Mon 17 Sep 2012
In the old days, typographical errors usually occurred when a Linotype operator retyped (in lead) a reporter’s typewriter copy. Even today when Linotypes have all but disappeared, most newspapers and magazines contain typos every time they’re published.
Omissions have always been the bugaboo of editors. Although lawyers chafe when reporters write that a defendant pleaded “innocent,” the usage is long-standing. The chance for a writer to accidentally libel someone by dropping the “not” in “not guilty” is too great a risk to take.
The first newspaper I worked for was a daily in Iowa about the size of The Independent Journal. It was called The Council Bluffs Nonpareil, and the name was a bit of an insiders’ pun. Although in French “nonpareil” means unequaled, it is also the name for a small (8-point) font of type. In any case, we reporters were under strict orders from Nonpareil management to never use the word “shift” in a story. Editors were genuinely afraid of how readers would react if a typographical error led to the “f” being dropped.
Be Prepared. That’s the motto of the Boy Scouts. “Be prepared for what?” someone once asked Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting. “Why, for any old thing,” answered Baden-Powell. Of course, there is a difference between the Boy Scout organization and the scouts themselves.
In the days before Marin County sheriff’s dispatchers got spell-checking programs on their computers, it was common for dispatchers to inadvertently split words oddly while typing at the incredible speeds necessary when taking down a concerned citizen’s call. Most of the time, the splits were easily recognizable, but occasionally they could be startling. One surprise that occurred occasionally would involve a dispatcher’s garbling the everyday words “does not.” Imagine a deputy’s wonderment upon reading in the dispatcher’s log that “the RP [reporting party] says the subject uses cocaine at her boyfriend’s house but does snot at home.”
Almost all US reporters these days write on a computer, in effect typesetting their own stories. They write looking at a computer screen, not a piece of paper in the typewriter. The editors make changes on their computer screens, punch a couple of buttons, and the story is automatically typeset in its final form.
It took at least three times as long to typewrite stories, edit them on paper, and then have a Linotype operator type the stories in lines of lead (hence the name Linotype). But while “word processing” on a computer is at least three times as fast, mistakes can be at least three times as big. A headline in The Providence (Rhode Island) Journal a decade ago announced Secretary of Defense Donald “Rumsfeld’s Pubic Role is Shrinking.”
Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge are outraged that a paparazzo with a telephoto lens photographed her sunbathing topless on the balcony of a private estate in France, so it’s a bit surprising she’d go rowing topless for photos in the Solomon Islands.
Each issue of The Columbia Journalism Review carries a section called The Lower Case, which is where I read the Rumsfeld screwup, as well as many other flubs by headline writers. These have included: “DPW Workers Ordered to Anger Management” – The Providence Journal again. Or: “Teen Sex Not as Bad as It Might Seem” – Orange County’s Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Or: “Cellphone Message Leads Belgian Police to Murder Suspects” – The Vancouver Sun.
Sometimes the flubs aren’t a matter of what was omitted but rather what wasn’t. Take this paragraph from The Sacramento Bee: “The victim, 27-year-old Byron T. Wall of Sacramento, was unconscious when firefighters discovered him. He was transported to Mercy San Juan Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His name is being withheld pending notification of his family.”
Some flubs seem almost Freudian slips: “Material in Diapers Could Help Make the Deserts Bloom” –The San Diego Union Tribune. Or: “Democrat Promises All Americans Access to Health Care while in State” – Morgantown, West Virginia’s Daily Athenaeum.
The July-August issue of CJR includes this April 13 headline from BBCNews.com, “Escaped wallaby caught using huge fishing net,” as well as this from The (Athens, Ohio) Messenger of April 3, “Police: Dismembered woman lived with killer.”
On May 19, a headline in The (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Gazette seemed to belabor the obvious: “Man who stopped breathing in police car dies.”
But it would be hard to beat this headline from the May 9 Seattle Times: “With Dicks in, all 6 WA congressional Democrats favor repeal of gay-marriage ban.” That would be Washington Congressman Norm Dicks. As they say, “It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.”