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A Word, Please: These are a few of my least favorite things

April 05, 2013|By June Casagrande

These days, everyone's a writer. And a reporter. And an editor. Thanks to the Internet, you can report any "fact" you want, be it a UFO sighting in your rumpus room or incontrovertible evidence that Donald Trump has a full head of hair.

There are benefits to this democratization of reporting. We get more information from a greater diversity of perspectives. But this comes with a downside: There's a lot of bad information out there, and it's on us to sniff it out.

Say what you will about the bad old days of near media monopolies. At least back then you knew news gatherers were following the same playbook — confirming facts with multiple sources, observing rules about what types of information must be attributed versus what can be stated as fact by the writer, seeking comment from multiple sides of an issue and following countless other rules from Journalism 101 that were once standard practice.

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Today, we're often left guessing how reliable a news source is. But if you know what to look for, there are clues in the copy editing. A publication that follows the rules of professional editing is more likely to observe the rules of professional reporting. That's why, when I see the following errors, I lose confidence in the news source.

1. Poor headline capitalization. Professional editing guidelines say to capitalize the first letter of most words in headlines and titles. But prepositions of three or fewer letters, as well as conjunctions and articles, are usually not capitalized. So a red flag goes up when I see things like this recent Yahoo Finance headline: "Stocks Pull Back: Why it Might Not Last." Chances are, the editor was used to seeing correctly capitalized headlines like "Senator in Hot Water" and "Talks on Trade Stall" and figured that, like "in" and "on," the word "it" should be lowercase. But "it" isn't a preposition. It's a pronoun.

2. A comma or period after a quotation mark. People who don't know much about editing assume that punctuation is logical. Bad assumption. Look at the following two sentences. Does Alfred E. Neuman's catch phrase contain the word "worry"? Yes, his catch phrase is "What, me worry?" Both of these are correct. A question mark's placement relative to a quotation mark depends on whether just the quotation or the whole sentence is a question. But that commas and periods have a different rule. In American English, a comma or period always comes before a closing quotation mark: Yes, his catch phrase contains the word "worry."

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