Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Once a copy editor …

I suppose it’s a curse for me that spelling, grammar, punctuation and factual mistakes make me grit my teeth when I read something, not only in the newspaper or on the Web, but in street signs and billboards.

As a newspaper copy editor, it was my job to catch errors, and I guess I was pretty arrogant when I found something, though not with the people who I had to deal with every day.

One time, in wire copy from the Associated Press, a reporter pretty much mangled World War II history about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (the reporter said it was an invasion) and gave the wrong date for the Battle of Midway. I called up the AP, and they ran a correction.

On another occasion, the AP sent a photograph of a Marine Corps CH-46 medium transport helicopter as the “art” for a story about the crash of an Army CH-47 medium transport helicopter in Afghanistan. Fearing a string of mistakes in newspapers all across the U.S., I called the AP, spoke to an editor, and persuaded him that while the CH-46 and CH-47 may look similar, those in the know would know that it was the wrong machine. He agreed after I explained the differences between the two helicopters, and a corrected photo was sent.

I like to listen to NPR shows on my iPhone during walks, and one day during a show about “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schultz, the host began reciting a whole host of inaccuracies about the Apollo 10 mission to the moon, stating that the “lunar rover” Snoopy had landed on the moon. My e-mail to NPR pointed out that the lunar module was named Snoopy, it hadn’t landed on the moon, and that a lunar rover was a different vehicle.

A correction was printed and later recited on the air.

But spelling errors can be jarring because a misspelled word can disrupt the flow of reading and give a sentence a different meaning.

Recently, while driving to visit my brother and his wife, I saw a high-up billboard for a cancer hospital telling people they could get the “lastest” (sic) treatments for cancer there. I was tempted to call them up and tell them their billboard was an atrocity, but did not since there was no phone number visible.

I’m the kind of guy who walks into stores to complain about misspellings on sign boards, and I wonder if someone is going to call security on me one day. I mean, I don’t scream or yell, but just ask that the sign be corrected.

Although it’s easy to say that workers whose first language is not English make a lot of the mistakes, I’ve seen some beauts by people for whom English is their first language, but just believe that there’s something charming about appearing to be illiterate.

I still remember filling out a form for graduation from Palm Beach Community College that was full of spelling errors, and when I worked for the newspaper there, one student turned in a story that was written with all the words spelled phonetically. “I can’t spell,” she said proudly. With stories like that, we didn’t so much edit the stories as translate them.

At my last paper, I was editing a community story when I realized that something just didn’t sound right. The reporter had written that there were 17 million Hispanics in Florida, and they made up 25 percent of the population. The 17 million figure sounded familiar, but quick research revealed that was the whole population of the state. A call to the reporter turned up the news that a librarian had written it into an information card, and that’s where the reporter got it. The librarian was wrong, and a little newspaper research got it right.

Another time, I was editing a calendar item and found that a local garden club said it was holding an event from 2 to 5 a.m. I checked the club’s Web site and saw the 2 to 5 a.m. time listed for the event, and even found a PDF file of its latest newsletter with the 2 to 5 a.m. time listed. I decided I just had to be sure before I let it pass, so I called a phone number for someone at the club, explained what I had found, and requested confirmation. What I got was this: “Oooops.” The person was glad I had caught the mistake, and the club had to send out its own clarification.

Early in 2008, a local business group that announced an event for “Feb. 30.” As it turned out, the person who submitted the listing had forgotten that while it was a leap year, February didn’t leap that far.

Of course, journalism is notorious for its mistakes. In the rush to get stuff out, sometimes you just don’t see something that’s wrong until it’s too late. At one paper, I had left before the front page was finished due to overtime limitations, and the next morning we told residents that “lightening”  had hit the police department’s main facility. Indeed, the “lightening” goof is so common that whenever there was a thunderstorm and a story to follow, the copy desk would go on special “lightening/lightning” alert. Ditto for affect/effect and principal/principle.

Catching the details can turn a dog of a story that misinforms into one that sends people in the right direction.

In this age when everyone can be a journalist, though, some question whether copy editors are even needed and are just another set of useless eyes and fingers who get in the way of connecting with the people.

But I think that the people who read newspapers and news on the Web will find the going a lot harder without those who can catch the details, fix the little mistakes and make writing and reporting just a little clearer.

And if I can convince some store manager that if an item is .50 cents, that means it’s selling for half a penny, then my work is done.


January 20, 2009 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, The news business | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Sounds like you have an eye for detail and were very good at your job. Any reason why you don’t do it anymore?

    Comment by staceydickens | January 20, 2009 | Reply

  2. Hi — There’s a Real Estate training office near me that advertises their services on a very large awning. Every time I drive by I always laugh. It’s says: “Higher than Apex Traning”

    I’m guessing the awning is too costly to replace. I should send a photo to Jay Leno!


    Comment by Diana-NYC | January 22, 2009 | Reply

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