Testy Business Copy Editor ran for three years on the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism website, from January 2011 through December 2013. It was canceled, we were told, for budgetary reasons.
We were promised that the posts would remain archived on the Reynolds website, but they were deleted anyhow. However, the posts remain available via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. (Take a look.)
Below are the last two posts, in which we summarized the most important points from the series.
Dec. 4, 2013
Mistakes are inevitable: a wrong number here, a typing error there. The news media are full of them. There was never a realistic hope that they would disappear entirely. But when mistakes multiply, when the same ones are made over and over, the system is broken.
With the Worldwide War on Copy Editing nearing its conclusion and inevitable outcome, it will only get worse. Reports just this side of gibberish are lamented, then ignored, and then accepted.
Financial news coverage is especially susceptible to error. Put the decimal point in the wrong place, or miscalculate a simple percentage, and a news report becomes illogical and, often, indecipherable.
The big mistakes in the business press, though, are more profound than isolated errors. The problems are as acute in an analysis of the Federal Open Market Committee minutes as they are in a puff piece about a new store in town: “We’ve always done it that way.” The business pages, always a niche feature, turn readers away with their clubbishness, relentless cheerleading for capitalism, perpetual state of denial and, not least, banality.* This means that a lot of readers aren’t learning things they ought to know.
Exclusivity: As the business sections retreat into the back pages of newspapers and the bowels of general-news websites, the clubhouse metaphor becomes more apt. The stories are rarely more than businesses talking to other businesses. Policy coverage is dedicated to speculating how the government might help businesses make money, not to explaining how it might affect the rabble (By this, I mean the general population, not individuals who might reap riches or lose everything. The human side of finance is rarely portrayed as anything other than one person’s road to prosperity or ruin. Individual “business leaders” — store owners and investment bankers alike — are profiled as exemplars of American values. Broad trends are obscured by local accounts of how Main Street reacts to general economic triumph or turmoil. Apple introduces a new iPad? Talk to people lined up to buy it, all of whom know what they are expected to say and do not disappoint. Get a picture (with an iPhone, of course, not a camera handled by a professional photographer). Unemployment drops by a tenth of a percentage point? Talk to the local fast-food franchisee, who hired a new grillmeister, even though it has no relevance to the jobs report, which, in any case, is likely to be revised a few weeks later. Leave the big picture to the wires.
Reaction: The business press acts as one when a story breaks, regardless of whether it’s a real story or not. For example, this has been a record-setting year for the stock market by some measures. But the “records” don’t look so impressive when the various indexes are adjusted for inflation, which they almost never are. And, of course, the companies listed in the Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index change periodically, so they compare different companies over time. This is elementary, and I’ve mentioned this before. Nobody listened. For local media, we’ve just been subjected to the annual orgy of Christmas-shopping stories, which are pretty much the same every year. “Black Friday,” “Small Business Saturday” and “Cyber Monday” have no angles left unexplored, yet hundreds of newspapers have assigned precious resources to interview people in line to buy cheap TV sets and toys. If our eyes glaze over — and they should — imagine being a reader. Another kind of reaction pops up in nearly every story: the opinions of “analysts,” who usually are stockbrokers or investment advisers with vested interests. Their comments are almost universally useless, yet the same ones are called over and over to muse on the day’s events even when “analysis” is either obvious or irrelevant, or both.
*The same could be said for political coverage, but that’s too easy a target.
NEXT: Sensationalism, favoritism, and contradiction.
Dec. 20, 2013
Editor’s note: This will be Phillip Blanchard’s final regular post for BusinessJournalism.org. A copy editor on the Washington Post Financial desk for 6 1/2 years and founder of an online forum called Testy Copy Editors, Blanchard has written here about best practices for the business press since January 2011. An archive of his posts will always be here: Testy Business Copy Editor.
And he will continue to write regularly at Testy Copy Editors. We wish him well.
Author’s note: This is the second and last part of my valedictory. The first part appeared on Dec. 4.
Sensationalism: The business press is more restrained than general news and sports, but still has a tendency to blow things out of proportion. The stock market is not the economy but we persist in giving the impression that it is. Savvy investors — by which I mean professionals, since few individual investors are particularly savvy — know this and often bid shares up and down based not on economics, but rather on how they think other traders will buy and sell. It’s gambling, pure and simple. That’s not news, but the business press usually acts as though it’s something else. This sort of reporting is unhelpful and should be curtailed. Business reporters and editors need to stop thinking of themselves as part of the grand market, and instead embrace true outsider status. Copy editors can contribute by stopping themselves every time they are inclined to include the word “record” in a headline. Any claim of a “record” should be scrutinized and, if need be, challenged.
Favoritism: We play favorites, with business people, companies and, especially, economic systems. Steve Jobs, of course, was the favorite among favorites, and in many ways still is. But we also lionize people like Henry Blodget, despite legal problems. Blodget’s Business Insider was his way back into the limelight after he was kicked out of the securities business for fraud. Incredibly, he is taken seriously. Same with Michael Milken, who went to prison and also was barred from the securities market for fraud. He now bills himself as “philanthropist, financier, medical research innovator, public health advocate.” The press loves him, perhaps because it’s thought that he’s turned over a new leaf. It’s amusing that Blodget’s Business Insider is a leader in the we-love-Milken club.
There are local favorites, too. Developer Douglas Jemal, who was a special favorite of the Washington Post when I worked there. The Washington Business Journal liked him, too. The idolatry seemingly came to a crashing end when Jeman was indicted in 2005. But, no. He was convicted of fraud the following year, but the Post, noting that he was acquitted of other charges, cast his trial’s result as a victory:
The Post followed up with a feature about how Jamal was recovering from his ordeal. It included a picture of him and his pet parrot. The Post continues its enthusiastic coverage of Jemal projects, omitting of course that he is a convicted fraudster. Editors — even if they admire a developer convicted of fraud — have to put the brakes on when things go south. It’s easier if you spike the fawning features in the first place.
Contradiction: The business press, with its story selection and play, often seems to report one thing and also its opposite without trying to reconcile the contradiction. The best current example is the “economic recovery.” We dutifully report estimates of gross national product and its fluctuations, and declare that “the recovery” is proceeding. Yet we also report that millions of people are underemployed, many service workers need food stamps to supplement their pay, older workers are being forced out of their jobs, unemployment is distressingly high among young people and minorities, and so on. Editors have to allow for the reality that “recovery” means different things to different people. A good start is to report the GDP figures without characterizing them. Go ahead and say the government estimates that the GDP (not “the economy”) rose at a 2.8 percent annual rate in the third quarter and leave it at that (but explain in there somewhere what the GDP is). Since there are several interpretations of the figure, don’t choose one. Another idea, which would require something of a revolution to put into practice, would be to question the definition of “recovery.” The word seems to have outlived its usefulness. It conveys an optimism that may or may not be justified.
Editors who try to follow my advice, of whom there are none that I can tell, are doomed to a life of conflict and second-guessing. Editors who don’t can probably find jobs.