Sunday, August 2, 2009

Take responsibility

In an extraordinary article, Clark Hoyt, the public editor for The New York Times, takes us through the process by which a retrospective article on Walter Cronkite by Alessandra Stanley was published with an astonishing number of errors intact. *

While I admire The Times for employing Mr. Hoyt and having the courage to publish an article explaining the paper’s embarrassment, the circumstances described therein point to some serious shortcomings. The main problem, it appears, lies with the author: “For all her skills as a critic, Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts.” When that copy editor was assigned to other duties, the errors resumed.

So the paper has a writer who cannot get things right, and the solution is to assign someone to fix things for her rather than to require her to be accurate. Amazing.**
Here’s the main thing, and it is more urgent today, with the depletion of copy desks, than it has ever been:

You, the reporter/writer, are responsible for the accuracy of what you write. It is your job to make sure that every statement of fact, every quotation, is represented accurately. If you slap something together and turn it in assuming that someone else will clean up after you, you are committing malpractice.

But what really dumbfounded me was the account of a copy editor — at The Times, which, God save the mark, still takes copy editing more seriously than most other publications — who started work on the Stanley article as an advance, was drawn away to daily copy, and never returned to the Stanley article because “she assumed that someone else would pick up the editing later [emphasis added].”

On my old copy desk at The Sun, may its memory endure, a copy editor who picked up a story stayed with it. And if the editing had to be interrupted by some delay, the copy editor would leave a note at the top of the story indicating that the editing was incomplete and pointing to questions or issues that remained to be addressed. This point is also more essential than it has ever been:

If you are a copy editor, you do not let a story out of your hands until you have completed the editing.

This thing at The Times has a lot of fingerprints on it, and I assume, without expecting to see an auto-da-fe on Eighth Avenue, that The Times is issuing some godly admonitions to its writers, assigning editors, and copy editors about doing their jobs properly.

In the meantime, if any of you are sneering at The Times over this while you publish crackpot claims by birthers, or stories that the president’s health care proposal includes euthanasia of old people, or rumors that the military’s prototype biomass-eating robot will consume human flesh, you’ve got much to be ashamed of, too.

*Seven errors are mentioned in Mr. Hoyt’s article, but a correction of an eighth was published in yesterday’s editions of The Times: “An appraisal on July 18 about Walter Cronkite’s career misstated the name of the ABC evening news broadcast. While the program was called ‘World News Tonight’ when Charles Gibson became anchor in May 2006, it is now ‘World News With Charles Gibson,’ not ‘World News Tonight With Charles Gibson.’ ”

**Ah, crap, it’s not amazing at all. Every copy editor knows that publications indulge in stars, often columnists and critics but also reporters, who are not required to meet the standards expected of an intern. They don’t get things right, they can’t be edited, and they won’t be bothered.