position to write or edit photo captions, please never let "shares a laugh" make it into print again.


Captions are display type just as much as headlines and deck heads. They'll more than likely be read before the story, too. We need to make sure they are as conversational and informative as can be. And if there's one thing "shares a laugh" is not, that's conversational.

And while we're at it, lets ban "so-and-so reacts after such-and-such." I know cutline writers are trying to avoid stating the obvious, i.e. Bob cheers or Bob cries or Bob emotes in some other way, but "reacts" is no better. You can always write around the problem, and the cutline -- and the reader -- will be better off for it.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Regarding the Kerry-intern "media frenzy": When should blogs name names?

CJR's great Campaign Desk blog interviewed Wonkette editor Ana Marie Cox. Wonkette didn't name this former intern but linked to a site that did. Why?
The [rules] are different for every person. That's the tragedy and triumph of self-publishing. I've gotten shit from people [pause] or, say, static from people who I think sort of take the CJR position. [Which is? Campaign Desk was curious to know]... that I shouldn't do it, shouldn't even mention the actual topic, don't hint. Obviously that's not my position. I've also gotten static from people, well my boss, who thinks I should publish everything I get... He's British."
If you don't want to read more because it's an interesting topic, read this for all the great quotes.

DVD, as the Associated Press Stylebook points out only in its Internet guide, is short for digital video disk. But AP offers no guidance on whether DVD needs to be spelled out on first reference. Of course, it shouldn't be, in my opinion.

But if you look to the VCR entry for guidance, you'll find this outdated rule:
VCR Acceptable in second reference to videocassette recorder.
Second reference?!

And one more quick comment: The DVD is the disk, equivalent to a videotape. The DVD player, equivalent to a VCR, allows you to watch the disk. Do not call the player a DVD, no matter what the teen workers at Best Buy say.

Most papers have a policy to not name victims of sexual abuse.

But when a sexual abuse case is pending, before the defendant has been found guilty or not guilty, special care should be taken in phrasing that policy. To say we don't "name the victims of sexual abuse" is to presume that accuser has been abused before the court has ruled so.

But what's the best way to change the phrasing?

Here's an example from the Denver Post:
The Denver Post's policy is to withhold the names of alleged rape victims unless they seek to be publicly identified.
And one from the Detroit Free Press:
She said her daughter, who is not being identified because of the Free Press' policy not to name the alleged victims of sex assaults, suffered ...
In some instances, the abuse or assault is clear and only the identity of the perpetrator is in question. Calling these people victims is fine.

We just need to make sure that we don't imply someone is guilty when the jury's still out.

What does a newspaper do when there's a huge rumor out there -- it doesn't want to be last, but it doesn't want to substantiate the story, either -- about the front-runner in a presidential primary?

Why, you run a story about the media frenzy instead of the rumor!

Selling Sleaze: A User's Guide -- Ten ways to rationalize the publication of infidelity rumors
When whisper campaigns get too loud to ignore
There he goes again!
Kerry sex scandal lurking?
Kerry allegations create frenzy

Editor & Publisher engages is similar navel-gazing: Will Press Pounce on Drudge's Kerry Rumor? (But that's E&P's job, really, so forgive it.)

Poynter discusses what to do in Journalists, John Kerry, and Reporting Rumors.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Anyone else have the Google toolbar installed on their browser?

For Valentine's Day, I love love love the hearts floating around up there. It has lifted my spirits more than once tonight.

Also, a style note: It's Valentine's Day (uppercase) for the holiday, but valentine (lowercase) for your sweetheart and the card you give her.

UPDATE: Don't have it? Here's what you missed.

Here's a word you don't see much anymore: sleight.

Why? It's often confused with the more common slight.

Sleight is the word you're looking for in the phrase "sleight of hand," however. It means "deceitful craftiness" or "dexterity, skill."

Sleight of hand gets its own definition in Merriam-Webster's:
1 a : a conjuring trick requiring manual dexterity b : a cleverly executed trick or deception
2 a : skill and dexterity in conjuring tricks b : adroitness in deception
Slight means having a slim build.

So someone who is slight of hand would just have dainty hands. While that might help their slight of hand, the two definitions remain distinct.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Attention Texas copy editors: Texas Media Watch debunked some myths that often appear in the state's newspapers (and gives sources to prove them wrong). A couple of examples:
Texas teachers are not among the lowest paid in the nation. Their salaries rank 17th, according to a report by the liberal American Federation of Teachers union, after wage figures are adjusted for cost of living.

There is no evidence that any Texas Republican ever said, ?if you are going to act like Mexicans you will be treated like Mexicans.?
Check it out.

Looks as if a former copy editor is poised to be the new dean of KU's J school.

Today's political note: Now that Wesley Clark has dropped out of the primary, what happens to the delegates already pledged to support him at the nominating convention?

Slate has a nice Explainer here. Basically, his 102 delegates will be able to back whomever they want at the convention, most likely the eventual nominee.

Some of his delegates were superdelegates who were never officially pledged in the first place but had just made their preference known. What's a superdelegate? This Slate Explainer details how the DNC created superdelegates to keep the wacky public from voting in wacky candidates who wouldn't have a shot of winning the very nonwacky general election. The superdelegates -- elected officials and party leaders, basically the Democratic elite -- are there to promote electability. (So much for the Party of the People.)

So how many superdelegates are there? Some say 801, some 802. There were supposed to be 802, but when Texas representative Ralph Hill switched from the Democrats to the GOP, the Dems lost a superdelegate. AP has reported that they are waiting for paperwork to be filed to cross him off the list.

And how many total delegates are there? Some say 4,321, some 4,322. Let's do the math:

3520 -- pledged delegates plus
0801 -- unpledged (super) delegates equals
4321 -- total delegates

Take that number, divide by two and round up for the total number needed to win, and you get: 2,161. A lot of news outlets are saying 2,162, but that's using the old 802 number. Just make sure your paper is consistent with the numbers it uses. (Like this, not like this.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Seth Prince, a copy editor at the Portland Oregonian, wrote an essay about what it means to be American Indian. It shows that this former Wichita Eagle intern is as good a writer as he was a copy editor.
The choice of what element of heritage to identify with, and why to do so, is one of the toughest decisions any of us can confront.

Its ripples -- in being laughed at or laughing along with, in a cold shoulder or a warm embrace, in being told to play an Indian as a child or living as one as an adult -- are never ending.
Seth was the copy editor on the Oregonian's Pulitzer Prize winning series on immigration. Here, the paper's ombud uses one of his first blog entries to share some responses to Seth's story.

This article makes copy editors sound like rock stars.
There is a perk to being a journalist. It's not the money. Lord knows it's not the money. It's not the hours. It's not the public accolades. ... The perk is that at some point in your career you may get to write headlines.
Time to move to Scotland?

Having a rough time on the job today? Miss a mistake (or enter one of your own) that you can't seem to shake?

Well, take heart. It could have been worse:

The British outdoors magazine Trail published a guide to descending the United Kingdom's tallest peak, Ben Nevis. But a little mix-up left the directions leading straight off the north face of the mountain. The editor blamed copy editors (woops!) and will print a correction in the next edition of the magazine.

The Los Angeles Times wrote an editorial on the matter:
Here's a thought: Perhaps Trail should assign copy editors to follow their edited field directions before publication. If those folks don't return, the boss will know there's a potential accuracy problem.
Ouch. I'll be the first to admit that I've made plenty of on-the-job mistakes, but I've never sent hikers off the edge of a peak in a snowstorm. And here's hoping I never do.

Fun with flags.

Daniel Okrent, the public editor (ombud) of the New York Times, has started a blog of sorts to answer extra reader questions and to expound on his columns. He just started Monday, so there's not much there. But one bit I already find fascinating.

Those of you who read Romenesko's letters page will remember the hubbub started when New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom complained about readers' e-mail. She said:
Why do readers have an automatic right to our e-mail addresses? For decades, they managed to find us by phone or through the mail. Why are those methods no longer sufficient?
Of course, she didn't include her e-mail address.

Every letter I read in response lambasted Strom -- for trying to write in a vacuum, for forgetting that she's writing for people and that they should be able to reach her, for turning a blind eye to all those tips that could be coming her way, etc.

Well, Okrent has a few words to say, too. He asked AME Allan Siegal to reply and received this:
"We periodically remind people that our policy is to answer all our mail, whether tersely or in detail, so long as the mail is coherent and not obscene.

"But there are wide -- and legitimate -- variations in people's ability to manage the workload generated by e-mail, and to get their jobs done while picking through large amounts of e-mail. (Unlike some smaller organizations, we have to recognize that our stories are being read nationwide and, via the web, worldwide. That fact accounts for some of the torrent we receive.)

"If you look at the letters filed AFTER Strom's, you'll see that a few reporters, notably David Cay Johnston, have a very expansive view of their responsibility to correspond. In an organization like this one, in which many people work long hours, it would be unreasonable to insist that everyone field e-mail. But we do insist that they be reachable, and in one form or another, either respond or arrange for someone to respond."
Okrent adds:
Speaking only for myself and not for The Times, I would prefer that all reporters and editors published their e-mail addresses. However, if some would rather communicate by telephone, that seems entirely fair -- but in that case they ought to make their phone numbers widely available. Judging from my own experience, it might make them flee to e-mail in a heartbeat.
If you ask me, it's silly. Reporters should answer their e-mail. Just as they would answer a handwritten letter. Just as they answer their telephones. (That's easy for me to say as a near-anonymous copy editor, but, really, it's good business practice. Pay attention to your customers.)

And Tom Mangan should be happy to note that the Times is hosting this blog, not Blogspot. (I know, it is classier. But it's not free.)

A friend has pointed out a pitfall for copy editors in the debate over same-sex marriages.

Careful writers, and editors, will avoid calling this "gay marriage." Gay people can get married now, just not to people of the same sex. And it happens more often than straight people may think.

On the same note, don't call what's legal now "heterosexual marriage." In addition to the gay people who could be married to someone of the opposite sex, there are bisexuals who are married as well.

Just say what you mean, "same-sex marriage," and it will mean what you say.

Now, will "gay marriage" work in a pinch for a tough headline? Probably. Having an important key word will help the headline more than hurt. But be cognizant of this term's shortcomings.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Here's an interesting list of words and phrases that have opposing means. A couple of examples:
Apparent: Not clear or certain (For now, he is the apparent winner of the contest.) vs. Obvious (The solution to the problem was apparent to all.)
Cite, Citation: For doing good (such as military gallantry) vs. for doing bad (such as from a traffic policeman)
Fix: to restore to function (fixing the refrigerator) vs. to make non-functional (fixing the dog)
These are worth brushing through; they're good reminders of how to avoid double meanings. And "apparent" is one that ambiguously makes its way into papers too often.

Are you the new copy chief at your college paper, or are you editing for the first time?

A thread at Testy Copy Editors offers some advice.

My favorite, from Paul Wiggins:
Far too many voices are raised when people see finished college papers. Accept the mistakes, no matter how stupid they seem. Learn from them, and move on.
I think that can be the toughest part. If you've worked till 4 a.m. after a full day of classes, made some amazing catches, and missed only your 8:30 class the next morning, kudos. But other people, with more experience than you, will still find things to complain about. Let 'em! It's a good lesson to learn early because perfection will always be expected of copy editors. Now is the time to get in the habit of listening to your "accusers," figure out why that mistake was made, and determine how to avoid making it again. That's a valuable teacher in itself.

Some other things I'm glad I (or I wish I had) learned in college: Try not to be defensive because it will always seem childish, as if you can point out everyone else's faults but can't face your own. And this won't change once you get out of college or land your first big job.

Get in the habit of doing one read on stories backward, starting with the last paragraph, then the second-to-last, etc. This will allow you to focus on the grammar and individual words rather than the story line. It's usually where I find story holes or facts contradicting one another.

And, in college, make sure there's enough organization that copy editors have time to read every story before it's on the page. Making all those corrections on a proof is an invitation for more errors later.

Get in the habit of having the story's copy editor be the story's first headline writer. That's how it will work later in life, and all copy editors need that headline practice. But remember that someone else may, and often should, suggest a tweak to make that headline better, or an angle to make it more understandable. Headlines are the most read part of the paper, and much more attention should be placed on getting them just right.

If your headline is rewritten, don't be defensive. Take a deep breath and see what you can learn from the change. (But if it was changed without someone informing you, seek out the rewriter. You must learn from the change to improve, and it may be difficult to do so if you don't know the reasons behind it.)

Read, read, read — the AP Stylebook, Bill Walsh's "Lapsing into a Comma," Patricia O'Connor's "Woe is I." Try to set up a mentor at the Big City Paper, or find someone there (or a professor) who will help critique the paper's editing so you can see what you've missed. And copy chiefs, send out reminders of style points you see wrong so that everyone can learn from them. There are a lot of rules out there, and it's hard to remember them all on first read. It will take practice.

And in all this, remember to have fun with what you're doing. It's incredibly stressful work that few people will understand or realize. But you do get to make great friends, goof off and eat a lot of pizza. Enjoy it!

The San Francisco Chronicle is the only paper I can find that corrected itself after publishing the wrong lyric in Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body."

The paper published it wrong here, here, here and here, although all of those appear to have originiated with AP.

The paper corrected it here.

(And, no, I'm not obsessed over this topic. Really.)

Long ago, someone taught me a mnemonic device to remember the difference between desert and dessert: Desert has one S, for sand. Dessert has two S's, for strawberry shortcake. I've never had to look it up since.

But don't forget, if someone is getting his just deserts, he is getting what he deserves, so one S. It's this definition of desert.

Sometimes papers get it wrong.
Sometimes they get it right.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Some are asking why the press has been so obsessed with the Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake "tempest in a C-cup."

To be honest, I don't mind the stories. It's what everyone is talking about, and topical stories probably should appear in newspapers — as long as the placement is appropriate. I've enjoyed reading about a spike in nipple piercings and nipple-shield sales, for example.

But there's no excuse for writing like this:
"Such bipartisanship was nearly as shocking (to political junkies, anyway) as Justin Timberlake ripping off part of Janet Jackson's bustier during the Super Bowl halftime show." — Rick Haglund of the Ann Arbor News

"I do not think my impartiality could reasonably be questioned," said Scalia, responding to questions about the propriety of a sitting judge rubbing elbows — and blowing small game birds out of the air — with a named party and material witness in a case he's about to hear. That ranks right up there with Justin Timberlake's claim that the boob shot seen 'round the world was due to a "wardrobe malfunction". — Arianna Huffington in Salon (subscription required)

"The NBA would prefer to say it's having a little shooting problem. That's like saying Janet Jackson is a little overexposed." — David Nielsen of the Scripps Howard News Service

"The Maddux saga has just about run through its course of speculation and rumors, and is on the verge of being as overexposed as Janet Jackson." — Mike Kiley of the Chicago Sun-Times

"Even if he prevails there, Dean's dream of corralling the nomination seems as improbable as Janet Jackson making the 'best dressed' list." — Walter Shapiro in USA Today

What have I learned from this little exercise? We've all said it before, but columnists need stronger editing.

Just kidding. Today's real political note: Don't forget that "politics" can be singular or plural.

If it's something general — a branch of study, for example, or a concept — it's singular: All politics is local.

But if it's something specific — a certain plan, for example, or someone's beliefs — it's plural: His politics crumble under scrutiny.

Today's political note: A summary of George Bush's speech with Tim Russert.

A perfect job opportunity for a copy editor who didn't just start afresh three months ago:

The Washington Post is hiring.
Wanted: Skilled copy editors: The Washington Post is seeking energetic professionals with a passion for journalism and a commitment to excellence to fill copy desk openings in several daily and weekly sections. Successful candidates will have a minimum of three years' experience on a metropolitan daily copy or assignment desk, an excellent command of the language, solid news judgment and a flair for headline writing. Experience as a slot is a huge plus but is not required. This is an exciting time to join The Post, as we begin to reinvigorate our editing ranks, experiment with new ideas on copy desk structure and assignments and renew our focus on career development. The Post offers competitive salaries and excellent benefits. E-mail preliminary inquiries to Cheryl Butler, director of recruiting and hiring.
Happy applying, and tell me how it goes.

Are suspects held on bail or bond?

Almost always go for "bail." The Associated Press says:
Bail is money or property that will be forfeited to the court if an accused individual fails to appear for trial. It may be posted as follows:
* The accused may deposit with the court the full amount or its equivalent in collateral such as a deed to property.
* A friend or relative may make such a deposit with the court.
* The accused may pay a professional bail bondsman a percentage of the total figure. The bondsman, in turn, guarantees the court that it will receive from him the full amount in the event the individual fails to appear for trial.

It is correct in all cases to say that an accused posted bail or posted a bail bond (the money held by the court is a form of bond). When a distinction is desired, say that the individual posted his own bail, that bail was posted by a friend or relative, or that bail was obtained through a bondsman.
I think it's that "It is correct ... to say that an accused posted bail or posted a bail bond" that confuses people into the incorrect "The judge set bond at X."

A judge sets bail, the money or property that would be forfeited if the suspect failed to appear in court. The accused either posts bail or a bail bond, or he can be released on his own recognizance.

If it's none of the above, he's stuck in the slammer. And here there is some variance on style.

Some, such as the Dallas Morning News, say, "Joe Schmoe was held on $20,000 bail." But others argue that this is ambiguous. (Anyone is held initially on that bail until they post it. The question is, did they post it?)

Another option allowed at the Morning News that's near ubiquitous: "Schmoe was held in lieu of $20,000 bail." But it has been argued by people more knowledgeable than I that this is a cliche.

Some, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, get around these problems by requiring "Schmoe did not make $20,000 bail and was being held."

And the New York Times stylebooks says:
If the defendant fails to produce cash or a bond in the amount determined by a judge who has set bail, the defendant is held in bail or in $100,000 bail.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Today's political note is on easy-to-forget AP rules on polls.

In general, remember that stories about polls must include:
1. Who did the poll and who paid for it.
2. How many people were interviewed and how they were selected.
3. Who was interviewed.
4. How the poll was conducted.
5. When the poll was taken.
6. What the margin of error is.
Now, the easy-to-forget stuff:

Pay special attention to those margins of error. If you're reporting a difference in percentage points between two candidates, it has to be outside the margin of error to be significant. AP explains:
If the difference is at least equal to the sampling error but no more than twice the sampling error, then one candidate can be said to be "apparently leading" or "slightly ahead" in the race.
Also, you must include "plus or minus." Plus or minus 3 percentage points is different from just 3 percentage points.

And AP also calls for the rounding of margins of error to the nearest half-point, poll results to the nearest point.

Four hundred seventeen years ago today, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded after being caught in a plot to murder her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. To celebrate (I never did like Mary), here's a roundup of confusing AP entries:

scotch barley, scotch broth, scotch salmon, scotch sour -- all lowercase scotch.

Scotch tape -- upper, of course, because it's a brand of tape.

Scotch whisky -- A type of whiskey distilled in Scotland. You Capitalize Scotch and spell it whisky only when the two words are together. Lowercase scotch when it stands alone (I need a scotch). And spell it whiskey for generic references to the liquor.

Saturday, February 07, 2004 points out that amNewYork finally got a Web site up.

In addition to stories, you can get PDFs of every page (all 28 of them for Friday). My initial reaction? Yawn.

Chicago RedEye (a better-designed site but no real content there, just teasers to the hard copy)
Chicago Red Streak (The site's not as nice — but, hey, there's content here)
Dallas' Quick (No online content, but PDFs of every page with fast preview; better design than its competitor) (P.S. Owned by my employer, The Dallas Morning News)
Dallas' A.M. Journal Express (PDFs and online content)
And Wichita's very own F5 — not a daily but still fantastic. (P.S. Started by my friend Mike Marlett)

Today's political note: Don't allow writers to change "voters" to "electorate" just to avoid repetition with the verb "voted."

The "electorate" is the body of people entitled to vote. "Voters" are the people who took that entitlement seriously.
WRONG: When the Iowa electorate voted, they chose war supporters.
RIGHT: The poll targeted the small portion of the electorate that would attend the primary.
Watch for "electorate voted." That is a signal to copy editors that the word is probably being misused (by some well-meaning reporter avoiding "voters voted"). (And good for them for trying, but recast the sentence anyway.)

Friday, February 06, 2004

A round-up of some political notes ('cause from here on out, you'll be reading only more of these stories).

We'll start with margin because it's so often wrong. How many times do you see:
The amendment failed by a margin of 52 to 48.
By a margin of 40% to 60%, the measure was rejected.
Team X trails in the all-time series by a margin of 120-90.
By a margin of almost two to one, Dallas voters ...
They're all wrong.

The margin is the difference. If an amendment failed 52 to 48, the margin is four. Examples of the correct usage:
The Irish have won each home meet by a margin of 22 points or more.
Edwards captured the South Carolina primary by a margin of 15 points.
The incumbent won by a margin of 800,000 votes.
But what if you don't want to talk about the difference? Use ratio.
By a ratio of 10 to 1, voters passed the liquor ban.
Decliners narrowly beat gainers on the Nasdaq by a ratio of 17 to 15.
And never discount that you may need neither:
Dallas voters rejected the ban 2 to 1.
The amendment failed 52 to 48.
Team X trails in the series 120-90.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

The Knight Ohio Program for Editing and Editing Education is providing free DVDs of "John Bremner: Guardian of the Newsroom." To get a copy (while they last) send an e-mail with your mailing address to Kim Lichtenwalter at kilichtenwalter(at) Postage is also free.

Who is John Bremner?

Bremner taught copy editing at the University of Kansas from 1969 to 1985 and is legend in the profession. KU grads who took his courses are usually prize employees. Bremner was a nuts-and-bolts teacher and believed in the importance of etymology. (Just check out his great, if a little dated, book "Words on Words.")

His classroom tactics are legendary. He was known to open the window of his classroom and yell out: "Help! I'm surrounded by morons."

In an ASNE tribute to Bremner, who died in 1985, a former student said this:
Professor Bremner taught that copy editing is a noble undertaking, and that we have to find satisfaction in making things right, over and over and over again. He called it "the thrill of monotony," and he likened it to a child, being thrown into the air, who when she lands, squeals "Do it again ... do it again." He taught us to do it not for recognition or praise, but because we are the caretakers of the word.
Every copy editor should know a little about John Bremner.

Here is his editing test, said to be the hardest you may ever take.
Here are some examples of bad headlines from his book "HTK."
Here you can buy a copy of "Words on Words."

(Off-topic) And you thought Janet's show was shocking. ...
A police investigation has begun after a show that included dozens of sheep heads on stakes, a literal blood bath and a naked, crucified woman.
(On-topic) Let's talk about "literal blood bath." Is that right?

First, what's the difference between literal and figurative language? One explanation:
Words in literal expressions denote what they mean according to common or dictionary usage, while words in figurative expressions denote something other than what they mean according to common or dictionary usage.
The definition of bloodbath is "a great slaughter" or "indiscriminate killing." So, according to the above explanation, the concert show certainly was not a bloodbath (unless the author was talking about the sheep). But if they meant that, why add in "literal"?

But bloodbath has an obvious figurative origin when broken down: blood bath, a bath of blood, like "milk bath" only not so pleasant.

So is the literal meaning of bloodbath its dictionary definition or bathing in blood?

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Now that Joe Lieberman has dropped out of the race, can we put these terrible puns to rest?

I know he brought it on himself with the remark that his campaign was picking up "Joementum," but the jokes are getting Joe-ld.

Plenty of Joe-mentum, just all in the wrong direction
The Year of the Joementum has come to a premature end
Joementum grinds to a halt
Looks like it's joe-ver
It's All Joe-ver But The Shouting

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

On Jan. 23, the Wall Street Journal published a profile of Douglas Faneuil, who was the assistant to the broker of "style maven" Martha Stewart. (Not AP style, mind you.)

For some reason, one of the authors (Matthew Rose or Kara Scannell) included something from Faneuil's Friendster profile:
In a profile Mr. Faneuil wrote about himself for an online networking site called Friendster, he listed his current occupation as: "professional job seeker." One friend commented on the site that Mr. Faneuil is "the only person I know who can pull off being the sweetest guy in the world while also being the most wanted by the federal government." Through his lawyer, Mr. Faneuil declined to comment.
On Romenesko's letters site, Jonathan Katz takes the financial paper of record to task.
I guess there are more stupid, less ethical ways to report, but I can't think of any. To access a Friendster profile first of all means that you are five degrees of separation or less from the person in question, which means the reporters are admitting that they, or one of their colleagues, have friends in common with the subject.

Secondly, the information is basically private. The conceit of the site is that not just anybody can access your profile. Should you post anything online you don't want the world to read? No. But reprinting a personal ad in the Wall Street Journal is just creepy.

But most of all, the reporters missed a crucial detail: Everybody on Friendster lies.
(Now that this Friendster secret is out, I might as well tell you that I'm not dating Larry Eustachy.)

I think it's pretty clear that Jonathan is right: Friendster information does not belong in a serious WSJ article. The tone of the site dictates frivolity, exaggeration and lies. And this Friendster "friend" the article sites had no intention of his testimonial to be published later.

But this should be another lesson in "Watch what you write on the Internet." There's no telling what Google will be able to pull up on you.


Today's grievance: the use of a comma in a headline to represent something other than "and."

Headlinese can be tough enough to parse without adding this error into the mix. We let "to be" verbs disappear. We use nouns as adjectives. We kill all articles. We substitute "ands" with commas.

But don't force a reader to scratch his head over headlines that replace "or" with a comma:
Is that for here, to go?
120 killed, injured in suicide blast
Migrating bears to be relocated, trapped
Commas mean "and," and applying that basic headline rule renders these heads meaningless. People could probably figure out what the head writer meant ? but that's not their job. They are skimming for news, not solving a morning-magic fun-time puzzle.

Less egregious — but still wrong — are commas used to replace "but":
Gatti pummeled, wins anyway
Kerry seen as strong, beatable
Child survives crash, is killed by second car
These are a bit trickier because the comma doesn't make these sentences incorrect. "And" isn't technically false. However, given the space to elaborate, no headline writer would say "Kerry seen as strong and beatable." The point of these headlines is the contrast between the two ideas.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Janet Jackson update:

She says: "The decision to have a costume reveal at the end of my halftime show performance was made after final rehearsals. MTV was completely unaware of it."

But not so fast: Her spokesman repeats the wardrobe-malfunction line and then says: "It was not intentional. ... He was supposed to pull away the bustier and leave the red-lace bra."

And the biggest shocker: An unauthorized copy of Jackson's single "Just a Little While" has appeared on the Internet, so Virgin Records decided to release it Monday. The song is from the album "Damita Jo," set to be released March 30.

Unfortunately, this CNN story repeats the "metallic pasty" problem. (sigh)

Related: Who Gets Punished for Janet's Strip? from Slate's Explainer. (And an aside: Hey, editors! Want explanatory journalism? Here it is! Why doesn't every newspaper in the nation pick up this little feature or start one of their own? I don't know what it would take, but I think it's exactly the kind of to-the-point explanatory journalism readers are looking for. At least, this reader is.)

Was the halftime flash planned?

First: Watch what you print. Janet was no more wearing a pasty than Justin was. Any close-up shows that it's jewelry, a "nipple shield" held on by a barbell through a piercing. Was she wearing it because she knew her breast would show? I don't know. But the "pasty" is no evidence that it was planned.

Second: What about the "shocking moments" promised in an story? Read in context (in a quote from her choreographer, Gil Duldulao), that doesn't sound so salacious:
"I don't think the Super Bowl has ever seen a performance like this," Duldulao added. "The dancing is great. She's more stylized, she's more feminine, she's more a woman as she dances this time around. There are some shocking moments in there too. It's a lot of pressure, there's so many creative people and creative artists, you want to make sure everything is different, and I think she's going to do that. She's doing her job well."
MTV has taken down the story, but you can find it in Google's cache.

Sure, the event may have been planned. I don't know. But for newspapers — yes, even columnists — to cite the above reasons is sloppy reporting.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

The ACES online message board has a great thread: If you leave copy editing for a couple of years, can you expect to get a job when you come back?

The short answer for respondents so far has been "yes," with a number of caveats. Check them out.

(Also, I agree with the aside in one person's answer: Watch what you say about your job an industry [or any other type, for that matter] message board. Unless this woman is using a pseudonym, she could be exposing her career to the very difficulties she's trying prevent. Think: Would I be OK if my boss read this?)

Would your newspaper publish this? (Link via Centrs)

In advance of the UK release of "The School of Rock," the Guardian UK had a group of children (under 8) listen to eight rock songs — by The Who, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, etc. The kids' responses crack me up and include these gems:
"It sounds like when your wee goes back up."
"It's making me think about doing bad things like putting snowballs down my sister's back."
"This would definitely win Pop Idol."
"It's too pointy."

Is this news? Well, no. But I'd read it in my newspaper nonetheless. (Hey, maybe I finally found a lifestyles story geared toward me ... ?)

Is it 'may' or is it 'might'?

Synidacted columnist and wordsmith James Kilpatrick offers this hint:
The verbal auxiliaries "may" and "might" are tricksters. We're not talking today of "may" in the sense of permission: "You may have a nightcap, but that's all!" No, we're talking probability. The general rule is that "may" conveys a higher degree of probability than "might." Thus, "He may get falling-down drunk" carries a higher likelihood of tipsiness than "He might get falling-down drunk."
This is well-taken advice, stuff I'd never heard (although the mays in some of the "wrong" examples do sound wrong).

He also covers awoke vs. awakened, although he comes to no conclusions, and even the examples are a mess. But it's worth a skim.