Defcon substantial

25 Sep

What is it we’re on that the moment – “severe”? Yes, that’s right: it was raised from “substantial” a month ago. Or do I mean lowered?

The UK Threat Level system, introduced eight years ago, is the national indicator for alertness to terrorism threats in the United Kingdom. The possibility of attack is measured on a five-point scale, in ascending order of danger, as follows: low, moderate, substantial, severe, critical. It’s a list full of strong words; in fact, you might argue, rather too full.

With the well-known US defence readiness condition (Defcon) system, which uses numbers, there is no rhetoric in the status beyond the simple raising or lowering of the level, once you have recalled which way the scale runs (five is low, one is high). Colour-coded systems have a little more emotional content to them – red alert! code blue! etc – but remain essentially inarticulate. For example, one of the status levels in the old “Bikini” alerts, the forerunner of the UK’s current system, was the terrifying-sounding “Code Black Special”. It sounded like the designation for a pre-emptive nuclear strike; in fact, it was just the midpoint of a standard threat scale that started at white at finished at red.

But once you employ words instead of colours, you employ rhetoric: you reveal how you want your audience to feel. And your audience, as readers, can begin to evaluate the way you write.

Exactly how much worse than “substantial” is “severe”? In this context, aren’t they almost synonymous? “Critical”, the highest level, is slightly easier to prioritise, as it is well understood as the most acute status in medical bulletins. But in the American Hospital Association’s five-point scale, the next two conditions below “critical” are “serious” and then “fair” at the midpoint. The gradations are much wider and better defined. Less formalised UK hospital bulletins sometimes drop straight from “critical” to “stable”, at other times via “critical but stable”.

But in neither case could you confuse the midpoint word with the highest word. The trouble with the UK terror threat scale is that it contains three terms that each, at a pinch, could pass for the highest one. The result is that you get dispiriting announcements to the effect that “the threat level has been lowered to severe“. Lowered to severe. The words are so close in meaning as to create a kind of unrelieved despondency whichever one is used, even when the threat of attack is relenting.

This is not to underplay the seriousness of the situation: heaven knows, no one who has lived or worked in London for the last 20 years needs to be reminded of how real terrorism is. But the danger  is that, by making such fine distinctions between such strong words, you lose the chance of galvanising the public at a time of crisis. Instead, you simply generate an exhausting, permanent vigilance that can vary only in the small range set by the scale.

Terrorism alertness systems are an important signal from government of awareness and action; properly used, they can call an entire nation to alert, and perhaps even reassure them afterwards.  But they need to be better written than this.

Big problem

11 Sep

This email from the Tribune’s deputy production editor goes in pretty strongly:

Just a reminder about the definition of enormity (sinful, wicked, morally wrong … not v big).

Now that’s a position that would be contested in many quarters. I hear the word used to mean “v big” far more often than I do to mean “morally wrong”. And the dictionaries tend to disagree too. Collins, our house dictionary, sticks largely on the traditional meaning and allows the idea of size only informally:

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 14.28.47

But Merriam-Webster includes the third meaning on an equal footing with the others, holding that it is, officially, ambiguous:

Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 14.38.14

So, is the deputy production editor a stick-in-the-mud? Well, maybe not when you read the opening sentence of the article he was concerned about:

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 22.38.26

Scottish independence is the most hotly contested issue on our website at the moment. Thousands of comments flood in for every article; fierce and sometimes hostile debate spills over even into pieces that only touch on the issue briefly. A misreading of “enormity” as a pejorative in the first sentence might have caused anger, creating extra work for those moderating the comments on the article, as well as an uncomfortable postbag for the writer, and possibly the editor, the following day.

However, as the deputy production editor says:

Thankfully the … piece on the front of today’s paper was clear-headed and even-handed enough for eagle-eyed readers to realise it was just a simple misuse of the word rather than an intentionally trenchant intro…

It’s possible that all readers either took the word at its more informal meaning, or, if they didn’t, kept reading until they understood that that was what was meant. But if the latter, we may have been fortunate: as Slate has found, most site visitors only read half of any story they click on, and a disappointingly high number don’t scroll down a story at all.  The tone that’s set in headline, standfirst and opening sentence is often the tone that readers take away with them.

As has been suggested here before, if you are helping an author into the cauldron of a debate like this, you have to watch their back. Yes, of course, language changes; it changes especially quickly when, as here, established professional writers start to embrace emerging meanings of words in their published work.

But precedent like this doesn’t eliminate the standing definition of the word at a stroke; language change takes years. If a reader took “enormity”, the 17th word of the article, in its traditional sense and objected to what he thought was being said, you couldn’t rely on authority to convince him he was wrong. You could point him to the bulk of the content of the piece and invite him to reconsider his interpretation; but all that mollifying substance comes after, not before, the most potentially inflammatory word in the piece, and may have already coloured everything he went on to read.

As editors, we can’t let that happen. Sometimes, we can sit back and observe the language changing, but not this time. We need to intervene on the writer’s behalf and ensure that a word that unstable doesn’t get near a subject that inflammatory.  It’s not true to say that “enormity” doesn’t mean “v big”; but, at the moment, it means other things too.

Just a dash

29 Aug

I know, I know: I keep going on about this. And the ship sailed a long time ago. But look at this:

Picture 70

It’s a perfect example – the best I’ve ever seen  – of when a Fowler comma is not only desirable but necessary.

Fowler, as we have discussed before, took a strict line on parentheses in Modern English Usage, advising as follows:

1. Parentheses may be indicated in any one of four ways: by square brackets, by round brackets, by dashes, and by commas …

2. After the second bracket or dash any stop that would have been used if the brackets or dashes and their contents had not been there should still be used.

Unlike his proposal for separating the use of “which” and “that”, which has been widely applied and misapplied in formal English, this idea – that if you add a dashed parenthesis at the end of a subordinate clause, you must still retain the closing comma of the clause – has been totally disregarded. That’s not surprising: it looks very peculiar, however you arrange it – even like this –, when you include every mark.

But look at the sentence above, describing the way that reality show Educating Yorkshire was filmed. The dashed parenthesis in the middle, “64 automatic cameras and microphones rather than intrusive film crews”, looks normal. But, in fact, it has been placed in the middle of a list, and inserting it has caused one of the delimiting commas to disappear.

So when you parse the sentence, you go wrong. The standard editor’s test is that you should be able to lift a parenthetical clause out of a sentence without affecting the syntax or grammar of what’s left, and this apparently passes with flying colours:

The key to the programme is the use of the fixed rigs […] retaining the trust of teachers.

That’s clear: the automatic filming system wins teachers’ confidence by not having disruptive outsiders in the classroom.

But that’s not what it means. It was only when I got to the apparently unnecessary comma after “teachers”, and thought it looked suspiciously like an Oxford comma, that I realised: this isn’t a two-part list, it’s a three-part list. There are three things that are key to the programme’s success: (i) using fixed rigs; (ii) retaining the trust of teachers, and (iii) selecting the right school. There is no causal relationship between the teachers’ trust and the fixed rigs. The insertion of the dashed parenthetical clause has caused the first and second points to merge into one, because we don’t put commas after dashes.

The fix is simple, of course: put the parenthetical clause into brackets.

The key to the programme is the use of the fixed rigs (64 automatic cameras and microphones rather than intrusive film crews), retaining the trust of teachers, and selecting the right school.

But that only works because it is acceptable to punctuate after a closing bracket mark. If you take the comma out, you’re back to the original, mistaken reading. Curiously, we can punctuate after some parenthetical marks but not others.

Too late to do anything about that, of course; if Fowler’s suggestion didn’t catch on in 1926, it’s not going to catch on now. But accidental ambiguities like that haunts the lives of sub-editors.  It’s nice to know that they alarmed Fowler too.

Unfairness and balance

21 Aug

Partiality can be dangerous. Impartiality can be too. Hot on the heels of his last post on “innocence” in the American media, Professor Rosen has developed his theme, seizing on a recent example of excessively balanced reporting, or what he calls “he said, she said” journalism.

The story – about a recently published book on Reagan – appeared in the New York Times, and dealt with allegations of plagiarism made against the author by one of Reagan’s biographers. The Times carefully reported the claims, gave ample space to the author to rebut them, and left it there, without drawing any conclusions. The reader was left to judge the prosecution and defence cases. Unfortunately, as Rosen points out, that isn’t good enough this time:

The problem here is that the Times had what it needed to make a call. “Perlstein plagiarized Shirley” was a checkable claim. Shirley’s accusations were online. Perlstein’s source notes were online. The Times knows what plagiarism is. Its writers and editors have to guard against it every day. Under these conditions, “leaving it there” amounts to malpractice …

In fact, the NYT’s public editor was moved to intervene and came down firmly against the paper, saying the article “amplified a damaging accusation of plagiarism without establishing its validity and doing so in a way that is transparent to the reader”.

As Rosen observes, “he said, she said” is not always the fairest way. “Instead of favoring one side, it pushes the account toward a phony midpoint. [It's] still distortion, but it looks more innocent.”

So perhaps “warrior journalism” of the best kind – partisan, but ethical and conscientious – as advocated by this blog last time is a better model? But, as the always-perceptive Picky wrote in the comments to that post, there are serious potential problems here too, even if every partisan newspaper were to hold itself to the highest standards of fairness.

In that world,  I could (sufficiently resourced) find a story a day about some cock-up or catastrophe somewhere in the NHS, all of them true, and print them. The unstated unproven concomitant (the lie) would be that the NHS, reeling from the government’s cuts, is about to collapse. Or I could by examining the bureaucratic tomfoolery of the European Union find a story a day, all of them true, about the latest bit of ineptitude. The unstated unproven concomitant (the lie) would be that we are ruled by a bunch of Napoleonic idiots in Brussels out to destroy Tunbridge Wells.

Balance, as Rosen makes clear, is not always enough; but, as Picky says, fairness isn’t always enough either. A series of correct and ethically impeccable stories about NHS disasters are fair individually, but not collectively if there is never a story about NHS success or improvement.

British journalism suffers from its own plurality: to grasp the British news agenda, you would need to buy every paper every day. But it is also blessed with the moderating influence of its studiously impartial TV channels. And perhaps the “he said, she said” method is at its best in this environment, with BBC news perched on top of a warring press and synthesising a balance of views. (Even if, as I contend, that forces it to act willy-nilly as an umpire, ruling some subjects in and others out of a national debate that even it does not have the resources to cover in full.)

Britain’s partisan press model is a dangerous one, for sure: it requires not just active regulation at source but also a series of downstream media organisations to act as filters. But maybe it is more robust, and truer to the spirit of the profession, than a system in which conclusions are not drawn even when they could be. After all, not many people go into journalism to be cautious.

Innocence abroad

13 Aug

Over at PressThink, Jay Rosen writes:

Alongside the production of news and commentary American journalists working in mainstream newsrooms have to continuously reproduce their own innocence. By ‘innocence’ I mean some kind of public showing that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of unfairly tilting the news this way or that.

This has come up in connection with Gaza: in particular, in connection with two tweets sent out by the Associated Press a couple of weeks ago. The first read:

The second, embarrassed, one came a few hours later:

The language has been hastily cleared up: the faint appearance of commentary expunged. As Rosen says:

The original header produced the news well enough but it failed to produce enough innocence for the AP. “Many U.S. lawmakers strongly back Israel…” is not more true than “they fall over themselves.” But it is more innocent. When the switch is made the AP feed suffers a loss of vivid. Its colors wilt. There is less voice, less urgency in the language. And the AP willingly pays this cost.

Why does it pay that cost? Because American media is different. In a newspaper culture partly defined by the vastness of the continent, US newspapers are frequently regional monopolies or part of metropolitan duopolies, operating as bipartisan fair dealers for readers of all political hues. There are almost no true “nationals”, so conceived; American papers are branded and differentiated by region, not politics. As Rosen says:

In the American setting media bias is a driver in politics, and culture war is where some people go to live. A major provider like the AP gets hit hard in the bias wars, so the principle, don’t give them ammunition! has to be built into its routines. That’s the production of innocence.

In Britain, with 22 newspapers all vying for attention in a country slightly smaller than Michigan, national distribution and monopoly status are not a problem, but differentiation is. So the market has been segmented by attitude, not region. Your paper is the one that shares your views, not your place of residence.

So, in America the culture war is waged outside the mainstream media, via new conduits – cable news, talk radio, political websites. But in Britain, the mainstream media is the culture war. The Guardian fights with the Telegraph and the Mail and Murdoch; the Telegraph (increasingly staffed by Mail veterans), fights with the Guardian and the Independent; the Sun fights with the Mirror; the Mirror fights with the Sun and the Mail.

There is no compunction about this. Everyone in Britain knows that papers are rightwing or leftwing; everyone understands that, to grasp the full UK news agenda, you need to take a conspectus of what all the papers say (or have the BBC do it for you). There is no “innocence”. But that doesn’t mean that British newspapering is unreliable – or, at least, that’s not the reason why it is.

American journalism, as Rosen indicates, is on the retreat in the bias wars, accused by the new-media right of leaning institutionally to the left. This is a vast lie: to quote HeadsUp, it is logically incoherent to claim that “the presence of a right-wing media outlet in a dyad makes the other outlet ‘liberal'”. It’s also a very unlikely charge to make against a trade as formalised and scrutinised as US newspapering. The only reason the lie gains any traction is because of the area in which all media outlets struggle not to be partial: the issue of story selection.

Reporters are never expected to be equally interested in everything. They specialise. They become immersed in defence, sport, economics, the environment, and their engagement with their subjects is what make them valuable. As they move up the ladder to the newsdesk and the editor’s office, their interests and priorities travel with them. And editing is about judgment, response and discernment; it is never rigidly judicial. It’s impossible to pretend to yourself that you care about Britney Spears more than the Middle East if you don’t. If talks are reopening over Syria and you’re short of space, then the showbiz piece bites the dust. Everyone is naturally biased for or against celebrity stories, foreign stories, crime stories, policy stories – and political stories too.

Imagine that you are coming out of morning conference with two equally spectacular exclusives: the abysmal neglect of war veterans with injuries on the one hand, and evidence of shocking violence towards prisoners by the same armed forces on the other. Walter Reed and Abu Ghraib on the same day.  Only one of them can lead page one. Which one will it be? Whichever way you decide to go, bias for or against the military – and, by direct implication, bias to the right or left – will be perceived from the moment you make the decision.

This, Rosen suggests, is all new to American journalism. Of the several questions he asks himself after the AP Twitter incident, one of them is:

Q. 6 Let’s say you junk the innocence machinery. What gets put in its place? (My bet: “here’s where we’re coming from” + make a good argument + high standards of verification beats the old system.)

He’s right. But he doesn’t have to bet, and he doesn’t have to wonder what gets put in innocence’s place. He can just look at Fleet Street.

The way post-innocence journalism works, at its best, is this: the news list is biased, but the articles are not. Once your organisation’s political preferences have dictated which story goes on the front, that story, once written, will be impeccable. It will contain documentary evidence, well-sourced quotes, pre-publication legal editing and an authentic right of reply.  The news editor will enforce that on the reporter; the subs’ desk will enforce it on the news desk; and the editor will enforce it on everyone. All those people will be empowered to raise objections; some of them will be empowered to stop the story outright. Everyone involved will remember that nothing is more potentially dangerous to a paper than a story it wants to be true.

British readers are untroubled by a newspaper’s partisan loyalties. Of course the Mirror wants to yell about fat cat pay, we think; of course the Mail always flies into a rage about NHS waste. In the hypothesis above, to no one’s surprise, the Guardian would splash on Abu Ghraib and the Telegraph on Walter Reed. A paper’s underlying motivations are taken as read: the quality of the story is the only thing that matters. We don’t care where the story is “coming from”; we only care that it can back up its claims.

You can be partial in what you choose to write about, but not in how you choose to write it.

F*ll out in headlines

28 Jul

(Parental advisory: this post contains very bad language, albeit nothing you wouldn’t find in certain outposts of Her Majesty’s Press)

Publicly, broadsheets are a bit sniffy about tabloids. Tabloids are a bit sniffy about broadsheets. But behind the scenes, there’s one thing all sub-editors agree on: accuracy and consistency. We need clear, informed style decisions, and the discipline to stick to them afterwards. It’s the same wherever you go.

Email from the production editor of the Tribune to all sub-editors, 17 June:

“For those asking why it’s ‘Isis': the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) is a jihadist group active in Iraq and Syria. Isis was formed in April 2013 and grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq. It has since been disavowed by al-Qaida, but become one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria and is making military gains in Iraq.

The final “S” in the acronym ISIS stems from the Arabic word “al-Sham”. This can mean the Levant, Syria or even Damascus but in the context of the global jihad it refers to the Levant.”

Email from the editor of the Sunday Sport to all sub-editors, 23 July:

 “… to avoid any further confusion (and future disciplinaries) I have listed below the commonest bungles. Please print them off and stick them by your computer screen.

SHIT: Full out in copy and in headlines
FUCK: F**k in copy and in headlines
Hunt: C**t in copy and headlines
WANK: Full out in copy, w**k in headlines
TWAT: Full out in copy, tw*t in headlines
COCK: Full out in copy and in headlines
BOLLOCKS: Full out in copy and in headlines
BELLEND: One word, full out in copy and headlines

Can this please be the end of it? I hate to be formal but I’m getting sick of repeating the same things on a weekly basis.

Otherwise, keep up the good work.”

I bet freelances can hardly remember which publication they’re working on some days.

It won’t be wrong till morning

8 Jul

Well, that story didn’t last very long. Ten minutes after I’d launched it onto the internet, I noticed its sheepish-looking author approaching the home news desk. I didn’t catch all the conversation that followed – at least not the first part – but the news editor’s rising “You mean it’s wrong ALREADY?” was audible in most parts of the newsroom.

After the apologetic reporter had shuffled away (“Well, how do you think I feel?”), the task of taking the story down and deleting it began. If a story is as (a) legally fraught and (b) libellous as this one was, there’s no room for the cheery news-website attitude of “never wrong for long”. Delete and apologise is the order of the day.

But that’s an extreme case. When the mistake is less explosive, and the story is sound enough to stay up on the site while the wrinkles get ironed out, the question then becomes one of degree: how wrong can you be, and for how long?

In fact, the question of “how wrong” can probably be solved using a traditional newspaper yardstick: if it’s so bad that it would have to be pulled off the page altogether, then the same should happen on the web. If it can be legitimately fixed by the stone sub deleting a line and getting a new headline set, then it’s fine to stay up on the site, with the proviso that you should make the changes with expedition. But the question of how long an online story can be worked on and refiled before it becomes a matter for the corrections desk is an entirely new one, for which there is no print-era precedent.

In the old days, an evening newspaper reporter might have two or three stories on the go at once, but she could expect to file each of them only once, towards the end of the day. That allowed time for more information to be gathered, more sources to return phone calls and more colleagues to be consulted for advice. But web news is rolling news, always wanting some copy on what’s breaking, so newspaper writers have had to learn the art of filing “first takes” within 15 minutes and thinking more deeply afterwards.  This routine is now ingrained at the Tribune: stories often come and go two or three times during the day, the last time “for web and paper”. On big set-piece news events like the Budget, reporters actually write to timetables, with set filings expected as the chancellor progresses through his speech.

So no one is expecting completeness on a first take. And, implicitly, total accuracy is no longer expected first time either. Errors of a non-fatal nature – that is, those that do not invalidate the news content of the piece altogether – can be rectified and included in the next web update without any need to acknowledge the error (although if readers have pointed out the mistake in the comments below the article, it’s good manners, and good accountability, to acknowledge them).  But the reader’s editor has shown no appetite for getting involved if a fleeting inaccuracy occurs in a hasty breaking-news piece whose expected shelf-life is about half an hour. Indeed, practically speaking, how could he? The mistake can be fixed in less time than it takes to notify him, and the article itself will often have been replaced in toto before the corrections desk gets back from lunch.

It’s dangerous to take that approach too far, though. We have quailed at a policy of endlessly, silently, perfecting old stories as the days and weeks go by, and rightly so. There’s something slightly Orwellian about a newspaper that, on its record, has apparently never made a mistake. And in any case, so many news stories have self-limiting relevance: no one clicks on the “jury has gone out” story once the “verdicts in” story is written; further discreet polishing would be pointless.

So the point at which a faulty story stops becoming a work in progress and crystallises into a mistake must be somewhere in between. At the Tribune, the rule is an overnight one. For the length of the calendar day on which a story first appears online, it can be modified and republished on the website without official intervention; but from the day after online publication, any complaints and corrections must be routed through the reader’s editor, and any resulting amendments must be explicitly noted at the foot of the article.

Why is that the rule? Well, you have to draw the line somewhere. And what could be more natural for a group of daily print journalists than to draw it at the end of the night, after the last edition has left the print works and nothing further can be done to put things right? We may be a global news website with tens of millions of readers, but we’re still a newspaper at heart.


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