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To Grammar’s House

Bias is a four-letter word

12-19-11: Boston, MA: Bruins goalie Tim Thomas gets a ggod look as the first period goal by Montreal's Tomas Piekanec (not pictured) gets by him. Zdeno Chara is at right. The Boston Bruins hosted the Montreal Canadiens in a regular season NHL game at the TD Garden. (Globe Staff Photo/Jim Davis) section:sports topic:Bruins

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Like Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, copy editors are the goalies of the newsroom.

“To Grammar’s House” is a regular column by the Boston Globe copy desk on the style and language used in the newspaper.

We copy editors are the goalies of the newsroom. We strive to prevent mistakes from slipping into the paper with the same tenacity Tim Thomas displays while attempting to keep pucks from entering his net. When we fail, we feel as incensed as Thomas feels after he allows a goal, no matter whether what got past us was the equivalent of a screened, 100-mile-per-hour slap shot by a renowned sharpshooter or a long-range floater by an unskilled enforcer.

In hockey-speak, the word enforcer is often used as a euphemism for a more derogatory term: goon. These are players whose raison d’etre is to intimidate and fight, not to dazzle with their stick-handling, skating, passing, or shooting. One fan’s enforcer is another fan’s goon. You get the idea.

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As the news copy desk’s resident hockey fanatic, I often was asked to edit Bruins stories that appeared in the A section during the team’s dramatic run to the Stanley Cup title last spring. This was a labor of love. The reports were compelling, peppered with wit, the observations almost always spot-on.

Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final proved pivotal. Vancouver came to Boston leading the series two games to none. In the first period, Canuck Aaron Rome rocked Bruin Nathan Horton with an open-ice hit. Neither player would skate again in the final, Horton because of a concussion, Rome because of a suspension. The inspired Bruins roared back to win the series in seven games.

In his report after Game 3, a writer, perhaps sickened by the hit, referred to Rome as a goon. I removed the apposition.

A colleague who read the column for the final time before it was printed questioned that decision as deadline bore down on him like Milan Lucic on a wandering goalie. A versatile, vigilant teammate (think Patrice Bergeron), my colleague instinctively did what the Bruins center would have done had he opted to pursue a career in the far less lucrative field of journalism and found himself in our slot editor’s shoes: He did some quick fact-checking, and within a few clicks discovered that Rome had scored merely two goals and had accumulated 111 penalty minutes in his NHL career.

Ah, but there are lies, damn lies, and statistics, to borrow a phrase popularized by a famous author. Rome is a defensive-minded defenseman whose main responsibility is to prevent pucks from entering his team’s net, and one should not expect him to score a lot of goals. Furthermore, Rome’s 111 penalty minutes were earned over 131 NHL games. In the NHL, a player receives a five-minute penalty for a fight and a two-minute penalty for a less violent infraction. Armed with this knowledge, even your typical math-challenged journalist wouldn’t need a calculator to figure out that Rome was spending, on average, less than a minute per game in the sin bin. In a sport in which collisions are common and often violent, Rome did not have a reputation as a dirty player.

Equally troubling was the fact that in the next paragraph, Bruin Shawn Thornton was referred to as, you guessed it, an enforcer. According to hockeyfights.com, a bible for fisticuffs fans, Thornton has been involved in 118 NHL fights (including preseason, regular season, and playoffs), and Rome has fought eight times.

Suffice it to say, I felt we could justifiably be accused of bias if Thornton were to receive the more honorable appellation enforcer one graph after Rome was called a goon.

The word goon, I’m happy to say, did not get into the paper. But copy editing is a team sport. Colleagues have caught many a mistake I’ve missed, improved headlines I’ve written, et cetera. We’re a team of goalies, so by the time the final edition is printed, our save percentage should be 1.000. In other words, nothing should get by us, including bias, even if unintentional.

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