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Savvy editors guard against publication gaffs

By Linda Steiner

Editor’s note: Steiner refers to the March OU article, “A honking good time in Rochester.” Information reported by the Rochester CVB was checked for factual accuracy. Sources include the U.S. Department of the Interior, Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the Great Plains Nature Center.

I’m allowed to be critical. I’ve been an editor of several state organizations’ magazines, newsletters and brochures. I’m also a longtime freelancer of everyday hook-and-bullet and other outdoor recreation topics. I’ve reported on scientific projects for agency publications, where my articles had to be cleared by experts before publication. As such, I know the value of “getting it right” and how critical that is not only for authors, but also for editors.
In the Outdoors Unlimited article, “A Honking Good Time in Rochester,” this statement appears, referring to Canada geese: “This species, once thought to be extinct, now thrives in Rochester after being re-discovered in 1961 as part of the Mayo family’s flock.”
Funny, I didn’t know all Canada geese were almost wiped out and we owe their recovery to people in Minnesota. The giant Canada goose subspecies (Branta canadensis maxima) was almost lost, but not every Canada goose is a B. c. maxima.
When I first read the above in OU (the piece courtesy Rochester CVB), I chuckled. The problem with such errors of details is that published words become facts that could and probably will be referenced by others, leading to false beliefs that can persist. Such mistakes can become problematic for the editor and the organization, agency or business represented. Readers may snicker, but their faith in what they read in the publication and their trust in the worthiness of the publication may erode.
This is something we all have to guard against. As an editor and writer, I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, that I need to have a wide and sufficiently deep knowledge of the subjects I’m dealing with to not make, or rarely make, errors. As a freelancer this may be easier; I tend to write about subjects with which I’m already knowledgeable, so I’m not as likely to make gaffs. If I’m out of my depth, I double check my facts and anything questionable that an interviewee says if my life experience sends up a “red flag.”
Editors usually deal with a broad array of topics sent by freelancers or produced by staff. That’s even more reason to become widely informed and to develop an at-your-fingertips store of knowledge that sends a warning signal to do additional research and verify facts. It also helps to have more knowledgeable folks to call on to review articles or answer doubts about what a writer has submitted.
Getting an expert to go over an article is fine if an editor has enough time in the production process to send out the piece for review. Usually the task of catching errors falls on the editor’s shoulders. The rule should be if it sounds wrong, check it out; don’t move it on to the next production step.
I try to be especially careful when it comes to laws and regulations regarding hunting, fishing, boating, etc. I’ve been involved with enforcing conservation laws, so violations jump out at me.
When I was editor for Pennsylvania Wildlife magazine, one of the columnists sent a piece about wild turkeys. The columnist was a wildlife biologist, so he knew his stuff about game birds. In one column, he said he had encountered turkey poults having trouble getting over a wire fence along a road. He got out of his car and caught one. He wrote he was thinking about taking it home to show his wife and kids, but then decided not to and let the turkey go.
That part of the story never made it into the magazine. I knew that what the writer had done was against the law. Can you imagine reader reaction if we had published the columnist’s momentary lack of judgment? And how the publication would have been taken to task for tacitly encouraging readers to capture wildlife illegally?
Some publishers use common copy that appears in all regional or state magazines they produce. Editors of the regional or state editions must be sure that these articles, which may have been originally written for another area, are applicable to their publication. For example, in hunting magazines, a mention of baiting where it isn’t legal or the use of a prohibited hunting arm will be a glaring error to savvy readers or could mislead readers new to the sport.
Safety in outdoor sports is always vital, and it’s up to editors to also not tacitly support unsafe recreation practices. One hiking magazine I read was severely chastised by readers for promoting solo hiking, especially to backcountry destinations, where having an accident with no way to get help is a real possibility. The magazine responded by devoting a whole issue to hiking safety.
Recently, another outing magazine was taken to task for showing photos of whitewater kayakers not wearing helmets. Kudos to the readers who noticed the unsafe boating practice and jeers to the editor for not picking up on it before the pictures made print.
Similarly, a fishing magazine I read showed a fly fisherman in a rough river, with one arm out, as if trying to retain his balance. Anyone who knows anything about wading can see the guy is about to drown. The editor should have avoided unconsciously glorifying pushing the edge of wading safety, even if the photo was dramatic and eye-catching.
Nothing brings bigger reader uproar than a photograph of a firearm muzzle used as a leaning post or appearing to be pointed at a fellow hunter or sporting dog or an other unsafe direction. If editors choosing photos for their publications don’t already know the 10 rules for safe gun handling, they need to learn them and post them beside their computer monitor.
Editors also need to bridge the disconnection between a writer who knows his stuff and an illustrator who doesn’t know anything about the subject. A natural history column in a magazine I receive discussed black flies. Also known as buffalo gnats, they are the biting, nasty bane of the north country. The author got the story straight, but the artist showed horseflies, not black flies.
If I was the writer of the article, I’d have been more than mildly annoyed. The gaff reflects on the writer, even though the writer didn’t assign the artist. As an editor myself, I wondered why the magazine’s editor hadn’t given the artist the proper information to produce the correct insect for the drawing or why he hadn’t sent the artwork back for revision. Then I wondered if the editor knew the difference. If I was a reader who didn’t know what a black fly was, I’d think they look like houseflies. The message I got as a reader who knows what black flies are is that this magazine doesn’t know what it’s talking about. If that is true, what else in the publication is bad information? Maybe I shouldn’t subscribe.
Although I’ve been discussing print media, video media isn’t exempt from blunders. In a TV news show for a major U.S. city, the voiceover report talked about the opening day of trout season, while the video showed file footage of an angler with a largemouth bass. How did that affect the credibility of the station with many trout fishermen in its viewing area?
The bottom line for editors is this: have a working knowledge of topics you’re editing, be aware of safety practices and laws pertaining to the subject, and be sure photos and illustrations correctly represent the writing. Why do this? To be brutally honest, how badly do you want to keep your job? ◊
An OWAA member since 1989, Linda Steiner is a freelance editor, writer, photographer and seminar speaker. Contact Steiner at linstein@galacticis.com.
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