Copyediting 2.0

correctionsThe Washington Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, reported yesterday that readers are getting increasingly upset over the number of typos, formatting mistakes and grammatical errors in news stories. He cites, for example, references to a “Democratically” (instead of Democrat-) controlled Congress and the Marine “Corp” (instead of Corps).

Alexander blames the Post’s layoff of copy editors since 2005; it cut the number of full-time copy editors by almost half — from 75 to 43.

Obviously, errors of this type are bad. Sloppy presentation suggests sloppy reporting. But what’s the best way to get clean copy? Are layers of copy editors really the solution?

I’ve been playing around with a new tool for crowd-sourced editing called GooseGrade. With this free widget installed on a site, curmudgeonly readers can easily apply their virtual red pen to suggest corrections. It’s an open-source approach that empowers the audience to improve content.  Note: I’m not using it currently because it locked up my WordPress (publishing system) last week. But I liked the product and will try it again.

How great is the problem Alexander highlights? A 2007 study by Michael Bugeja and Jane Peterson from Iowa State University suggests it’s around 8% of all errors. Spelling, grammar and typos account for about 4% of errors; using the wrong word — 3.6%. (Misidentifying a person or reporting a wrong date — that’s another matter).

And who actually finds errors? It’s difficult to assess the effectiveness of copy editors. (They no doubt make a big difference.) But a 2005 study by University of Nevada academics Donica Mensing and Merlyn Oliver suggests that adding levels of oversight may not be the most effective approach. In the survey of editors at 300 small-town dailies in the United States, titled “Editors at Small Newspapers Say Error Problems Serious,” here’s who discovered the error once a story was published:

  • a person mentioned in the story (50%)
  • a reader (26.5%)
  • a member of the newsroom staff (23%)

Further, even when published, minor errors of the kind that Alexander points out do not seem to significantly affect a media organization’s credibility. In his 2002 study “Getting it right? Not in 59 percent of stories” University of Oregon professor Scott Maier, states: “By several measures, the relationship between errors and newspaper credibility was statistically significant but weak.” He adds that errors have a slightly greater effect on how people judge the story itself, but generally only when the reporter’s mistake involves an error of judgment.

It’s interesting that many of the people who commented on the Post’s article were critical, but not about the increase in errors. They were more concerned that the Post had failed to account publicly for a controversial fundraising event that came to light last week. In a flyer, the Post advertised a “salon” at the publisher’s home that offered lobbyists access to Obama administration officials — and the Post’s editorial staff. (Publisher Katharine Weymouth did comment publicly on the issue the same day.)

As one commenter pointed out, the bigger problem is that many news organizations lack a system for quickly addressing errors — factual, subjective and ethical — pointed out by the public.

It’s this lack of accountability that seems to be an issue with media credibility — not the errors themselves. A study by the Canadian Media Research Consortium concluded in 2008 that only about half of Canadians believed the media was doing its job with full accuracy (51.6% said news organizations generally got their facts straight; 55.7% said news organizations were careful to check and verify information). But the kicker was that only 33.8% said they believed news organizations were willing to admit mistakes.

Better procedures for finding and correcting published errors may be what’s needed — not more copy editors.

July 10, 2009: Correction made on silly usage error (see Comment 4 below). Thanks, Carol!



Missing from this description is any discussion of two key points: how many errors didn’t make it into print because they were caught and fixed by copyeditors, and how many additional errors are caught when you add copyeditors (either to reduce the workload on one poor overworked drudge or to provide a second set of eyes).

With the caveat that I haven’t seen the actual Mensing/Oliver study, and am relying here on (at best) second-hand reports, their study is badly flawed without that missing information and the conclusion is potentially meaningless.

Geoff Hart (www.geoff-hart.com)
ghart@videotron.ca / geoffhart@mac.com
Effective Onscreen Editing:

You write, “A 2007 study by Michael Bugeja and Jane Peterson from Iowa State University suggests it’s around 8% of all errors. Spelling, grammar and typos account for about 4% of errors; using the wrong word — 3.6%.”

Having followed the link to that study, I don’t agree that is what the study suggests. It does not appear to me to be an analysis of the number and nature of newspaper errors; rather, it is a study of the number and nature of corrections published by newspapers.

It strikes me as a leap of faith to propose that newspapers acknowledge errors in roughly the same proportions that they occur. Would a newspaper not be more motivated to acknowledge a misidentification or an error in reporting than the appearance of “free reign” in a story?

Are some newspapers more likely to acknowledge errors than others? If so, are we to conclude that they are more error-prone, or more forthcoming and transparent about their mistakes? Or, perhaps, more responsive to feedback from those outside the newsroom?

Further, the study’s authors acknowledge that they analyzed only those corrections compiled by Craig Silverman on his blog, Regret the Error, in the year 2005. We therefore have no historical context for these findings. What would the proportions be in other years?

I also wonder if you’re being unduly narrow in your definition of a copyeditor’s responsibility. Are not numbers, location, and even some elements of identification (referring to the mayor as a common councilman) within the copy desk’s purview?

I copyedit book-length manuscripts, not newspaper copy, but I have occasionally caught instances of plagiarism and other errors you characterize as subjective. I would be surprised if it were not the same on a newspaper copy desk.

Copy editors are too busy editing the next issue’s content to go back and revisit published text, which is why it’s typically someone other than a copy editor who notices typos that slipped through. That’s been my experience anyway. At a certain point, you have to set the content free, after all.

Sometimes I wish newspapers and magazines would publish both the unedited and edited versions so readers could see that we aren’t just running a spell check. The bad part about this profession is that no reader will ever high-five me for catching all those typos, dangling modifiers, lapses in clarity or logic, plagiarized passages, and inaccurate information, because if I’m doing my job right, they’ll never know that stuff ever existed.

We editors noticed that the word “affect” is wrong in the above article.

” have a slightly greater affect.”… in para beginning with “Further.”

In this case, it should be “effect.” “Affect” can be a noun in psychology (mood, aspect).

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