A copy editing scandal?!?

I have watched the first couple of episodes of HBO’s “The Wire” this season because the plot involves a newspaper, a fictional version of The Baltimore Sun. I can’t make any sense of the rest of the story because I haven’t watched during the other seasons, but I certainly understand the newsroom parts. I was especially interested in a scene in the season opener when an editor, backed up by a rewrite man, explains to a reporter that one evacuates a building or an area, not people.

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Apparently, that scene has raised a ruckus.Executive producer David Simon, the show’s creator and writer, was a reporter at the real Baltimore Sun and says he was once lectured on the use of “evacuate.” Others, citing dictionaries, point out that the word can be used for people — that is, it can mean “to remove from an area,” not just “to empty.” This is delicious, of course, to a copy editor. Imagine it: an actual public dispute over word usage! Honestly, I felt a chill up my spine.

I think the point is that editors, especially those of us called copy editors, sometimes enforce arcane and archaic usage rules. Sometimes we follow our old rules right out the window and down to the street in a thud. (For the record: In 30 years in newspapers, I have never enforced the “evacuate” rule.) We are the newspaper’s consistency police. We have been given the charge, and we feel duty-bound to live up to it. Still, the most important principles we must follow are to make sure that copy is accurate and that readers will understand it. Most readers couldn’t care less about the difference between “convince” and “persuade,” but they want to be able to read a news story, get the facts and understand what happened and what it meant.

A more telling newspaper journalist scene occurred in the second episode. City editor Gus, played by the wonderful Clark Johnson, wakes up at home in the middle of night and worries that he has inserted an error into a story. He gets up and calls the copy desk to check. Oh, gracious, been there, done that!

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.