John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Dammit, Jim, I'm a journalist, not a Trekkie

Regret the Error is, for a journalist, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I site. Craig Silverman collects corrections from print and Web sources, and today’s harvest of corrections on articles about the new Star Trek movie reminds us that journalism is full of traps.

The Star Trek franchise has, over more than forty years, attracted legions of fans, many of whom apparently have encyclopedic recall of details from the television shows and movies. Once you have identified a Romulan as a Klingon, scorn will be heaped on you up to the eyebrows.

The journalist who approaches any specialized topic strides into a minefield, and the details are triggers. Religion is treacherous because of the distinctive language in different denominations or branches of faith. (I used to have to remind Sun copy editors that orthodox has to be capitalized in writing about Judaism or the Eastern branches of Christianity. Never mind the occasional references to “massive Christian burial.”) Science and medicine abound in technical detail — remember the column that said you could stop hiccups with carbon monoxide?

Popular culture is just the same sort of specialized area: Star Trek, the Harry Potter books and films, Doonesbury. No matter how much you may think you know, the chances are excellent that there are readers who know the subject better than you do, and they are waiting for you to stumble.

Not that you should transform yourself into a Trekkie or Potterite, but you should make sure that you know people who are in appropriate fan groups. Show them what you’re working on, and allow their robust interest to spare you the horselaughs.

7 comments:

  1. remember the column that said you could stop hiccups with carbon monoxide?Well, they weren't technically wrong...

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  2. >[...] specialized area. No matter how much you
    >may think you know, the chances are excellent
    >that there are readers who know the subject
    >better than you do, and they are waiting for you
    >to stumble.

    Hey, this sounds familiar. No matter how well you think you know the rules about comma usage and coordinating conjunctions, there are copy editors out there who are waiting, in their weary way, for you to stumble. And as you said yourself, John, they're seldom disappointed. :-)

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  3. "...you should make sure that you know people who are in appropriate fan groups."

    I'm waiting and waiting for someone to ask if I know how to tie a bow tie. Someday, it will happen.

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  4. The Washington Post, which is not now that strength which in old days moved Earth and Nixon, captioned a still from the new Star Trek movie as "Spock in the new 'Star Wars.'" One does not need to be a fanatical nerd to appreciate the depth of cultural illiteracy here. Earlier this century, when my preteen stepdaughter kept confusing Gandalf with Dumbledore, it was cute -- but she did not purport to be an edited paper of record.

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  5. Stephen Hunter called Gimli and Legolas "human heroes"...

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  6. Sorry for the late entry. But I was just thinking how it is that anytime you reference pop culture you are walking in a minefield. I can remember back in the day doing MAJOR research on my weekly sermons. As much on pop culture references as on Biblical passages...

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