We could be heroes

This front-page promo groups the obituaries of three notable people. It’s a reasonable attempt to give some 1A presence to these people, whose only real connection beyond time of death was excellence in their respective fields.

But are they heroes, as indicated in the headline? Whenever I see that word applied to people in the news, I always think of this exchange from an old “Simpsons” episode:

Homer: That little Timmy is a real hero.
Lisa: What makes him a hero, dad?
Homer: Well, he fell down the well and … can’t get out.
Lisa: How does that make him a hero?
Homer: Well, it’s more than you did!

Tom Snyder, Ingmar Bergman and Bill Walsh did more than fall down a well, and they did more than I’ll probably ever do. Their work is significant, their lives newsworthy. But I am not sure they match these definitions of hero:

  • a person distinguished by exceptional courage and nobility and strength;
  • a being of great strength and courage celebrated for bold exploits; often the offspring of a mortal and a god (classical mythology)

Some heroes are tragic, others epic. And some are folksy. Whatever type, let’s be careful not to confuse achievement with heroism. Luke Skywalker, Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi were heroes. (So was Hero, if only in name.) Snyder, Bergman and Walsh? Probably not.


Interesting reads

  • The reader representative at the Hartford Courant says copy editors are just as important as reporters.
  • The Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri promises to use more alternative story forms in its revamped Sunday features section.
  • The New York Times looks back at Ed Anger, the Colbert-like columnist for the fading Weekly World News.
  • The News & Observer tells us how developers pick names for condominiums — should it be the West on North or the West at North?

Let Junie be Junie

The Junie B. Jones children’s books are irritating to some parents, as The New York Times reports in this story. The books’ titular narrator, a child who goes from kindergarten to first grade in the series, uses unconventional grammar and spellings. Will this lead young readers to make the same mistakes in their own writing? Is Junie B. a good role model?

All I can do is offer anecdotal evidence. My 7-year-old son has read several of the Junie B. books, and he seems to be unharmed. He’s also apparently unscathed by the scatological tales of Captain Underpants. Despite the “anything goes” grammar of both of those book series, my son is still finding typos in the sports section of our local paper, and he points out errors that he sees in road signs. And he corrects me when I refer to the series as “Janie Jones” (the title of an old Clash song).

As a parent and copy editor, I am not worried about the influence of these books. Let Junie be Junie.

Massachusetts gets another Kennedy

Ann Kennedy, the Nation & World editor at The News & Observer, is leaving North Carolina for Massachusetts. She’ll be managing editor at Boston Now, a free daily newspaper and Web site that incorporates both traditional and citizen journalism.

Kennedy’s nearly eight years at the N&O, she was a copy editor, sports copy editor and assistant wire editor. She was my successor as Nation & World editor, starting in July 2005.

Best of luck to Ann in Boston.

Party all the time

The latest blunder from Fox News regarding a politician’s party affiliation is being noted on liberal blogs. The cable network identified Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania as a Democrat. He’s a Republican. [UPDATE: In spring 2009, he switched parties.]

Daily Kos doubts whether this string of errors by the “nutwork” is just a coincidence. Talking Points Memo is a bit more forgiving, with Josh Marshall admitting he’s made that sort of mistake from time to time. Yet he still wonders how Fox manages to mangle it in one ideological direction.

Similar objections come when a story omits party affiliation — especially when the news is unflattering to the person and, therefore, to the person’s political party. The suspicious reader sees that omission as evidence of a coverup. (Here’s an example.) This problem is bipartisan, as seen here in the brief about Coy Privette, a former lawmaker in North Carolina. Editors have tried to make that point, but readers remain skeptical.

As Marshall mentioned at TPM, everyone makes mistakes or fails to include a detail that we take for granted. Here’s what copy editors can do:

  • Doublecheck party affiliations in every story they edit.
  • Ensure that party affiliations are included in stories about politicians accused of some sort of malfeasance.
  • If one politician in a story is identified by party, make sure they all are. Be evenhanded.

It’s quick and easy to add “Democrat” or “Republican” to most stories. Those words don’t take up much space and rarely interrupt the flow of a sentence — except perhaps in the case of Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Interesting reads

  • Ted Vaden, public editor at The News & Observer, says enough already about John Edwards’ haircut. That seems like a reasonable conclusion, given that this story ran on the N&O Sunday front page nearly three months after the “story” broke. That news peg was getting wobbly.
  • A college newspaper adviser gets her job back in a legal battle. Bad editing was among the reasons listed for her dismissal; she alleged retaliation for the paper’s news stories and editorials critical of the administration.
  • A writer at Salon rises in defense of editors — now more than ever. (Registration may be required, but this one is worth the hassle.)
  • The managing editor of the paper in Lafayette, Ind., discusses the expanding duties of the copy desk. “Today’s copy editors are not only responsible for the editing and headline writing but are also charged with production duties,” she says. “They create and design the pages; import the stories, photos and graphics onto their computer page; and often have to troubleshoot computer problems on deadline.”