Worse Than Dangling Participles

OMBUDSMAN

December 20, 1992|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

This has been a year of change here. The Baltimore Sun sign still glows on top of 501 North Calvert Street, but some editions now include the names of Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties on Page 1 as the papers assumed a new, more suburban look.

The small word ''Baltimore'' next to the date in the Page 1 folio line was removed temporarily but is being restored while The Sun and The Evening Sun continued with expanded coverage in the counties.

Readers also saw the continued decline of The Evening Sun, compartmentation of some news and an unloved new stock-market list that editors promise to revise again soon.

Through it all, readers, staffers and I saw many errors beyond the dangling participles. Three veteran newsmen, longer here than my 29 years, feel that we make more errors than at any time in their memory, though it's hard to document. One old-timer says relative newcomers, both editors and reporters, ''sometimes don't know when they are looking at an error.''

Editors and reporters view these mistakes with a concern hard to appreciate outside the newsrooms. It's this way: Fewer news people with less overall Baltimore experience, but as dedicated as ever, produce more complicated, different editions under tighter deadlines than I can remember.

Years ago, an editor scolded me into a nightmare for spelling Centre Street, ''Center.'' ''Check it out,'' he said. ''It's 150 feet from your desk almost straight down, but no need to jump.'' Sometimes I wonder whether it's as much a sin today; more often I see the same chagrin of old when things go wrong.

All newspapers make mistakes. I've contributed my share. People love to correct papers, especially the higher-priced 50-cent kind. It also happens that The Sun's publisher appointed an ombudsman, a chronicler of problems and complaint lightning rod the same year we have reduced the news staff by about 60 people and added the new community news in the counties. It's a marvel to me how many thousands of things go right in the papers each day.

Why not more? Some reasons are inexcusable lapses, lack of local knowledge, inexperienced staffers, fewer news people after company down-sizing and the logistical nightmare of more complicated deadlines and demands for zoned community news. An editor says ''We're a daily machine with thousands of moving parts, and some parts misfire. We're working on them.''

Here are some recent errors:

* Local institutions are muddied. A correction refers to a non-existent institution called ''The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Hospital,'' combining hospital and school. ''Cardinal Gilman High School'' is another bad combo, combining two old schools. A caption calls midshipmen from Annapolis ''cadets,'' a West Point term.

* Because of news or production miscues, jumps (parts of stories continued on other pages) are missing or put on wrong pages. This was recently the case with Page 1 stories about Boogie Weinglass' interest in the Orioles, the December 10 storm, the Dontay Carter trial, Harford and Carroll county news, a motel-chain peephole scandal and others.

* The Sun plays up a big weather disaster story, such as the first big seasonal storm. But the same day it reprints a weather map from the previous day, showing a sunny East Coast.

* The Sun can do excellent huge projects on starving Somalis, the decline of the Maryland Cup Co. and armed Baltimore teen-age youths, but gets simple names wrong: Allegany County is called Allegheny County in both news and sports copy, and in Sun political cartoons, Lloyd ''Bentsen'' is spelled Lloyd ''Benson'' and ''Barry'' Bonds is ''Bobby'' Bonds.

* Captions become suspect. The caption for a Pearl Harbor survivors photo included Margaret Robertson standing next to Edward Robertson. But she was cut out of the photo. (A Pearl Harbor news item gives the year as 1944 instead of 1941). In another caption, ''Clifton Park'' becomes ''Lake Clifton Park.'' Sen. John Kerry is called ''a former [Vietnam] POW.'' He isn't.

* Stories about a man pleading guilty in a murder case and about Larry King in Baltimore show up twice in the same editions, the murder case on the same page.

People in The Sun newsroom are working to tune the machine. Staffers spot errors and are urged to be more careful. One editor recently began scanning the paper each day to capture and avoid future gremlins. My daily internal Reader Report tells employees what you and I are saying. This little machine will yet purr.

Ernest F. Imhoff is The Baltimore Sun's reader representative.

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