While each and every news outlet -- be it print, broadcast, hard news, soft news -- is different, the one thing they have in common is an editing process. Once a writer files a story, no matter whether it's going to appear in a newspaper or be read by a news anchor on TV or radio, it goes to a separate desk for copy editing. There is a major difference between "copy editing" and "proofreading." The latter involves checking the copy carefully for typos, spelling mistakes and other errors that are easily corrected and completely objective.
The former can (and often does) involves a rather subjective reworking of the original article. The copy editor is supposed to take a sober second look at the piece, looking for things that might not make sense to the reader and smoothing them out. This can involve anything from rearranging paragraphs to chopping or even rewriting parts of the article.
This is ideally done with input from the reporter and/or anyone who may have done research or interviews for the piece. They're the ones who gathered the information, after all, so they'd be the best people to consult about changes.
That doesn't always happen.
There are a variety of reasons for this, including the fact that copy editing is usally the last line of defense against errors and incoherency before a report airs or goes to press. Things must be done quickly so as not to delay the rest of the process. The reporter might be unavailable, even on the other side of the world. Or maybe the reporter is unavailable for some other reason. And in some cases, the copy editor is just plain lazy.
While every organization has a different process, as I've mentioned, the general procedure goes a little something like this: the writer files a story that's given a once-over by a section editor. This is done to make sure it's the story they were hoping to receive and that it didn't take any major twists along the way. The paper I worked at while in university had a process like this one:
- Writer hands in story.
- Editor reads and edits article, then proceeds to lay it out on the page (at major publications, this is done by the layout and design team).
- Various members of the masthead read over the page at their convenience, scanning for typos, factual errors and things that just don't make sense.
- The page, once it's been laid out with all its stories and photos, goes to the editor-in-chief for general approval.
- Before going to press, the page is given a few more copy edits -- usually by volunteer copy editors, the last line of defence against errors.
Now, that's clearly a student newspaper copy editing process. Major publications have full-time copy editors whose sole job it is to read and edit articles. The actual process for each of those organizations varies. Some send stories through a gauntlet of editors before they make their way to the copy desk for the final cuts. Exactly how many people see it and at what stages depends on the publication.
Copy editors are (obviously) also employed by journalistic organizations other than newspapers. Magazine copy editors sometimes double as fact checkers who sometimes have to reinterview subjects in order to verify the claims put forward in the article. Online news outlets have copy editors go through stories -- even the most urgent breaking news stories -- before they go live on the web. Broadcast news organizations employ copy editors who go through radio and television scripts before airtime. While spelling isn't really an issue for the spoken word, they want to make sure things make grammatical sense and that names will be pronounced properly.
(It also goes without saying that other organizations that deal with the written and spoken word also employ copy editors, including publishing, advertising and public relations firms.)
Most journalists have a copy editing horror story or six. When I was interning at a major Canadian newspaper for school, I twice had glaring spelling mistakes edited into my articles. Once, while editing a story I wrote about a local animal shelter, a copy editor tweaked one or two words and inadvertantly changed the entire nature of the sentence to the point that it implied that the shelter euthanized animals on a regular basis when, in fact, it only did so as a last resort when an animal was in so much pain that death was the kindest option.
The person I'd interviewed phoned the next day to express his concerns. Fortunately, he had been a newspaper reporter for years and understood that things sometimes became mangled during the editing process through no fault of the writer.
I'm not sure how often errors and misconceptions wind up going to air or to press because of the editing process, but I'd say it happens fairly often.
The other problem with the process may well be that people who should be copy editing are only proofreading; that is, they're reading for spelling and grammatical mistakes and not examining the overall context of a story. This also happened to me once: an editor thought he or she spotted a typo in an article I wrote, when the spelling mistake was intentional and an integral part of a play on words in the story. Despite the note I'd included explaining the point of the "mistake," it was changed back to the "correct" word and the sentence didn't make sense.
Another time, I interviewed the president of a small business about the federal government's budget and what it meant for the economy. The company name was "Edson," and just to be sure I obtained the spelling from him, spelled it back to him and was told it was correct. I then Googled it for good measure. It was spelled "Edison" in the newspaper the next day.
Now, to be fair, a good number of reporters and writers make lots of mistakes of their own. It certainly isn't the case that all copy is flawless until it makes its way to the copy editors who then proceed to screw with it. The news organization for which I work now seems to employ writers who have forgotten how to use spell check (bewilderbeast has noted that certain people's knowledge of grammar is subpar; she is correct). The point is that not all errors that make it to the reader were necessarily the fault of the writer, though that may well be the case.