Why copy editing matters: Comparing a Globe online story with the printed version

Copy editing seems to be on the way out in newspapers across the country. The number of simple errors that make it into print is increasing in most papers, and some even offer  the option to “report a typo” in their online stories.

Here’s the thing: Copy editing matters, and it’s about much more than typos. I normally find myself rolling my eyes at a few silly mistakes in the big papers (don’t get me started on the online only content posted by radio and TV stations), but today I actually had to give up reading a story in the Globe and Mail because the number of errors was so distracting that the content just wasn’t sinking in.

The worst part is that at least two errors were straight typos that even a spell check program would have caught. Surely the Globe can afford to run spell check, even if they can’t afford to keep copy editors on staff?

I thought it would be interesting to compare some of the mistakes in the printed paper with the story online to see how it’s evolved. Many (not all) of the errors have been fixed, and I have to wonder if they were changed because staff spotted them or because readers did. If it was staff who spotted the mistakes, why were they not given the chance to do so before the paper went to press?

Here are just four errors from the print story, and what had happened to them online as of 2:45 Pacific time on Sunday.

Error Type Fixed online?
“hopsital” Spelling error Yes: Changed to “hospital”
“65% of Canadians die in hospital every year” Factual error: If 65% of Canadians died in hospital every year, we’d be in big trouble. The sentence as worded means that 65% of all the people in Canada die in hospital every year. Yes: Changed to “65 per cent of Canadian deaths every year occur in hospitals.” Ah, that’s much better. Much less likely to lead to catastrophic depopulation.
“SAYS Ru Taggar Sunnybrook’s chief nursing executive” Miscapitalization; missing comma Yes: Changed to “says Ru Taggar, Sunnybrook’s chief nursing executive
“when he signs Danny Boy Typo (wrong word) No: “Signs” has not yet been corrected to “sings”

I may be pickier than most, but the Globe actually lost me as a reader on this story because I was so distracted by the number of simple errors. Some of these would have been caught by a simple spell check (“hopsital,” “SAYS”). But only a real, live person can catch an error like the incorrect use of a statistic.

Copy editing is much more than catching typos: It’s an important part of presenting a credible story.