Public Editor

Copy editing is elemental to accuracy

“Doesn’t anybody even glance at these articles before they print them?” asked a caller last Thursday. It’s a question I hear fairly often.

This reader was calling to point out a copy editing error in that day’s Business section. In an Associated Press story about expected premium increases under the Affordable Care Act, the second paragraph quoted a person identified only as “Bertolini.”

“Is Bertolini a name we’re supposed to just recognize without any first name or other identifying information?” asked my caller. “Surely something got cut out or left out in that sentence.”

I found the full version of the story on the wires, and the culprit was what I’d first suspected. The original copy was slightly longer than what ran in The Kansas City Star, and its second paragraph had been cut. That’s where Bertolini was identified as Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna Inc. A correction ran the next day.

Another caller that morning pointed out the Bertolini omission, and also drew my attention to a phrase in the front-page story about newly elected Pope Francis. It read, “his gracious manner is already sewing the seeds of concern.”

“I hope I don’t have to tell you why that’s wrong,” said the reader. “I hope (The Star’s) copy editors know the difference between ‘sow’ with an o and ‘sew’ with an e.”

Time and again, readers call my attention to turns of phrase that may seem minor on first glance but that are actually meaningfully unclear, incomplete or inaccurate. And while they’re still relatively infrequent considering the amounts of copy The Star publishes, I think it’s clear they’ve become more frequent in recent years.

It’s no secret that almost all publishers operate today with much smaller staffs than they did six or seven years ago. The Star is no different. And copy editors have been among the groups hardest hit by the industry’s contraction.

Readers also contact me when they find things that aren’t phrased clearly. Several readers noted such an example in an editorial from the March 9 Opinion section.

In discussing a lawmaker who had said human beings exhaled the pollutant carbon dioxide while bicycling, the editorial read, “but CO2 is only a pollutant when it originates from fossil fuels.”

“There is no reason to believe CO2 is any less injurious to the planet when emitted by a human than when emitted by a power plant,” wrote emailer Mark McDowell. “Where did this loopy idea come from?”

The editorial’s point is that human beings’ exhaled CO2 does not contribute significantly to pollution levels — something that is true and that the lawmaker himself conceded. Simply rephrasing the sentence would have eliminated the confusion — and that’s something careful copy editing would have accomplished.

“I wouldn’t bring these little things up if I didn’t think they mattered,” said a recent caller who pointed out a layout error that cut off parts of two puzzles in the comics pages on March 7.

“I learned to read with The Star, and I taught my daughter to read with it,” she said. “I’ve always thought it had high standards, and those shouldn’t be dropped just because everyone else in the world is texting and tweeting and everything else where the good, old-fashioned rules don’t matter.

“If you want me to come down there at night and read through everything before it goes to the presses, I’ll do it,” she said.

I think she was joking. But her underlying point was completely serious.

I don’t think the frequency of copy editing mistakes has risen to the level where it threatens The Star’s credibility. But it’s undeniable that journalists, like everyone in the media world, are first and foremost in the business of communication. Readers judge them — sometimes harshly — on the mechanics as well as the content of their words.