Eric Holder and porn: The difference 1 missing word makes

I talk about value-added editing as an unfortunate necessity, in which we have to show why editing and care with writing make our products clearer and better — and at a cost worth incurring. But to do this, we have to act — no one will notice, care or act for us. It risks us being nags and nit-pickers, but it is a worthy effort toward a better society and a place and appreciation for a set of skills, talents and personalities. I’ve noted the need to speak up about sloppy online editing
Here’s a slightly different case:


U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder came into office not long after President Barack Obama’s inauguration,  and since then has done little or no prosecuting of cases involving online pornography and similar indecency, even shutting down the Department of Justice’s Obscenity Prosecution Task Force.

Conservatives are upset, of course, and Holder has defended the move as being best handled by other jurisdictions. All of that is interesting and bears the attention Politico is giving it. But Politico has also provided a great test case for the difficulties of editing online and one of the dangers of the need to constant republish, re-link and re-promote content.

There’s a decent argument here that the missing word doesn’t matter, and that people will read each headline in the same way. But I don’t think it’s a winning argument, and it’s certainly tougher when the missing word changes the emphasis — With “fight” included, “porn” is an adjective acting on the noun “fight,” and thus making the phrase one that is negative toward the idea of porn; without that word, we are left with “porn” as both a noun and the thing Holder is directly acting upon (or not, apparently, since he’s neglectful).

The assumption in this argument is that readers will simultaneously recognize — and believe — that a headline with the attorney general’s name and “porn” would automatically have to mean some work-related function of his to combat pornography, as well as that the alternatives are so ludicrous as to not worry about.

And, to go further, by making the assumption that this headline discrepancy is OK, you’re setting the bar not to check/correct further instances, adding the second assumption: That these minor differences will never (or rarely) matter.

Is that the case? Despite my longstanding observations that online breaking news can get away with little or no editing, I disagree. After all, how did I find out? Not through snooping for people’s innocent mistakes — it was a co-worker today, who was thrown by the headline differences enough to interrupt unrelated work to bring it to my attention.

There’s a larger issue, too, one that technology makes difficult for any website, even for a tech-savvy and frenetically paced place like Politico.

Many websites will have different headlines for the same story depending on whether it’s a link from the home page or section front (ESPN, in particular), whether it’s a print or online version (the New York Times, for one) and whether it’s the headline appearing in the browser title bar or the one just above the article (the Wall Street Journal). Most of the time, the difficulty is in quickly checking accuracy and spelling of those headlines.

On Twitter, with the 140-character supply quickly consumed by @  handles and links, this world of multiple headlines per article becomes necessity — and more treacherous, as all context and most wiggle room is lost. Good for sensationalism, perhaps, but more difficult to deliver upon honestly.

The lesson, as always: Use common sense, own up to mistakes and learn from them.