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.

Due to a reading error …

19 Jun

Imagine how crushing it must have been for the Guardian corrections editor to post this:

Picture 48

No one likes having to print a correction to a correction. Sometimes, it’s just a trivial matter – a typo in a clarification that has to be pointed out the following day. Sometimes a correction will even introduce a new error in its preamble.  But this isn’t, it appears, one of those occasions. This is something much stranger.

The column links, dutifully, to the original correction the day before:

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 12.37.12

Just business as usual, it seems: a writer’s slip, an editor’s inattention, all put right in the corrections desk’s breezy fashion. So what happened to cause a complete reversal of position the following day?

The article, it emerges from the amendment notice at the bottom, has been returned to its original wording following the correction that wasn’t:

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And when you read the paragraph that caused all the stir, you wonder how on earth any of it could have happened:

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It couldn’t be clearer: a colon introducing three complete-sentence clauses, separated by semicolons, as a list. It’s textbook. No punctuation errors, no unclear antecedents. It seems impossible to misread. And yet someone seems to have read right past the word “Hinterland”, attached “Happy Valley” to the content of the clause that follows the semicolon, perceived a mistake, and rushed in on Monday morning to get it changed (before, presumably, belated – and one imagines heated – objections from someone who actually worked on the piece).

How did it happen? Uncomfortable scenarios present themselves to the imagination. Did the corrections desk’s natural inclination to take the reader’s side – the “customer is always right” mentality – lead them to change the article on the say-so of a complaint without adequate consultation? Did someone on the corrections desk read the paper inattentively and act on their own authority to “put something right”?

One possible explanation is that the writer got confused about what she had written, called a foul on herself (something many conscientious reporters do if they perceive a mistake) and spoke straight to the ombudsman. Speaking from a fleeting fortnight’s experience as the Tribune’s Sunday corrections editor, when writers turn themselves in it’s very easy for the investigative process to get short-circuited. A letter from a reader is like a tip in an investigation; a confession from a writer is, usually, like closing the case.

But still, not many people appear to have read the sentence correctly (or at all), apart from the editor who passed it for press. And this time it sounds like that editor, whoever he or she was, has overcome the sub’s natural reticence and felt the need to explain, in quite short terms, how syntax works.


Please show working

10 Jun

The chief revise sub isn’t quite sure about this paragraph:

Picture 42

He immediately saw what we all see when he calls us round to look at it: that doesn’t sound like 18% less. That sounds like a lot more than that. And he’s right: £250 is almost 40% less than £415, not 18%. And in the second calculation, £204, compared with what men with no qualifications earn per week (£354), is 42.3% less, not 14.3% less.

The nervousness that descends upon all journalists when numbers appear in a story starts to cloud the collective mind as we stare at it. The percentage figures are per hour, but the amounts in pounds are per week. Is that what the problem is? Does the hourly rate difference accumulate to create a larger gap at the end of the week? But a simple thought experiment rules that out. If one worker is paid £8 an hour and other is paid £10, the difference in hourly rate is 25%. After a six-hour shift, one has earned £48 and the other £60 – still a 25% difference. At the end of a five-day week, one has earned £240 and the other £300 – still a 25% difference. No: if a woman earns 18% less in the course of an hour, she should earn 18% less in the course of a week. Something’s wrong.

The chief revise sub goes over to the reporter and ask to see the data on which the story is based. (The appearance at one’s desk of a member of production staff asking to see source documents is never a good sign for a reporter, of course, but they always seem to take it with remarkable stoicism.) He returns with this (click the image to magnify):


Pay data main NEW

As usual, some of the highlighting and circling seems to have been done with a completely different story in mind, but the data is there. Take a look at the last column, four rows down. There’s the 18% median pay gap figure (well, 17.9% – close enough for newspaper work). Read left, back along that row, and there are the gross weekly pay figures for men and women: £415 and £250. And the second-bottom row, for unqualified men and women, is also just like the reporter wrote it: 14.3%, £204, £354. What’s on earth’s going on? Is the table just completely innumerate?

And then someone has a bright thought. The problem women face in the workplace is not just lower pro-rata pay: it’s also less opportunity to work, whatever the rate. What if the gross pay figure reflects not only a lower hourly rate, but also a lower number of hours overall? It doesn’t explicitly say so anywhere in the table or the story, but what if the women’s working week in the study is shorter than the men’s?

The figures are there to work it out quickly: divide the gross weekly pay by the median hourly rate to get number of hours. For the men, that’s £415 divided by £10.02, or 41.4 hours per week – a full-time job. For the women, though, it’s £250 divided by £8.23, or 30.4 hours a week – a full 11 hours less. That’s why it doesn’t add up. No wonder it struck everyone as strange.

It’s fairly easy fix in the article, too. There’s no space to explore the issue of unequal hours – it’s only a 250-word downpage slot– so you have to lose the easy-to-grasp pound figures and go with the percentages. But at least it’s right now, and at least it was fixed before publication.

Thank goodness for multi-stage editing. The common cry when a mistake gets into print, from readers or readers’ editors, is “didn’t any of you notice?” Well, this time, somebody did. Maybe the chart shouldn’t have been taken out of context, or divorced from its explanatory notes. Maybe it didn’t have any notes at all, and silently included undeclared data that would have thrown anyone off track. Maybe it shouldn’t have got all the way through to the revise desk before it was spotted.

But that’s editing. That’s how it works. It’s not a discrete, finite task: it’s a process. There will always be mistakes on first proof. There will always be mistakes on second proof. More often than not, you’ll find something horrible on a final read even after hours of work on a story. That’s why the Tribune’s production editor insists on press-reading every page of the paper: even if it’s right on deadline, even if that means tearing the proof up and hurriedly handing individual stories round the room. Nothing beats multiple revisions and multiple pairs of eyes. It doesn’t matter how good you are: you won’t spot everything. But maybe someone else will see what you missed.








You can almost look it up

28 May

So “adorkable”* hasn’t quite made the dictionary yet. Nor has “vaguebooking”**. But if you’re worried about that, you can go and vote for their inclusion now at Collins’s new social media initiative, #twictionary. Quickly – last day today.

The idea that lexicographical decisions might be put to public approval is a striking one. As points out, a Twitter-based “vote” for new entries into a major British-English dictionary is obviously vulnerable to pranks and ballot-stuffing. Collins is offering a controlled shortlist of entries rather than inviting open submissions, but even so, the risks are obvious. It is, to say the least, controversial.

But then, new entries into the dictionary always are. Every year, it seems, lexicographers publicise a fresh crop of approved neologisms, to the delight of the media and the anger of traditionalists, and the always-simmering debate over what’s happening to the language boils up again.

Sticklers rage against what they see to be an abdication of judgment in the face of faddishness. Lexicographers defend their position robustly. Dictionaries, they explain, record language rather than defining it: those who compile them are not authority figures or controversialists, just messengers. As Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster writes:

“A reporter suggested this week that adding new words like selfie might be a pitch for the young and the hip – but why not assume instead that such words are entered for the benefit of those people who have never used them? Our target demographic includes all speakers of English.”

But behind the harrumphing grammarians on one side and the (sometimes inflammatory) publicity from dictionary publishers on the other, the debate does reveal an awkward truth about the nature of dictionary lexicography: that it can never be quite as flexible as the language it seeks to describe.

Tom Freeman, The Stroppy Editor, writes approvingly about the American usage guru Bryan Garner’s language change index. As words come, go and mutate, Garner records their acceptability for formal or informal use on a five-point sliding scale, from 1 (Rejected) to 5 (Accepted). On their way up and down the scale, words move through stages 2 (Widely Shunned), 3 (Widespread, But …) and 4 (Ubiquitous, But …). As a system, it’s not without faults. But it does, as The Stroppy Editor says, represent a truth about language change: that it fluctuates; that it progresses slowly over time; that a lot of words hover for years in the awkward border zone between formality and informality.

Dictionaries don’t represent that truth so well. Being “in the dictionary” is a binary state: you’re either in or you’re out. There is no sliding scale. Once an entry is inserted, of course it can be noted as “informal”, “vulgar”, “chiefly US” – anything to indicate qualified acceptability. But when a new word makes its debut, the fact remains that it’s now in the dictionary, and last year it wasn’t. Whether it happens through statistical weight of usage or simply a preference for novelty, it’s hard not to perceive that moment as a watershed.

Garner’s index has no watersheds: all five transitions are gentle. Dictionaries can never emulate it; when it comes to new words, they must put up with being perceived as having jumped straight from stage 1 to stage 5 (even if, perhaps, all they have done is jump from stage 3 to stage 4). The all-or-nothing nature of dictionary inclusion enhances the illusion of endorsement, and it’s that illusion that sets the pitchforks waving.

So maybe that’s the reason Collins has decided to turn to social media?  If you’re going to take the plunge, it might soothe the critics if you can point out that you asked for a show of hands first.

 * Socially awkward in an endearing way

** Posting worrying but cryptic status updates on Facebook as a strategy to gain attention


The robots are coming

8 May

I wish I had the nerve to talk like this to the newsdesk:

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If you’ve ever tried submitting anything to the Internet Movie Database, you may recognise this tone. IMDb is a wiki – that is, an aggregation of user contributions – but it has achieved the status of  a semi-official reference tool at the Tribune, much more so than Wikipedia ever will. And I think that may be because of its fearsome army of robot editors, which intercept and scan everything you submit, and more often than not sling it back like Jason Robards growling “You haven’t got it” to Redford and Hoffman.

No diffident pencilled queries in the margin for IMDb: for example, if you have a couple of pieces of casting information you want to add to a TV show, you’d better have chapter and verse to hand.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 20.56.06

So you say this person was in the show? Here are a list of actors with similar names: it’s easy to get confused. If you’re uncertain, click here and we’ll sort it out for you. Or perhaps you’d just like to give up the whole idea? Choose an option, please. (And by the way, you formatted the request wrongly. It has already been corrected: this is merely a notification.)

That’s the spirit. And if you submit anything as ambitious as a three-line episode summary, you get pulled apart like a rookie screenwriter at a pitch meeting:

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There are misspellings. You have written too much: if you insist on overfiling, we will simply move your piece to a different slot inside the site (delicious). And, my favourite bit of all:

“The following fixes have been applied automatically: ‘…’ has been replaced with ‘.’ in accordance with IMDb rules.”

No judicious exceptions, no stretching a point. Ellipses are just banned, rather like the way all semicolons were excised for some years on the Tribune’s sport section. It’s a rule. And I suspect that “surveilling”, even if spelt correctly, will turn out  to be “not in the dictionary”. I’ll just change it now. They won’t like it.

For the first time in my life, I feel like a writer.




Back your claim

1 May

Paid millions“! That’s interesting:

Picture 53

A huge appearance fee for a reclusive star in an advert largely made up of silence or verbal nonsense: that’s a good light story (or piece of “Joy/Culture”, as the Tribune newslist terms it) for the entertainment page.

Of course, “paid millions” is in quotes, so it’s only a claim and not absolutely definitive, but let’s see what the Hollywood pundit being quoted has to say:

Given his box office pulling power, it’s thought that Oldman would’ve received a handsome fee for his contribution to the project, which is likely one of his easier roles.

And – that’s it. That’s all there is. You can hunt all through the article, but there is no external source for the claim in the headline at all. No third party has offered any view on what it might cost to get Oldman as a spokesman. “It’s thought” means “it’s thought by the reporter who wrote the story”.

Claim quotes are a distinctly British convention whose use is not universally understood in other news cultures so, to be clear – no. This is not what claim quotes are for.  Claim quotes indicate the presence in a story of a newsworthy assertion made by a third party about which the news organisation is reserving judgment. They are not “scare quotes”, used to draw attention to new, unusual or significant phrases. They are not “I give up” quotes, used for indicating a headline writer’s dissatisfaction with his or her own choice of words.  They are not “guess quotes”, used to shamefacedly hint at unsupported speculation. They are for claims. Specifically, claims made by somebody else.

Heaven knows, if you must write the story this way,  it’s not that difficult to do it properly. The bar for claim quotes is not very high. Just phone up any showbiz contact at all – actor, agent, ad executive, or even another media journalist – and invite them to speculate. “What do you think they had to pay Oldman to get him to do this?” “Well, hard to say.” “It could easily have been millions, though, right?” “Yes, I suppose it could.” And there you have your claim: “Oldman’s fee could easily have been millions, according to a leading advertising executive who wished to remain anonymous.”

It’s not exactly going to win a Pulitzer, but it passes the first, basic legitimacy test. If a journalist’s sources are presented honestly, for better or worse, readers are happy to make their own judgment about the strength of the story and credit it more or less accordingly. But if you’re going to speculate about likely news angles arising out of the known facts, you have to run it past someone else first. You can’t be your own source. And you certainly can’t quote yourself in your own headlines.

With thanks to the Memphis bureau, who spotted this one from across the Atlantic

Don’t unquote me

24 Apr

“Partial” quotations – or to be more specific, “single-word” quotations – are widespread in journalism and have always been a little annoying. Now a coherent rebellion seems to be taking shape in the editosphere. John McIntyre writes at You Don’t Say:

“I suppose that what, if anything, is in the reporter’s mind is an impulse to indicate that the subject’s exact words are being quoted. But this can lead to unintended consequences, especially when the single word within quotation marks is unremarkable.

Try this: McIntyre said that he was ‘honored’ to be invited to speak to a group of Towson University students about editing.

The sentiment and the word are both commonplace, and eliminating the quotation marks would allow the reader to pass over this flat and unremarkable sentence quickly.

But the quotation marks catch the reader’s eye, leading to a question: I wonder what he meant by that.”

 And he links to Stan Carey, who amplifies the point:

“Quotation marks can also highlight that a word is being used somehow peculiarly – a writer may wish to indicate irony, inaccuracy, or scepticism, for example; used this way, they’re called scare quotes …

The Oxford Manual of Style says scare quotes may serve ‘to hold up a word for inspection, as if by tongs, providing a cordon sanitaire between the word and the writer’s finer sensibilities’. It’s a technique that quickly wears thin, so style guides sometimes caution against its excessive use. And there’s a related problem: non-standard emphasis.

Sometimes people use quotation marks to stress a word or phrase, and this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks – and scare quotes – are properly used. In a comment to my recent article on the use of apostrophes, Kristen said she found this habit troublesome, offering the example ‘fresh’ fish, which inadvertently casts doubt on the freshness of the fish.”

You Don’t Say’s advice is to restrict single-word quotations that are “foreign, technical, or exotic”. But there is one other aspect of the subject to consider.

In the rarefied world of political and diplomatic reporting, a choice of word, or a change in vocabulary, can be a story in itself. For example, there was a minor sensation on the Tribune’s business desk five years ago when the governor of the Bank of England first used the word “recession” in public as the financial crisis deepened, after a year of being determined not to “talk the economy down”.

And sometimes the very terms used by opposing sides in a conflict crystallise the point of dispute. Take this quote from a Guardian article about the Ukraine crisis:

“The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has accused Ukraine of violating an accord reached in Geneva last week aimed at averting a wider conflict.

‘Steps are being taken – above all by those who seized power in Kiev – not only that do not fulfil, but that crudely violate the Geneva agreement,’ he said on Monday.

Lavrov also told a news conference that a deadly gunfight on Sunday near Slavyansk, a Ukrainian city controlled by pro-Russian separatists, showed Kiev did not want to control ‘extremists’.”

“Extremists”, in quotes, is what the conflict is all about. Are the Kiev protesters and their interim administration a front for the neo-Nazi nationalist right? That is the whole basis on which Russia says it is intervening. Or is the characterisation of the new government as “extremists” simply Moscow’s cynical pretext for its expansionist agenda?

It’s hardly a technical or exotic word, but it’s certainly a loaded one: and you can’t take it out of its quotes. Once out, it becomes spoken in the reporter’s voice, not Lavrov’s, and at that point the paper, subtly, implicitly, takes sides.

Liberator/terrorist, anti-abortion/pro-life, Burma/Myanmar, AD/CE: all these little terms have lengthy stylebook entries spelling out the implications that choosing one over the other carries. Reporters and editors aiming to be neutral need to be acutely sensitive to the rhetoric used by both sides in war and political debate. Better a single-word quote than a suggestion of unconscious bias or naiveté.

Foreign, technical, exotic – that’s a good guide for when to allow the single-word quote. But there’s also another: “political”.


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