A copy desk being reduced or eliminated brings many signs of lower quality, and reporters, too, suffer when their numbers are diminished and they’re forced to “do more with less.”
There are two categories of fear for journalists: The big picture, the fear that news isn’t being covered, isn’t being covered well or in enough depth, and that chasing ambulances and copy to fill displaces — not all, but much of — context or long-form analysis. This is not a new view. But as someone who worked at an already overstaffed, under-experienced and hard-working rural newspaper, there was a smaller fear — that further cuts would mean headlines and ledes that leak into publication online or in print that are shoddy at best and libelous and/or offensive at worst.
Here, without picking on any brave souls who are doing their best at the offending publications, are three examples of the latter:
The worst offense first.
The trial of the man accused and, eventually, convicted of Elizabeth Smart’s abduction had not concluded, thus no verdict or conviction. The attribution to the nurse is intended to mitigate the headline’s implication, to say, “Hey, she says he’s the kidnapper as opinion, not us saying it as fact.”
That reasoning is weak, and fails for four reasons: The words “Smart kidnapper” jump out at you, they suggest a clever criminal (this was a national writeup, after all, not local coverage), the substitutes “Suspected kidnapper” or “Smart suspect” are easy to think of, and, finally, there was always the chance, however slim, that he would be acquitted.
This story was from The Associated Press, and it appears to have been the AP’s headline, not one a TV station or paper wrote itself: It appears here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Just because this case turned out to be open and shut (pending any sort of appeal) doesn’t make these sort of headlines good journalism — or good business.
Reporters, editors and copy editors are going to make mistakes; they’re human, and there’s a certain error rate for our species. But if news organizations are willing to let nearly any error that doesn’t result in a lawsuit slide by — a practice far sloppier than most of those rascally blogs, by the way — they really have no claim to practicing “real” journalism or performing a public service. And, I’m willing to bet, the lax standards will eventually let through an error that leads to financial damages.
Who will be blamed? Probably that one leftover copy editor, doing the work of 10.
Now, most readers will read this the way it’s intended: The crash killed the man. But the headline, technically, says that an SUV flipped, and then a man was killed.
What’s with the “Law & Disorder” part? Well, that appears to be a category this paper uses to indicate that this is a crime story, and I was going to let it go. Then I realized, where’s the crime? It’s not mentioned in the story:
“[He] overcorrected, causing the SUV to rotate before striking a concrete median and rolling onto its side and overturning multiple times, the Highway Patrol said.”
Maybe the driver was intoxicated, or engaged in some illegal driving leading up to the crash. But suddenly, dying in a car crash is grounds for being part of criminal and disorderly activity? Simple fixes could have avoided this.
The third offense:
Read through to the end. It may take a minute to realize the problem. …
OK, got it? Yeah, that Mike Goulian must have been one hell of an aviator, because he flew at the nationals when he was 11. Oh, wait, that’s the girl who was 11? Again, this is one where most people will understand what the real meaning is, but it doesn’t make the sentence any less jumbled.
At the least, you’d want the “age 11” cast higher, say, “That’s what she did when she was 11, seeing her hero Mike Goulian …” There are other solutions, I’m sure.
This is a fluffy story, not on deadline and not difficult in subject matter or wordplay. There’s no excuse — if there are editors with time and energy left in their systems. That’s not easy to find anymore.