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Copy editing during wartime

I
n the spectacular coverage of the horrible events of Sept. 11, you've probably seen more than a few editing errors. The TV networks have never bothered to spell marshal or canceled with the preferred number of l's, but we expect more from the great American newspapers.

In otherwise excellent articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, you might have found references to not being able to "breath," to the "Afghani" people, to "ice coffee," to clergymen who administered "last rights." Planes were "enroute" to their destinations, and we watched the horrors on "tv."

One of the great papers' Web sites trumpeted in a headline that Bush "Vows to Avenge Attackers" (whose side is he on?). A tabloid saw fit to clarify a reference to McDonald's with the bracketed "[hamburger restaurant]" (how dumb are its readers?).

Did copy editors fail to hold up their end of the deal? Maybe, in some cases; we'll never be perfect. But I think all of the above illustrates the opposite point: Copy editors are vital to the production of literate prose.

People outside copy editing might not realize that the bigger a story, the less time copy editors are given to do their jobs. Reporters and higher-ups fiddle, fiddle, fiddle till past deadline, and the senior editors might fiddle some more (especially with headlines) after the copy editors and copy chiefs have raced through the copy. I don't mean this as a criticism or an excuse; it's just a statement of reality. With an important story, additional details are more important than the difference between damage and damages. Add that to the list of things this crisis has put into perspective.


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