Skip to main content

Why 'Amercia' needs copy editors

By Merrill Perlman, Special to CNN
June 2, 2012 -- Updated 0215 GMT (1015 HKT)
Mitt Romney should have had a good copy editor take a look at that new mobile app first. Mitt Romney should have had a good copy editor take a look at that new mobile app first.
HIDE CAPTION
Why didn't anybody catch that?
Why didn't anybody catch that?
Why didn't anybody catch that?
Why didn't anybody catch that?
Why didn't anybody catch that?
Why didn't anybody catch that?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Merrill Perlman: A copy editor would have fixed the "Amercia" typo in Romney's app
  • Perlman: Newsrooms mistakenly fire copy editors to save money, and quality sinks
  • She says readers complain of typos, grammatical errors and ridicule the media
  • Perlman says news is taken more seriously when it's polished by copy editors

Editor's note: Merrill Perlman is president of Merrill Perlman Consulting and writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. She is an adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was an editor at The New York Times for 25 years.

(CNN) -- A Mitt Romney campaign app went viral because it urged people to stand "with Mitt" for "A Better Amercia." An easy typo to make, but, you know, almost all typos are easy to make.

There might be some irony here, given the comment Romney made to the American Society of News Editors in April: "Frankly, in some of the new media, I find myself missing the presence of editors to exercise quality control."

Romney, like so many others, needs a copy editor. And Romney, like so many others, is apparently working without one.

People reading newspapers and news sites can empathize. They're seeing lots of typos, as well as errors of grammar, fact and logic — many more than they would have seen before news organizations decided that they did not need so many copy editors. No other job classification has suffered so many losses as the news business downsizes (except, perhaps, for classified ad takers, who have been craigsdelisted).

Misspelled Romney ad spawns spoofs
Merrill Perlman
Merrill Perlman

Although it is anecdotal that there are more errors, the evidence is certainly there: At the American Copy Editors Society, Charles Apple blogs regularly about all those who need a copy editor. Sadly, there's no shortage of material, in news reports and beyond.

Typos can be funny: Who wouldn't want to graduate from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Pubic Affairs? Though, if the stories are true, his predecessor had a lot more pubic affairs than LBJ did.

While we're in the nether regions, look at the second photograph in the gallery above. How about a martini from this Phoenix restaurant? Don't see it? Look closely at the ingredient after "Apple Pucker." (All together now: "Ewwwww!")

Other photos in the gallery show that everyone needs an editor. NBC's Lester Holt needed one when a story about a viral video marriage proposal was identified as "The Propsal." Wal-Mart needed one when the information on a box that was supposed to be in Spanish read "Spanish here" instead.

And, yes, CNN sometimes needs editors, as you can see in a news ticker on a breaking news story that said "yujyujyujyujyuj..."

And The New York Times, where I worked for 25 years, has copy editors but seems to need them online. "Mormon" as "moron" in a headline? It happened.

Copy editors provide a safety net for a publication, catching most of the problematic stuff dropped from above. They are a curious breed: trivia experts, steeped in popular culture (helpful for pun headlines, none of which Google gets), usually voracious readers, often unappreciated.

A copy editor's work is largely invisible, until she misses something, in which case she takes the blame. But most important is that a copy editor stands in for the reader, gingerly reshaping, clarifying and correcting things before the reader can see them and post an excoriating comment.

But more and more publications are laying off their copy editors, replacing them with Web designers or more reporters, or with nothing. Or they're consolidating copy editors (and designers) in "hubs" far away from their audiences, where they can't catch a reporter who misspells Dan Smyth's name as Smith.

Websites, even those of print or broadcast properties, often have no one. One site that specializes in gossip originally had a copy editor but laid her off, one of its editors told me, "because she just slowed things down." Sorry, but would the world even know if that story on the pregnancy of (celebrity name here) was posted a minute later because someone had to correct the number of kids already borne by (celebrity name here)?

"Digital first" often translates as "show the reader the finger."

So why are so many news organizations giving up on copy editors? Money, of course. Given the choice between having to give up reporters or give up copy editors, reporters will win nearly every time because they provide "content." By the way, didn't we once call it "information"? "Content" sounds so ... commercial.

Copy editors "merely" prepare content, some publishers say, and don't we have Web editors to do that? Yes, but many don't have the training or inclination -- or time -- to pay attention to the content. Their main role is to drive traffic to the site, even if the content is bad.

One reason given for eliminating copy editors is that reporters can simply "proofread" themselves better. But no one can read something he wrote as well as someone else can. Anyone who's sent off an email beginning "Dead Bob ..." knows that. And many reporters simply rely on spell check, witch wont ketch wards spilled rite, butt knot yews wright.

Few publications that are laying off editors are training their remaining staffers to edit themselves better. And proofreading is perhaps the least important purpose of copy editing.

Another stated reason for not having copy editors is that readers don't care about typos. If that's true, why is there so much ridicule about them? How many comments say things like "where were the editors?" Besides, emerging research shows that readers view edited news more positively than they view unedited news.

Perhaps the most misguided reason for not having copy editors is "reader engagement." After all, readers will spot mistakes, which then can be corrected quickly. Yes, it is a great advantage to be able to correct things quickly, but isn't it a greater advantage to not make the mistake in the first place, rather than have it ricochet around the Internet, and have readers think less of your publication?

Can you name one other business whose quality control consists of "Well, we'll just send it into the market and see who complains"? If another consumer brand did that, there would be lawsuits.

Copy editors are the quality control experts. Let them inspect.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Merrill Perlman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT