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Rants & Reason

Des Moines Register and others could use some truth in packaging

9/6/2017

The nonsense about Fake News is, well, nonsense, hyped by a person characterized by Garrison Keillor as “a vulgar, unstable yo-yo with a toxic ego and an attention-deficit problem…” So that is one thing we can all agree on in these divisive times.

Here is another: Despite the dedication of the editor and several hard-working reporters and columnists, The Des Moines Register is plagued by poor grammar, garbled writing, errors and odd news judgment. In the old days, copy editors used to protect us from such stuff, getting a news item fit for publication and not irritation. (That may be a minor concern in the wake of cutbacks on the Register opinion pages noted by Michael Gartner in the August issue of CITYVIEW. But still…)

With the economies of electronic production and budget cuts, the wordsmiths who used to protect us and reporters have gone the way of blacksmiths. Readers are on their own to make sense of garbled information and numbers that do not add up.

In the newsroom, today’s reporters liken themselves to tightrope walkers operating without a net — the net once provided by copy editors and adequate staff. It’s a problem for broadcast and print operations in and well beyond Des Moines.

For its part, the Register assures readers with this daily page 2 item:

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“CORRECTIONS

“The…Register strives for accuracy and fairness. Errors in our news columns will be corrected in the section where the articles appeared. Readers who believe the paper has erred may request a correction by calling (515) 284-8065.”

But what’s the definition of “Errors in our news columns”? Faithful readers know many items that bug them are not corrected — perhaps because, as I am reminded at our kitchen table, “Well, readers know what they mean.”

So when the paper runs a mug shot of a white person, maybe a man, in an obit of Betty Dukes, a black woman who gained deserved fame with her discrimination suit against Wal-Mart, perhaps there is no need for a correction because “readers know” it’s wrong.

Yes, if you go to a newspaper or broadcast news web page and search for “Corrections,” you may get dozens to a hundred or more responses — but each item typically deals with the Department of Corrections, or crime and the courts. None deal with the “crimes” that ignore the niceties of grammar, spelling and other ingredients that make a news account informative rather than irritating. Further, errors are not always corrected online, even after weeks have passed.

Two thoughts on that:

1. So-called “minor errors” can damage a news operation’s credibility as much as so-called “major errors.” The abundance of “minor errors” in a paper likely cause readers to think, “If they can’t get something this simple straight, how can I trust them on coverage of more important stuff?”

2. At one time, the Register’s standard measuring stick was the New York Times — a house ad for the Register congratulated the Times for being the only newspaper to have won more Pulitzer prizes for national news coverage than the Register. The bar’s been lowered. Now it’s, “If you think the Register is bad, you should see the paper in…”

For stress relief, here’s a revised correction box tailored to the Register but also relevant to many other papers and broadcast news operations:

“Treat with care the contents of today’s Register — collected and presented under error-prone conditions. The newsroom budget and funds to help assure accuracy are constrained by the Gannett priority of fiduciary responsibility to stockholders. Consequently, the reader is advised to seek multiple sources of information and to be sure to read the paper tomorrow for corrections, clarifications and updates needed to put today’s news into perspective. While we cannot guarantee that all information in today’s paper is accurate, our editors and staff practice no intentional deception, and we abide by an affirmative duty to publish corrections promptly and fully.”

The Register staff and people interested in the news deserve more than Gannett’s loyalty to stockholders and neglect of readers. ♦

strentz21Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes the monthly Rants and Reason column for CITYVIEW.

 

 

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