Thursday, August 12, 2010

Missing in plain sight - 1

First in an irregular series ...

As I have retooled my editing class from copy editing for editors to editing for reporters, one of my core beliefs is that looking at the big picture and uncovering what is missing in a story - omissions often hidden in plain sight - has become even a bigger part of that teaching.

Those niggling little questions that copy editors used to ask now seem to get passed over more and more. And it's understandable. Reporters are immersed in stories. So are their line editors. What may be "obvious" to them is often not so when you step back and look at it from a slightly detached view.

These things are missing in plain sight because there is information there - just not enough to actually be useful to the majority of your readers and viewers. For instance, there's the story that said a man died when his car crashed on an interstate highway exit ramp. While it specified the highway, it never said which interchange.

I most commonly see this with geography. Study after study shows that our readers/users are geographically challenged. Even in small cities (under 100,000), one side of town often does not know the other. And in metro areas such as Columbia, with about 750,000 people, the other side of town might as well be the far side of the Moon.

So I've done a program for the American Copy Editors Society on "Missing in Plain Sight," and here's a typical example that just came in yesterday's paper (for the moment, if you get all hung up on AP style, ignore the "cancelled" or that without a time element in the lede "have canceled" would be better).

State transportation officials cancelled a median on two blocks of busy U.S. 378 in Lexington in the wake of opposition stirred by Town Councilman Ted Stambolitis, who owns a shopping center there.

Some members of an advisory town traffic panel are upset about the lack of no-left-turn barriers, saying their absence will continue bottlenecks and worsen safety.

“If the medians aren’t put in, this plan is not going to do a bit of good,” said David McGehee, a member of the panel, which urged restoration of the feature Tuesday.

State traffic planners recommended the median as part of a series of improvements to reduce congestion on the town’s main commercial route.

Stambolitis fought the idea as an inconvenience that would drive away shoppers from about 80 merchants in the area. Nearly a quarter of those stores are in the Shoppes at Flight Deck, the center he owns.

Widening the road to six lanes and intersection improvements would “provide more than ample enough improvements,” Stambolitis said.

The package taking shape now would allow turns in that stretch of the road despite a warning from planners that is dangerous.

There was more, but it was no more enlightening.

The "Shoppes at Flight Deck" are a help - if you happen to be an immediate resident of Lexington. But this is on the front page of the Metro section to be seen by a lot more people across the area. The Shoppes at Flight Deck is just a fancy and bit quirky strip center. It's not a major regional mall or center (of which the Columbia area has four, one of which is dying).

So for many people, even after reading this, the question remains, "What is 'that stretch of road'?" And what intersection? (U.S. 378 snakes its way for several miles through Lexington and environs, and most of it is heavily built up and congested, with busy intersections).

Fact is, it's one of the busiest intersections in the area - U.S. 1 and U.S. 378 just north of downtown. Now readers have a better sense. These are the sorts of little things good copy editors did. Now it's going to be more and more up to reporters and line editors to step back and look for that information missing in plain sight.

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