Proof Reading

Proof reading is among the most essential parts of the jobs of writers and editors. And, as with the quality control aspect of any job, there is levels of daffiness. What? On proof reading this last sentence, I must re-write it: “And, as with the quality control aspect of any job, there are levels of difficulty.”

These corrections were easy. Sometimes, though, quality control is more difficult. To exercise judgment and to insure meaningful quality in communication, writers and editors must look at the range of obvious possible interpretations of words by readers/viewers/listeners and choose whether they – as writers and editors — intend readers/viewers/listners to use those interpretations. If not, then it’s back to editing to narrow the range to what’s intended to ensure that what’s written lies within the common sense of meaning. Then, again, if the words convey what’s intended, the job is done. Publish it.

Yesterday’s papers, for example, had this report from Baghdad:

Three American troops were killed Saturday in fighting in the western province of Anbar, the U.S. military said. They were the first U.S. fatalities reported in Iraq in four days and only the eighth so far this month.

The use of the word ‘only’ was noticed — but not initially by the writers or editors. Rather, by folks in the blogosphere across the political spectrum.

Interestlngly, when one now clicks on the link provided in the blog postings, the connection takes you to a re-written paragraph:

They were the first U.S. fatalities reported in Iraq since Tuesday, raising the number of U.S. personnel killed this month to eight. The average of one death a day is down sharply from a rate of more than two a day in recent months.

“Only’ is a word whose range of meanings was simply too broad. ‘Down sharply’ has a narrower range.

It’s hard work writing and editing in the daily — even moment-to-moment — cycle of news. Not every mistake of quality gets caught. One advantage of a blogosphere of readers and posters, however, is newspapers get the benefit of thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands of readers who — at zero direct monetary cost to those papers — help with quality control.

Once the disrespect to human life contained in the plain meaning of the word ‘only’ was pointed out to writers and editors who may have chosen the word to convey some sense of progress in the Iraq war, they changed the wording to retain the sense of progress — ‘down sharply’ — while avoiding the hurt to those whose lives are at risk or have already been lost. They narrowed the range of meaning.

There is, of course, a political aspect to using words. It is unavoidable. In newspapers, that unavoidable aspect — particularly in a culture so highly polarized — also indicates it gets more and more difficult to avoid editorialization in what are supposed to be reported articles (and not op-ed pieces).

Consider, then, this choice of words in the headline of an article about the federal deficit in today’s NY Times:

Surprising Jump in Tax Revenues Is Curbing Deficit 

The article reports an expected increase of $250 billion in tax revenues compared to 2005 that will cause 2006’s deficit to — again: here’s the word used — “shrink” to $300 billion from 2005’s deficit of $318 billion.

What range of meanings ought the writers and editors at the NY Times expect readers to impute to the words “curbing” and “shrink”?

My guess is that reasonable readers impute the following meaning: the annual deficit is significantly smaller as a consequence of the rise in tax revenues.

This, of course, takes us back to statistical meanings of words and how those affect political speech in the context of journalism. The blogosphere’s rapid feedback mechanisms helped writers and editors around the country shift from writing ‘only’ 8 Americans have died in the first 8 days of July to writing that, in the first 8 days of July, the rate of American deaths for just one day more than one week is down from an average to 2 per day over ‘recent months’. Put differently: sign of hope.

Maybe the blogosphere could also help the NY Times’ writers and editors re-think whether ‘curbing’ and ‘shrink’ are the quality choice of words for a projected deficit drop of $18 billion on a base of $318 billion — that is, a decrease of 5.67%.

“Curbing” might cover this. A smoker who curbs his or her habit of, say, two packs a day by 6% – or two fewer cigarettes per day (38 instead of 40) — might — be using words in some range of acceptable common meaning. Or, he or she might be in denial. But, once the smoker added, “My rate of smoking has shrunk”, the question of delusion is settled: the smoker is not using langauge in any remotely acceptable common sense of the words themselves. Friends and family — or co-workers — might be sympathetic and supportive. But none would actually think the smoker had established any change in the underlying addiction.

Smokers, of course, are folks struggling against an addiction. Their demons are personal. They are not making, distributing and selling a product whose very essence — whose quality — is directly a function of the common sense of words.

But, smokers — like executives and employees in any organization — are creatures of habit. In news organizations, writers and editors are creatures of habit in how they weigh and balance the use of words and for what purposes. The best journalistic values — behaviors and beliefs — have always sought to keep reported articles as fact-based and free of opinion as possible. Among the many, complex challenges facing news organizations today is the much greater difficulty of avoiding editorialization in reported articles because of the traumatized politicization of our partisan culture. Finding a range of common sense meanings in articles with political content is flat out very hard to do.

Which means that quality control is even more critical than ever before. And, that the controls are as much directed at the habits, beliefs and behaviors of the writers and editors as they are the words. If predictable habit points in the direction of loose, politicized language — e.g. using ‘shrink’ for a change of minor dimension — the article-by-article corrections are both of heightened criticality and also not enough.

Changing the beliefs and behaviors of already employed people in any organization is among the world’s toughest challenges. And while relying on the marketplace — in this case the blogosphere — to help is useful and important (think : customer feedback), it is rarely enough. Left too long — or if the customer feedback mechanism is the only one used — eventually the orgaizations in question — along with the jobs of those who work there — shrink.

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