Reconsider this: editing is more than proofing

During my time working for The Greyhound, the student newspaper of Loyola University Maryland, I noticed a somewhat disturbing trend over the course of four years: people thought editing was synonymous with proofreading.

That is, section and copy editors alike would come to an article, read it through checking for misspellings and errors in punctuation use, correct any such errors, and then approve the article for publication. The problem, however, is that any article could have all the words within in spelled correctly, and yet still be factually inaccurate.

“There going to they’re friends’ house.” Nothing spelled wrong there, but the usage is incorrect.

“About 40 percent of the funding will be used for the new dormitory, leaving the school with about 20 percent to use on other projects.” Again, nothing spelled wrong there, but why don’t the percentages given add up to 100?

To be a good copy editor is to be an obsessive fact-checker. Your publication’s reputation, quite literally, depends upon it. Factual inaccuracies damage your credibility, make readers distrustful, and embarrass you, both personally and professionally. Fact-checking ensures that information given in any story, from hard data to certain quotations, are appropriate, correct, and do not misrepresent information or people in any way. Four elements comprise the “shortlist,” so to speak, for quick fact-checking–items in a story that you should be watching for and noticing right away.

  1. Names. Always look up someone’s name. A little skepticism toward writers never hurt anyone. Assume they’ve misspelled every name in the article, and you’ll have no choice but to double-check the spelling to make sure they haven’t.
  2. Titles. Is Jane Smith the “administrative assistant” or the “assistant administrator”? They don’t mean the same thing; be sure the article doesn’t make it sound like they are the same thing.
  3. “Hard data.” Numbers and figures. Add up percentages. If an article gives a breakdown of how a $3.3 million budget is to be spent, add up all the numbers in the breakdown to be sure they equal $3.3 million. Cross-check figures cited to the source material; make sure, first, that the numbers given in the article are correct, and then make sure the numbers given are applicable.
  4. Captions and photos. Does the caption accompanying the selected photograph make sense? Does the caption describe correctly what the photo portrays?

Naturally, to employ legions of fact-checkers is economically impractical for many publications. Editors often rely on writers to have done their due diligence in reporting and writing the story. But the process works most effectively when journalists conduct their reporting, research and writing methodically, and when editors approach stories skeptically. And treat fact-checking as something separate from, but equally as important as, proofreading.

Shore up the walls … the ‘barbarians’ are coming

The other day, while at the Sun, I watched a reporter of some time (and of advanced age, which really means, for my purposes here, someone who didn’t grow up with the Internet) get schooled on the basics of Tweeting by a fellow newsroom employee (with considerably fewer years of life under his belt).

And while the dynamics of age meeting machine was enough for my sophomoric sense of internal humor to keep occupied for about 10 minutes, the broader ramifications—if a 22-year-old has anything to say about broader ramifications—of such a trend is simultaneously stifling and, well, a bit troubling.

It isn’t the idea that newsrooms are using Twitter, or even that the Young Turks of the social media world have to educate the “old heads” on how to use the technology.

I’m talking about people in my demographic—in tandem with our ability to have narcissistic glee drip from our fingers via Facebook statuses no one really cares about, Twitter updates that could make Courtney Love blush, and blog posts (hmm….) that mean relatively nothing—beginning to feel even more self-important than we self-importantly already thought we were.

I’m talking about a growing dependency on being connected.

The phrase isn’t mine. David Polk, a professor of behavioral sciences at York College in Pennsylvania, employed the term in a column he wrote in early January for the Philadelphia Inquirer. What Prof. Polk identifies is a quickly growing trend of a need for connectedness among us young people.

We need our cell phones; we need our Facebook accounts; we need Twitter. We need all these things in a much more insidious, mind-controlling way than the generation that first grew up with cars needed them. Because, after all, none of us really need a Facebook.

Prof. Polk identifies several issues with our addiction to these means of connectedness:

“First, the ability to call mom or dad the instant something occurs retards maturation. There is a reason why the age of adulthood is getting older. We are letting our children remain dependent upon their parents for much longer than previous generations.

Second, this obsession is having negative consequences in the workplace. A member of our advisory board for the Center for Professional Excellence tells of interviewing a candidate for a job in his company. During the interview, the candidate’s cell phone rang, and the candidate answered the phone. Upon the completion of the call, the candidate signaled that the interview can continue. Guess who didn’t get the job? Worse, guess who didn’t understand why they didn’t get the job?”

He goes on to talk about how employers view “IT etiquette” as one of the pressure points of young workers in a “real world” workplace: that is, we don’t know when it’s appropriate—and, for that matter, inappropriate—to text message our friends.

A similar argument is advanced by Professor Jeff Cornwall, who teaches entrepreneurship at Belmont University. To him, we’re all barbarians. A regular group of Visigoths champing at the bit to tear down the walls surrounding adult decorum. To Prof. Cornwall, we are “students who text message as we talk to them in our offices, who wear their hats on backwards, who sleep in class, who check Facebook during lectures, and even some who answer a cell phone call during class.”

The behavior of rapscallions and rabble-rousers, I tell you. And as much as I’d like to tell the good professors to “Chillax, bro,” they’re both right.

We—my age group, the “emerging adulthood” kids—are the purveyors of a consistent and continuous online reality TV show, with episodes played over and over on YouTube channels, Facebook pages, personal blogs and Twitter accounts. We “Facebook stalk”; we upload 120-image albums showing other people how drunk we can look during a single night out; we Tweet our daily lives, self-importance and narcissistic glee dripping from our fingertips; we inundate ourselves daily with petty amusement.

And in doing so we dangerously disconnect action from consequence in a bastardized socio-cultural version of Russian Roulette where stark, staring reality is supplanted by meaningless, and supposedly innocuous, amusement. And supplanted by a seeming inability to understand that if we text during an interview, we’re not going to get the job.

Call me a curmudgeonly 22-year-old, but we’re all doomed. (Although I hold nothing againt Biz Stone. #YouRule.)

Shore up the walls—the “barbarians” are coming.