Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Just the phatics, ma'am

When I expressed dissatisfaction recently with what I called "phatic journalism," a few people quite reasonably asked what the hell I was talking about. 

Phatic speech, in which we all indulge, is casual comment on inconsequential matters -- the weather, last night's game -- to be sociable and acknowledge another party as a fellow human being. It is a form of harmless social lubrication, devoid of substance. 

In what I would call phatic copy editing, what purports to be editing is merely inconsequential edits -- changing "like" to "such as," "over" to "more than" -- rather than a focus on substantive issues in the text. Phatic copy editing yields stories that conform to standard grammar and house style despite being superficial, incomplete, or dull. (Grammar ain't everything.)

Phatic substantive editing yields the kind of political horse racing story that we see all the time: The president's popularity was up two points yesterday but is down three points today, with positive or negative implications for the midterm elections. Hot yesterday. Colder today. Could rain tomorrow. 

This is how we get supposedly "balanced" stories in which Party A asserts something and Party B asserts the contrary, without enough information for the reader to evaluate the worth of either. This is how we get reports of a "trend" that involves three people. This is how we learn the views of minority groups from the same half-dozen representatives who are quoted every time. 

So that's the news. Think it'll rain? 

1 comment:

  1. Phatic copy editing: I love it! My limited experience with being professionally copy edited is that perhaps 25% of the edits are genuine improvements, where the text I submitted was ungrammatical or unclear or infelicitous. A tiny but crucial number of edits are disastrous, where the meaning of the text is changed. Typically this is when I chose a specific word that precisely expressed the thought, but for whatever reason the editor didn't like that word. Then there was the time the editor changed the year of an event, moving it by a century. Fortunately I caught that one. The balance of the edits, which is to say most of them, are phatic copy edits: adding or removing a comma, changing "which" to "that," and so forth. The common thread with these changes is that they don't matter. The resulting text is neither better nor worse than the original. In principle they bleach out the author's voice, but in practice they are usually too trivial even to matter to that degree.

    What bemuses me is that publications that clearly are stretched thin still worry about this. If only a quarter of the edits are useful, then why pay a copy editor for those pointless ones? Surely they could get far more work done if they didn't have to waste time about Oxford commas. It seems to be an article of faith that it is very important for a publication to be consistent about stuff like this. The reasoning behind this claim has never been clear to me.