May 2, 2010

Emphasizing Editing

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This is The Sun’s last week of publication of this school year. Campus events are wrapping up and columnists are writing farewells to readers. The cycle continues, but it was a newsy year for the paper — especially the spring semester.

The Sun had to cover several student deaths, plus accompanying student and university reactions. Sun staffers had to temper their journalistic obligations with sensitivity while still reporting details that the University community needed to know.

Reported cases of H1N1 dominated coverage in the fall, raising attendant concerns about proper information digestion. The Sun received statistics for “probable” H1N1 cases on campus and had to explain the impact of those numbers to readers.

The notable playoff run by the men’s basketball team was another highlight of the spring, as the Big Red marched into the Sweet 16 before being dispatched in front of a red-clad crowd in Syracuse by an NBA-talent-laden Kentucky team.

The paper’s coverage of major events is generally better than its day-to-day coverage, which has both good and bad implications. It shows that when important news breaks, The Sun is capable of devoting the appropriate resources — time, reporters — to put out a good product. It also indicates that Sun staffers have the ability to break significant news.

This prompts the flip-side question: Why is the coverage worse on ordinary matters? Some of this is indicative of a disparity in reporting talent; namely, that more experienced reporters write more important stories. There is, however, a (natural) tendency to put in less effort on more mundane or common stories. Reporting effort should be consistent throughout stories of varying impact.

I believe The Sun’s editing needs to be better, too. This is an unfortunately common refrain of mine, but it reflects reality. While the overall journalistic quality of The Sun is on par with any good college newspaper, editing is a major weakness. This applies to both factual matters — that is, mistakes that deserve corrections — and technical ones — conventions of written English and consistency in style.

For me, the former concern simmered up again when Darrick Evensen grad was elected student trustee last week. The web site and the print story, which was above the fold on the front page, both called him “Darrik.” (And inexplicably, the lead sentence of the election story on the web site as of yesterday was repeated twice in the same paragraph.) Getting the name of the primary player wrong in a front-page story is an embarrassing and inexcusable factual error. The blame does not lie with the reporter or with any individual editor; it lies with The Sun as a whole.

There are internal style conventions, and there are ongoing efforts among editors to standardize and transmit consistent journalistic practices to all staffers. This is an important step in giving direction to an area that had been somewhat adrift before this year. I hope the editorial board follows through fully on this, because although it might take time, it will improve the consistency of The Sun’s coverage.

If reporters are more aware of conventions, they can turn in better pieces. And if editors are more aware of them, they can more effectively smooth out wrinkles and fill in holes that they see in stories. I think the real shortfall on the editing side is manpower; section editors have many responsibilities and copy editing tends to be the first thing to fall by the wayside when time runs short. (This mirrors a disturbing trend in professional newspapers, in which the non-journalist businessmen who run them think that laying off copy editors to cut costs is a good thing. It’s not.)

The Sun should be recruiting more students to copy edit. Although new copy editors would walk in the door not knowing a thing about Sun conventions, it would be relatively easy to parcel out simpler duties to new editors; namely, to have them look for a specific, limited set of conventions in particular stories. There has already been some talk among The Sun’s top editors about doing this, and I hope the talk becomes action soon next school year.

My column will also be back next year, as The Sun tries to forge ahead with a more multi-platform outlook. The new web site will create new opportunities for The Sun, and I will try to provide insight into how the site affects the everyday coverage. I also appreciate continued reader feedback to inform my column.

Until the fall . . .

Rob Tricchinelli is a second-year student in the Law School and also holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He can be reached at public-editor@cornellsun.com. The public editor column typically appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Rob Tricchinelli