Society’s quality-control problem with editing

Depleted newsrooms are every day illustrating what a lack of copy editing does — a slow sapping of quality and quality control. It doesn’t mean no news is gathered or that the language is destroyed, but the effect might be more insidious. Only the most able-eyed and loudest notice, and their noise is often dismissed as the wails of a crank (and sometimes that’s true).

But soon enough, you have major metro papers that offer, readers perceive, little editing online or in print, and suddenly it’s a maxim around town that that paper doesn’t edit anything. Who gets the blame? Copy editors, and newspapers/journalism in general. Who should get the blame? Well, no one, technically. There are greater forces at work. But because of that, I might argue, we, society, deserve the blame.

Spell-check is wonderful, and most of us know it’s not perfect. Auto-correct once had a purpose, before DYAC became a thing. Google is wonderful, though it requires some thought and judgment, if not trickery. There’s some tradeoff, though — the less we need to know how to spell things, or type things correctly the same time, or otherwise edit and assess what’s in front of us, the less our brains will try. And so we end up with ever more public displays of awful English, almost always without meaning to. These mistakes are because we’re no longer wired to think about this but also many of us are no longer wired to edit it, in our own work or others’.

Just like the decline of copy editing, this isn’t a fatal blow. Life will go on, and sometimes the crime is minimal compared with the angst we put ourselves through. And it’s not a moral failing. But it is something we need to acknowledge and work on, a task made more difficult by the almost imperceptible slowness of our society’s QA decline.

There are real risks to reputation, finances and prestige. My old colleague P.J. explains what’s at stake, with some real-life examples. The key for both of us, I think, is not so much picking on the quality; anyone can miss something or have a bad day. It’s the decline (or perceived decline) in quality control that is striking, and should strike others.

Just a few examples:

  • The BBC abbreviates “assistant” with just the first few letters in a story about Jerry Sandusky (via Deadspin)
  • Hey, said CNN, let’s not spell Penn State correctly (via Deadspin)
  • Who could forget the Washington Natinals of 2009? Not only were the uniforms misspelled, but the team didn’t even notice. (via
  • Joe Frazier died, and couldn’t even get a photo of himself (South China Morning Post, via Regret The Error)
  • New York City’s food inspections don’t count because of typos. (am New York)
  • South Florida is for vacation, not education, as school districts repeatedly misspell “school.” (Miami New Times)

Looking to be better?

  • Start with Regret The Error’s reporting of New York Times proofreading tips and the Times’ say on getting names right. 
  • Read: Anything helps, but the Times’ defunct On Language column archive is a great place if you want to learn words to know why you’re remembering them. 
  • Write: If you don’t put your vocabulary into practice, you’re less likely to be able to call upon it when needed.
  • Ask for help: We can all use another eye, especially on our own work. Doing so will pay off, trust me.
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