Readers can’t trust news sites that publish sloppy copy

By Susan Older
May 15, 2011

A former colleague from UPI posted a comment on my Real World Media blog yesterday jokingly lamenting the fact that it took him a year to respond to my commentary of March 14, 2010, regarding sloppy copy.

I responded that the issue is still relevant. As we all know, it seems to be getting worse. I can honestly say that it’s rare to find a story on the website of a major publication, one I once respected, that is free of grammatical or spelling errors.

As we all know, readers who see errors in spelling and grammar are likely to wonder whether there are also errors in reporting, quotes, and in the substance of the story.

There is another comment on the same blog post, also from a former colleague, a guy I worked with back at USA Today.

The original commentary, “The world needs good editors,” appeared on this Real World Media blog and on DisplacedJournalists.com.

Both comments are from journalists I respect. They both hit the nail on the head.

I think there are far too few seasoned editors in newsrooms these days; they’ve all been laid off, bought out, fired or otherwise cast adrift.

This leaves a few exceedingly busy seasoned reporters (if you’re lucky) to show young journalists the ropes, to mentor them, to teach them why perfection is not optional, to help them resolve ethical dilemmas, to teach them how to file an FOI request and why you would want to, and to help them learn to craft their stories well, keeping the readers’ needs in mind.

Gone are the pros, the journalists who’ve been around, the ones who held us accountable because we still had a lot to learn.

Remember how much passion there was in newsrooms in the old days? People cared, so much so that they were willing to fight over matters of principle.

Remember the gut-wrenching sound of a pica pole whacked on your desk just inches from your quivering hand? That’s what learning from the newsroom culture feels like.

Remember when you woke up in a cold sweat at 4 a.m. because your brain finally got around to telling you that you made a huge, embarrassing error on Page 1? That’s what learning from your own mistakes feels like.

These were the checks and balances that made our profession so great. I know plenty of young people are going to J-school these days, so there must be something about the profession that draws new recruits. I don’t mean to knock these students or recent graduates, either. I think it’s fantastic that people want to be journalists, and I think the new grads are just as smart as we were. I just don’t believe there are enough dyed-in-the-wool pros left in newsrooms to teach them well.

If you are a displaced journalist, you have probably been replaced – usually by someone who has less experience and is willing to work for far less money than you earned. However, too many of these replacements lack the education, the on-the-job training and the mentoring we received. I realize I’m generalizing, but I think this is largely accurate.

I think we all feel that it’s especially painful to see stories riddled with errors on the websites of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, CNN, USA Today, etc.

The really sad thing is that many of us love our profession so much that we would probably work for the same wages younger journalists make if it meant a once-trusted publication could turn out perfect copy again. But they won’t hire us.

I know why our cover letters and resumes get deleted without a response. Those at the top of news organizations see us as trouble. We know too much. We have opinions and we’re not afraid to express them. We might cause trouble. We might want to take their jobs or incite discontent. We might shake things up. They can’t have that, now, can they? Working in the newsroom of a financial site for just a year in the past decade taught me that.

In many ways, I like the new era. I love the Internet and I love digital media. I think with some proper guidance, it will all shake out to be good – different but good, much the same as we once progressed from radio to television.

Standing up for what you know to be right? That era is largely gone, along with the insistence on perfection. That was our era. This is a new one.

That’s why I started Displaced Journalists. That’s why I seek funding to create an innovative news operation bearing my existing company name, Real World Media. It would need to embody all the old fervor, fair compensation and high standards, while working as a digital operation on a digital platform. I do believe it can be done.

But back to my point: Errors sap trust. Hire some copy editors.

Nobody wants to read sloppy copy. More importantly: Nobody believes it.

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