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/.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Those damn copy editors again

You may have read that a former writer at the student newspaper at the University of Hawaii-Manoa has been accused of fabrication: An examination of his work identified twenty-nine people quoted in fourteen articles whose existence could not be confirmed.

Now, according to an article in the Honolulu Advertiser, the student, Kris DeRego, has come up with a novel explanation: It’s the copy editors’ fault. His articles, he says, were “adulterated” on the copy desk.

The faculty adviser to the paper, Jay Hartwell, found it odd that no other reporters for the paper had complained about such bungling on the copy desk, and he found it additionally odd that other names in the articles, such as faculty members, were correct.

Mark Brislin, the editor of the student paper, Ka Leo O Hawaii, said that DeRego, asked to supply names, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses for the twenty-nine questionable sources, submitted five. Only one of the five responded.

It would be idle to pretend that copy editors do not make mistakes, even inserting errors into texts — I bear the scars of many such lapses myself. But I have also seen over the years how tempting it is for some reporters to condemn the copy desk before determining the facts. The human reflex to shift blame elsewhere, especially on a target group, is quite strong. Any number of times I have reported to work to take up the day’s fresh complaints, discovering frequently on examination that the reporter actually made the error, or the originating editor made the error, or even, on some occasions, that there was actually no error.

I’m not privy to Mr. DeRego’s work or the work of the Ka Leo copy desk, but the reported information casts a shadow over his explanation, as well as over his work.

6 comments:

  1. When the police suspect someone of burglary, it is not uncommon to find that the suspect's house is the next to be hit. People will go to great lengths to deflect blame.

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  2. And lest we forget, he also had a restraining order placed against him and was accused of stealing liquor and cash from a store he used to work at (http://archives.starbulletin.com/2006/09/16/news/story04.html).

    Sounds like a life champ I'd believe any excuse from.

    But wait, he said someone was out to get him when it comes to the theft accusations:
    "In a letter to both Honolulu daily newspapers, DeRego conceded there was a restraining order against him but denied stealing any items and said his troubles at the store “coincided with a difficult period personally when people with whom I had intimate relationships were attempting to destabilize my life.”" (from http://www.bizjournals.com/pacific/stories/2009/06/22/daily39.html?page=2)

    Sounds like a champ at life. I totally believe him. He'd never deny guilt.

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  3. I would think that copy editor's culpability could be proved or disproved by comparing the original submitted by the author to the published version. Whether written electronicly or by quill pen on foolscap, a "paper" trail would be available. Unless, of course, the young man involved thinks "the computer ate my article."

    Whenever I write anything I keep copies of all past versions. I would hope that a newspaper would do the same.

    Retired in Elkridge

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  4. Newspapers' editing software typically tracks changes in text from one set of hands to the next, but my experience with a couple of systems has been that detailed information becomes limited or unavailable after a few days. Tracking changes in articles written months in the past may be impossible in many newsrooms.

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  5. Some comments from Facebook

    Richard Stubbe: A typical reporter would wait until the 14th occasion of sources being inserted into his reports before saying anything. Or perhaps he wouldn't.

    Lane Harvey Brown: Let's all say a little prayer for all the colleagues ahead who will get to work with this guy. Duh.

    Elizabeth DeHoff: Wow. That reporter is super classy.

    Leslie-Jean Thornton: Reminds me of the reporter we all loved because he used "cq" so often. Until he told us one day he thought "cq" was a directive for copy editors to check it out (ie, do his work).

    John McIntyre: Not the first reporter, by any means, to labor under that misapprehension about "CQ." Oh, the stories copy editors could tell you.

    George Carter: Yep, it's a card often played by lazy scoundrels.

    Linda Felaco: So you're telling me all these years that I've been dutifully copy editing other people's work, I could've been gleefully inserting my own made-up stuff? I've been missing out on all the fun...

    Mary Ellen Slayter: What copy editor would actually have time to make up that much material?

    Pam Robinson: I read another version of this story earlier today, which didn't include the copy desk canard. He apparently was under suspicion back in January. His defense at the time was that HE, he alone, was trying to improve standards and couldn't understand how he could face challenge.

    Matthew Tom: See, technology will be the end of this reporter. You don't think there's some sort of electronic trail of changes made? Nice try.

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  6. That "cq" story above is fantastic! "Check this for me, please!" Doh!

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