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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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
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.