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
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT