Sunday, September 21, 2008

If I Could Edit All the World … (Wherein I react to the financial crisis with a stunning display of powerlessness in the form of unsolicited editing)

Copy editors don’t just catch missing hyphens. We’re also responsible for assuring clarity, asking questions like: Does this make sense? Did the writer connect the dots? Are we speaking to the reader at his own level, or are we talking down to him or talking over his head? Is there missing information? Is this piece clear, logical, and flowing?

When we see overarching problems, we type notes right in the story document (OFTEN IN OBNOXIOUS ALL CAPS that I’ll replace here in red) then send it right back to the reporter to fix.

Normally, I get paid for this. (Up until my 2 p.m. sugar crash, I’m pretty good at it). But today I’m working pro bono.

Here’s the full text of a segment from Friday’s NBC Nightly News broadcast. The purpose of the piece is to explain how the current financial crisis came about.
(If you want to see it live or check my typing, it’s here.) After this comes the same story, but this time with the notes I would have included had this come across my desk for editing.

* * *

This segment, after the introduction by Brian Williams, is pre-recorded and relies primarily on B-roll and graphics for its visuals, with those visuals narrated by reporter Dylan Ratigan. A few sentences before the end, we cut to visual of Ratigan in the studio.

(Open on Brian Williams)


Williams (on camera): The swiftness and the intensity of this week’s events have caught even many financial experts by surprise, so we asked CNBC’s Dylan Ratigan to step back, take a look at how we got here in the first place.

Ratigan (narrating over graphics and B-roll): This financial crisis started with the availability of cheap credit. In the old days, to get a mortgage, a buyer would go to the bank, show proof of an income, provide a substantial down payment and become a homeowner. In the new model, banks were encouraged and even got fees to loan money to homebuyers with poor credit and no money down. Making things worse, Wall Street got into the game …

(Graphic shows a street sign of “Wall Street” Under it are graphics of street signs with the names “Lehman Brothers,” “Bear Stearns” and “AIG” written on them)

… agreeing to insure the banks in case homeowners didn’t pay their home loans. But the trouble is Wall Street didn’t keep enough money in reserves—one dollar for every 30 lent out. And when homeowners began defaulting, Wall Street couldn’t keep up, bringing the American Financial system to the brink. So who’s to blame? In a sense, we all are. From the small mom and pop that took advantage of the low minimum payment on their credit cards to grow their business to trillion-dollar institutions. If you thought you could reap the rewards of easy credit without the consequences, this is the proof that you can’t.


Leaving the U.S. government to decide that it had to step in and assume the mortgages. Why? So American banks could function again and continue lending you money. Dylan Ratigan. CNBC.

* * *
(Same story with my “edits” for the reporter …)

Ratigan: This financial crisis started with the availability of cheap credit. In the old days, to get a mortgage, a buyer would go to the bank, show proof of an income, provide a substantial down payment and become a homeowner. In the new model(You reference the “new model” as if viewers are already fully familiar with it. They aren’t. Mention when and how this “new model” came into existence.), banks were encouraged and even got fees to loan money to homebuyers with poor credit and no money down (Classic example of a bad passive. “Encouraged” by whom?). Making things worse, Wall Street (Be more specific. What types of players on Wall Street? Everyone knows AIG is an insurer, but our graphic suggests you’re saying that brokerage houses also suddenly began insuring the banks. Is that true?) got into the game …

(Graphic shows “Wall St.” street sign with “Lehman Brothers,” “Bear Stearns” and “AIG” under it)

… agreeing to insure the banks in case homeowners didn’t pay their home loans (When did they “get into the game”? Wasn’t AIG always in that game? What, exactly, had changed?) But the trouble is Wall Street didn’t keep enough money in reserves: One dollar for every 30 lent out (Is that legal? Aren’t insurers subject to regulation designed specifically to ensure they can cover losses?). And when homeowners began defaulting (Quantify. Like, “Homeowners began defaulting to the tune of $200 billion in two years.”) Wall Street couldn’t keep up, bringing the American financial system to the brink (“Bringing to the brink” is a very vague verb phrase. Are any more specific ones available?).

(Cut to: Ratigan in studio)

So who’s to blame? In a sense, we all are. From the small mom and pop that took advantage of the low minimum payment on their credit cards (You have utterly failed to demonstrate how taking advantage of a low minimum payment on a credit card factored into a process set in motion by mortgage defaults) to grow their business, to trillion-dollar institutions (You say, “We all are,” but your “from … to” spectrum includes only businesses. Are non-business-owning individuals also to blame?). If you thought you could reap the rewards of easy credit without the consequences, this is the proof that you can’t. (Why are you editorializing instead of explaining? It’s all the more troubling because you’ve failed to explain the stuff on which you’re basing your editorial conclusion.)

Leaving (Classic example of a bad dangler. What, exactly, is “leaving” the U.S. government to decide this? The proof that the viewer can’t reap the rewards of easy credit? Or just his fondness of easy credit? You’re implying a causality but you're stopping short of actually saying or showing it. Make clear or delete.) the U.S. government to decide that it had to step in and assume the mortgages. Why? So American banks could function again and continue lending you money (Viewers aren’t going to buy that. To them, this isn’t just about whether someone will loan them money. It’s about their holdings, the value of their securities, and the very real question of whether there’s going to be a run on the bank that’s holding their savings. Relate this to all viewers -- not just the guy whose only concern is whether he can finance a new Xterra.) Dylan Ratigan. CNBC.

(Dylan: Did we bite off more than we could chew by asking you to explain a highly complex chain of events in just over 200 words? How can we make this whole piece manageable and actually helpful? We can’t run it as-is.)
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7 comments:

Joel said...

Yet another compelling argument for public radio, which, at least in North Texas (KERA), is in the middle of pledge week.

Really. Generally speaking, TV news sucks: an infotainment abomination, long on sound bites and short on substance. Print is dying. And the internet is a hodgepodge of crackpots who make FOX "News" look almost credible. Almost. Okay, even almost is a stretch.

Alright, well, that was a little polemical (except for the Fox bit; if anything, that was too kind), in the spirit of the current season of demagoguery. It's not all that bad out there. But it is pretty bad. Well, it's mostly bad with momentary rays of light.

In any case, public radio (PRI, NPR, BBC) rocks. Yep, I'm drinking the kool-aid--um, in this case, the highly nutritious vitamin water, in comparison to that all of that sugary sody pop out there.

That was a truly shameless plug. I mean, I don't think I should feel any shame. Like pitching for Bill Shakespeare and Bill Blake and Bill Yeats. And, no, I didn't set out to reference three Bills; it just turned out that way, 'cause those are three guys I think folks should read more of, yaknow, when they're not listening to public radio or, uh, reading grammar blogs.

Okay, back to work. There are bills to be paid.

Joel said...

Oh, and as for what Americans will or won't buy: the sad truth is that too many of us will buy it. Too many of us are more than willing to accept that it's our fault or our neighbor's fault.

Yep, it's our fault that a bunch of predatory paper lions leveraged themselves 30 to 1, in the meantime manipulating and burdening the poorest Americans with obscenely high interest rates, yeah, because we're the irresponsible ones, the bad credit risks. We with our homes worth tens, maybe a few hundreds of thousands dollars. We with our mortgages not paying the bankers enough for the privilege of using their money.

June Casagrande said...

Agreed. But I don't understand why an NBC reporter would focus so much of the blame on you and me. It's so surreal I have no choice but to stop and wonder if maybe it's true. Of course, then I consider it in the context of the whole story and it's clear that the reporting was first and foremost the product of incompetence.

What irks me -- and it ties into the grammar stuff, too -- is we're supposed to buy the assumption that it's all over our heads, "too complex" for us to understand.

So we hardly make an effort. Then, when we do put in the effort, our information gathering yields pure nonsense like the NBC piece.

When I first saw that piece, I did that, "Huh? I don't get it" thing and chalked it up to my own poor attention span/ignorance. It was only when I went online to rewatch it that I realized the failling here was not my own.

No worries about the plugs for NPR stations. That's where I get much of my news, too. (I only started watching network news after the Dan Rather debacle. I felt he was unfairly seen has having deliberately manipulated the news when his real crime was just bad reporting committed in his blind zeal to score a big story.)

Jane said...

I love this entry! I avoid network news because of the hyped-up, the-world-is-ending scare tactics used to grab our attention. I loved seeing this story broken down and revealed as what it is - trash!

June Casagrande said...

Thanks for saying so. It's really that simple, it's it? Plain old "trash."

I find it very disheartening. Getting in this tiny jab was the only thing I could think to do. (How sad is that? Editing is my only weapon.)

Anyway, thanks!

June Casagrande said...

Oops. Meant: "isn't it?"

8'FED said...

This comment pertains to the first paragraph rather than to the body of the post. (I'm Australian, so my interest in American politics is limited.)

On hyphens, one thing the logical side of my brain doesn't like is what happens when you add a hyphenated prefix to a compound noun, e.g. "ex-Prime Minister". Part of me is really bothered by the fact that the pair of morphemes connected by the hyphen are less semantically bound than the pair of morphemes separated by the space, when a hyphen usually indicates a particularly close bond between two words.

On copy editing, in a somewhat frivolous mood I have asked myself this question: if I could get a good copy editor's feedback on just one thing that I've written for fun, what would it be? I decided on the rules to a game I invented two years ago. This document has been through numerous re-writes, because every so often I decide that I could have written it a lot better. Game instructions need to be particularly clear or else people just won't bother, and all the more so to target readers who look briefly through a whole list of games before choosing one to try. Providing that clarity requires more than just good grammar; it requires a solid understanding of the readers' psychology, and that's what I think a good copy editor could bring to the table.

-- Adrian

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