Accuracy in Media

Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton took the paper to task for its repeated poor copy-editing, including mistakes in last Sunday’s paper.  Such mistakes have become all too common lately.

The article in question was about the new and expensive energy saving light bulbs and referred to the Natural Resources Defense Council as the National Defense Resources Council twice in the article in addition to the pull-out graphic.

These mistakes were a little too much for NRDC’s federal communications director Ed Chen to bear so he emailed Pexton and a few other editors at the Post to complain about the repeated errors in the article.

As Pexton pointed out, it’s not like the NRDC is some obscure organization. The NRDC has 1.3 million members, an annual budget of $95 million and some 300 lawyers, scientists and policy experts devoted to bringing pro-environmental lawsuits across the country.

Post business editor Greg Schneider blamed the error on former Wall Street Journal writer Paul Glader who wrote the story, but that doesn’t explain how they managed to get past the business desk editor and copy editor.

The copy editors said that they receive a lot of late copy on Friday for the business section and there is little they can do about it. Translation: After a certain hour we don’t bother to edit copy.

In this case that excuse compounded the mistake, as the article appeared online on Friday and then on Sunday in print with the error intact. The Post corrected it online on Monday and in print on Tuesday.

Pexton admitted that copy-editing mistakes are one of the most frequent complaints he receives but it is frustrating as evidenced by an email he received from a former Post staffer on the matter.

I have been reluctant to write this e-mail. But I can no longer hold my tongue. The quality of copy editing at the paper is abysmal. Yet again, while reading a story, I have found another error — a ‘they’ where it should have read ‘the’ — that literally made me stop reading the story and write this e-mail.

Unfortunately, it’s not a rare occurrence — countless stories and blogs with words left out or misspellings or grammatical errors. Is anybody reading what goes on up on the Web site or in the paper?

I know firsthand the troubles of the newspaper industry — particularly at The Washington Post, where buyouts have diminished a once-robust staff. I understand that there are fewer copy editors reading more copy, especially the ridiculous amount of blogs that currently consume the Web site. But the copy errors are a problem that points to an internal quality-control issue. In addition, it diminishes the overall reputation of the paper. Something has to be done internally to raise the level of copy editing at the paper.

Thanks for allowing me to vent.

The copy-editing problem isn’t unique to the Post but Pexton for one seems to be taking it more seriously than others in his position around the country. However, his interest seems to have been piqued only because he received a complaint from a prominent liberal group.

As the newspaper industry suffered from the effects of the recession one of the positions that they cut back on was copy-editors even as the flow of news increased as papers expanded their online operations.

This problem is only likely to get worse before it gets better until newspapers realize that poor copy-editing also leads to an even poorer image and damages what credibility the newspapers have left.

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