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.

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:

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 12.46.08

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

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 12.49.10

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 Copyediting.com 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

 

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