Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Errors to bring you down to earth

Flying back from Spain on Sunday I worked my way through a patchwork Mail on Sunday and thought “there for the grace of God” as a pagination slip-up had rendered parts of the airport bulk edition unreadable with pages either out of kilter or repeated.

Then again, when the alternative is the High Life you read on the way out, it’s excusable.

I can’t say the same for the latest series of unforgivable cock-ups that have made their way into the Telegraph of late, as highlighted by Simon Heffer’s latest missive to staff.

His 1021-word round-robin email begins by pointing out the usual (but massively important to their readers) errors in addressing military ranks, went on to point out that someone had confused endocrinology (the study of the body’s endocrine system. I knew that) with dendrochronology, (the study of dating trees. OK, I lied) before exposing the classic howler of calling Sir David Attenborough a naturist instead of a naturalist.

“We are quality media,” he wrote. “And quality media do not make mistakes such as these: ‘the luck of the drawer’, ‘through the kitchen sink’, ‘through up’, ‘dragging their heals’ and ‘slammed on the breaks’, all of which are clichés that might not be worthy of a piece of elegant writing even if spelt correctly.”

He put most of them down to “carelessness and not properly reading back what one has written”, before adding the classic: “We managed to perpetrate one of the worst literals of all recently – pubic for public - which may seem a laughing matter, but is not.”

He’s right. It’s not. But I’m not sure I’d put it totally down to carelessness. Ask any sub and they’ll tell you: most writers are careless, which is why many of the old middle benches used to have a file into which they would cut and paste the worst offenders (an thereby spare their collective sanity).

Combine that with the dodgy way copy is input – directly into the escenic web-facing system and not via the print-facing DTI database, by-passing the subs at an early stage – and it’s a recipe for disaster.

More worryingly, silly word cock-ups aside, readers are beginning to notice errors of sense that would be spotted by anyone giving a second read, be it a sub, prodnose, news editor or a passing intern looking for something to do.

Thus: “We wrote about someone’s youngest child being her first, which was obviously not the case. And readers also asked us how there could, as we reported, be an 18-month long investigation into a crime that was committed only 14 months ago. We need to ensure that our facts, like our arithmetic, add up.”

They do. They really do.

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