When to delete Luhansk

17 Feb

 

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Friday afternoon, and an email comes in from our stringer in Ukraine, whose article has just gone live:

Hi guys,

I had sent an email earlier about the difference between Luhansk and Luhanske. Sorry for the confusion, but the place where I was today was Luhanske, not Luhansk as it says in the dateline right now.
Also, there is an error in the following graf; it should again be Luhanske, not Luhansk:

Burned-out trucks — some still smoking — lined the cratered highway from Artemivsk to Debaltseve, which remains in contention. Government soldiers who were trying to tow a damaged ambulance out of the partly ruined town of Luhanske admitted that anyone who went further down the highway toward Debaltseve would come under heavy fire from rebel small arms and artillery.

In this graf, however, it should be Luhansk, not Luhanske:

Two people were also killed and six wounded when a shell hit a packed cafe in the Kiev-controlled town of Shchastya near rebel-held Luhansk, a local official said, adding that other shells had struck elsewhere in the town.

In real life, there’s always some inconvenient homophone that would never be allowed to come up in fiction. Luhanske, where the stringer is, is 95 kilometres from Luhansk, right in the heart of the recent fighting around Debaltseve and one transliterated letter away from the much bigger rebel city, itself a scene of conflict in the struggle between east and west in Ukraine. And Luhansk also gives its name to the wider oblast, or province, that has declared itself a People’s Republic alongside Donetsk. (Luhanske itself is in Donetsk oblast, of course, not Luhansk oblast: that would be too easy.)

Saturday afternoon, right on deadline. The level of noise is increasing, the shouted instructions are coming faster and the production editor is handing round the international front page for a rapid press-read. The same stringer has filed a late update on the fighting from nearby Artemivsk, and it’s been hustled through the editing process and onto the page.

Although rebels have been able to virtually surround Debaltseve and pound it with rockets and artillery, the road connecting the city with Ukrainian forces in Artemivsk is not fully under either side’s control. Pro-Russia forces shelled the city 15 times and attempted to storm it early yesterday …

Yesterday a military ambulance delivered the body of a soldier killed in the village of Paschnya, which is in the no-man’s-land between Luhansk and Debaltseve, to the mortuary in Artemivsk.

Hang on. Luhansk. Is that … does he mean Luhansk? If he means the city, it’s miles away. Can there really be a no-man’s-land stretching 95 kilometres into another oblast?

Another hasty skim through the article, and there’s no sign of any reportage or sourcing from that far east: all the quotes and accounts come from forces and officials around Debaltseve. A quick check on Google Maps reveals that, yes, Debaltseve, Luhanske and Artemivsk are all close, linked by the E40 road; on the other hand, there’s absolutely no sign of a village called Paschnya anywhere. And the distraction is increased by the locator map on the page, right next to the paragraph in question: Debaltseve is marked, Donetsk is marked, and so is Luhansk, off to the east; but there’s no sign of Luhanske or Artemivsk. But then a check through the stored revisions of the article reveal that, inadvertently,  the ‘e’ was indeed deleted off “Luhanske” at an earlier stage.

The problem with journalism, or at least with newspapers, is that there’s never enough time to sort everything out properly. The fast read, panic over Luhansk, Googling and hasty conferring with a colleague has taken about two minutes. The best thing to do would be to reinstate the “e” in Luhanske, add a few lines to explain away confusion, recut the article to fit, and redraw the map at a slightly larger scale so that the town can be added to it (at its current scale, the blob for Luhanske would be right on top of the blob for Debaltseve).

But there isn’t time for that. All there’s time for is to reinstate the “e”, and, as a prophylactic against possible confusion, hurry over to the graphics desk and ask them to delete Luhansk, the city, off the map altogether, and reoutput it. There’s just enough time for it to auto-update on the page before it’s sent: at least it won’t look like a typo or lead readers astray.

Locator map

And then it was gone: the page was sent and ran like that for the first three editions. Looking back at it now, the single reference to Luhanske is a bit baffling without explanation, and, on the map, I see I completely overlooked that we’d referred to a nearby city as Horlivka in the text (which is correct Tribune style) and Gorlovka on the map (which is not).

But the stringer refiled after midnight, with a new top that explained clearly where Luhanske was: new quotes, new facts, rewritten all the way through. As the story acquired momentum through the night and into the next morning, the online version, updated regularly, was shared more than 500 times and drew more than 3,000 comments. The problems of the initial version were completely swept away.

It was just a first take; just a holding story for the early edition, before the ceasefire agreement took hold and the story really began. Some articles take a lot of effort and then only last for five hours. But you never know which ones will last and which ones will end up on the spike.

And if anyone finds Paschnya on the map, I’d be interested to know.

From our own correspondent

26 Jan

This has always seemed a bit odd of the BBC, don’t you think?

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A while ago, we caught the Daily Mail using claim quotes for an assertion that only the writer of the story had made. This is almost the opposite: the quoting of a fellow journalist at the same  news organisation as though he were a third party voicing an unproven opinion.

It’s a widespread phenomenon on the BBC website:

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A large part of the problem is that, unlike TV news reports with their time-honoured verbal signoffs (“Joshua Rozenberg, at the high court, for BBC News”), most BBC web stories carry no byline. That means there is no implied authorial expertise in the piece itself, so the writers have little choice but to rely on the broadcast arm’s brand-name correspondents. But quoting a journalist that readers recognise does draw attention to the fact that the author of the article is not that journalist, and leaves a puzzle as to whose voice the article is actually speaking in.

In a print environment, the contribution would simply be folded, unattributed, into the body copy and the legal correspondent’s name would be added to the byline. In an anonymous article, that’s not possible. But done like this, the reporter seems reduced to third-party status: just another interviewee like the foreign secretary or the copyright lawyer; just another participant in the debate with a point of view.

The BBC, as a high-profile public body with an intrinsically political source of funding, has a long tradition of having to report on itself. Normally, it does this with fearsome impartiality, even in the most existential of crises, such as the row over the Hutton report. When an official inquiry condemned its reporting on the intelligence dossier that played a central role in the Iraq war, the chairman and director-general both departed within a week. But BBC News, responding to the story, reported on BBC News, the instigator of the incendiary report, as though they had never met.

Carol Malia, who presents the Look North evening news programme, was involved in a protest at the BBC’s studios in Newcastle.

She said: “Any news organisation has to be seen as impartial to be credible and that is what we are fighting for.”

Mike Baker, an education correspondent in London who has worked for the BBC for 24 years, said staff wanted to make a “symbolic” protest.

Any newspaper would have closed ranks and decried injustice in banner headlines. The BBC interviewed colleagues on its own solidarity demonstration as though they were striking factory workers in Pennsylvania.

The problem is, impartiality as acute as that creates echoes even when you don’t want it to. Look at the quote in the story from Clive Coleman, the legal correspondent, in the article about Rihanna. It’s hard to know quite how to take it. It’s a simple statement of fact, but has been attributed to someone other than the author. Does that suggest that it is, in fact, open to doubt? Has it not been checked – or could it not be double-sourced in accordance with the BBC’s rules? (Although if it turns out to be wrong, the corporation could not possibly be hoping to distance itself from someone identified as a BBC correspondent.) Is it true or not?

Or is the identification of Mr Coleman as an employee of the organisation meant as an assurance of quality? In which case, it would be much better to have no attribution at all, and write it into the story as fact, along with his supporting evidence for the statement.

Fairness and balance is the highest of journalistic goals – indeed, for BBC News, funded by every licence-payer in Britain, it’s the only way it can possibly operate. But, as Jay Rosen has pointed out, there is such a thing as too much innocence in journalism.  Putting quotes around facts determined by your own specialist correspondents just gives impartiality a bad name.

Dateline unknown

3 Jan

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Coming up next on global anglophone news: ‘Welfare-to-work programs have failed to reduce unemployment‘.

It was the top article on the business site a few days ago, which was interesting – a slightly wonkish policy analysis doing better than more immediate stories about the collapse of a big parcels firm at Christmas. For readers interested in UK politics, it looked intriguing. The issue has been quiet in Britain of late – it’s been a while since the Labour party’s New Deal or even the coalition’s Work Programme were in the headlines. What’s it about?

Welfare-to-work programs promoted by successive governments have had no impact on unemployment as they fail to take into account the changing labour market, researchers have found.

Well, this looks like bad news for Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary. But why is it coming up now? The headline unemployment rate is falling at the moment.

The Australian National University (ANU) research, reported in the Australian on Friday, shows that the proportion of unemployed men aged between 25 and 54 has not changed in almost 15 years, staying at 9-10%.

Ah. Right. This is about Australia.

The first hint you get that this is an antipodean story is here, in the second paragraph of the body text. Nothing alerts you to its provenance before that. The five-most-read counter is a global one that aggregates all Guardian content blindly. The headline and standfirst lack any regional identifiers, and there is no dateline after the byline. And why would there be? The story was, from an Australian point of view, produced by a home reporter about a national report on a domestic topic. You would no more put a dateline on it than you would on a metro-desk story about the city council. Like many articles in the rapidly coalescing global news industry, its international success – or at least its performance relative to stories on two other continents – has taken it rather by surprise.

With British news organisations expanding abroad in the hope of becoming trusted sources of news inside other countries, there are going to be a lot more stories like these: local pieces written in-country as a way of establishing credentials with a local audience, but available globally (and administered, at least for part of the day, from thousands of miles away).

Websites are becoming electronically editionalised to compensate – so much so that some auto-detect your location and make it quite hard to change. But the news editors themselves move back and forth between the offices, taking their old interests out to the satellites and bringing newly learned agendas back to London. And three-newsroom operations throw off so much material that apparently it can’t help but leak across the boundaries – unknown Australian models starring in Britain’s sidebar of shame, Hollywood weddings with dress sizes incompletely altered for UK consumption, or, as here, some parts of a very large website still blind to the technological segregation in other parts.

Perhaps the really alert British reader would have seen that “program” was spelt without its last two letters and realised something was up. But I’ve read so much mid-Atlantic and up-from-Down-Under news that I’m honestly starting not to notice.

This headline has been optimised

20 Dec

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“Boob job scroungers” from Leeds, “va-va-voom” presenters out after hours in Sydney, twerking rappers in Beverly Hills: it’s hard to keep up when ambitious media groups start integrating their American, British and Australian stories into one big anglophone news agenda. And the fact that the stories are published online makes it even more difficult to understand, because headlines for the web are written to communicate with something even more important than the reader: search engines.

Search engine optimisation, or SEO – that is, the practice of ensuring that words likely to be used as search terms on Google are present in the headline and other furniture of a story – is a big deal. Studies at the Tribune suggest that no more than 30% of traffic to our website comes from people manually navigating to our homepage to see what’s going on: the vast majority comes from either social referral (people reposting links on Facebook and Twitter), or from search. In the case of one story I edited recently, about Black Friday, fully 90% of everyone who read it arrived via Google. Website front pages just aren’t pored over in the way that newspaper front pages still are.

What does that mean? It means that, in the limited space of a web headline, there’s very little room for jokes or obliqueness: not only do you have to include the keywords that sum up a story, it’s also best if they appear as close to the start of the headline as possible. But most of all, it means there’s not much room for explanations.

Take a look at the screenshot above from the Guardian website. As an American or British reader, you might find it largely baffling. Who or what are “Walkleys”? Which of the many Mark Scotts in the world is being criticised, and in connection with what – the American Broadcasting Company? The Audit Bureau of Circulation? What does the Duchess of York have to do with it (or perhaps it’s a different Sarah Ferguson)?

If you were writing a print headline for an international audience, you might put something like: “Star Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist publicly attacks boss at awards ceremony”. But if you were looking for it on Google, you wouldn’t type that. You’d enter something like “sarah ferguson mark scott walkleys”. And that’s what the headline is aimed at capturing. It contains almost every likely search term in 11 words. It’s good SEO.

Of course, the implication of this is interesting. The people who come to your story via Google – in other words, the majority of your audience, in many cases – are already familiar with the people they are searching for, and may even be previously informed about the story you have just published. It may be totally new to the audience coming from Twitter, who have seen a headline in a retweet, thought “what’s this?” and clicked on the link. But a Google audience is already sufficiently engaged with the personalities, or the politics, of the subject to compose a search string that can find a story they already assume must exist.

SEO headlines don’t explain what the story is about because they don’t have to: the audience they are aimed at already know. And that’s why it’s getting so hard to follow what’s going up on multinational news websites: even as the stories go global, the headlines are becoming local.

British hed said dead

25 Nov

Something big’s happened. As David Marsh, the production editor of the Guardian, announces, there’s been a change.

To quote a new entry in the Guardian style guide:

In the case of proper nouns, we now follow the spelling used in the relevant local variety of English (normally British, American or Australian). Examples: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Defense, Labor Day, One World Trade Center, Australian Labor party.

Why the change? Well, the old argument that “the Guardian is a British newspaper so we use British spellings” has served us well but no longer holds; we remain a British newspaper but one with many more readers outside the UK, especially in the United States …

A related change:

Where spelt in English, in whatever country, government departments now take an initial capital, as is already the case in the UK.

In other words, the US department of defence has – literally overnight – become the Department of Defense … This change has been driven by the growing realisation that it can appear insulting or demeaning to Guardian readers outside the UK to see their government bodies rendered in lowercase when we do not do the same for British ones.

You can see why it’s happened. But you can also see the potential ramifications of the decision, spreading out into other parts of the style guide. Because proper nouns aren’t a problem – or, rather, they are, but they are just the low-hanging fruit: the easiest decision to make among many more difficult ones if you’re trying to write a stylebook for a multinational media group.

How much further, if at all, can you go? For example, take non-proper nouns. In a story about the US Department of Labor and the Teamsters, how would you spell “organised labo(u)r” – with a ‘U”, as the British spelling, or without, to match the style for the department?

And the issues go beyond individual words. American, British and Australian English all have their own idioms, coloured by aspects of national life, which will overlap in a poly-national newspaper’s output. Do you try to regularise that? Which synonym will writers be permitted to use: “break a duck” or “get off the schneid”? Or both? Or – worst of all – neither?

American English has a huge influence over global English. Might this decision signal the start of a retreat for British spelling, terminology, tone? Some people think so: some people even think that the UK headline might be on the way out. Paul Bradshaw at OnlineJournalism looks at this announcement, looks at Huffington Post UK’s American-style furniture, and concludes: “We can no longer assume British journalists will be writing for British publications in a British style”.

Regularising the language that a news organisation uses sounds controversial but simple – a matter, basically, of decisiveness, of breaking eggs to make an omelette. But it isn’t simple: it’s almost impossible, because you can’t regularise a vocabulary without regularising the viewpoint that goes with it. The way to achieve that would be to populate all your overseas bureaus with staff from your native country: to export the British sensibility into a new milieu so that it can report back, using familiar spellings and similes, to the audience at home.

But that’s not what the globally ambitious UK news organisations – the Guardian, the Mail, the BBC – are trying to do. Their mission is much bigger: not just to report America to the British, but to report America to Americans too (and Britain to America, as well as – still – Britain to the British). So the New York bureau staff accreting round Guardian US’s British core are largely American. The same is happening in Sydney and Melbourne, where a parallel effort – British management, local staff – is taking place to report Australia to itself and the rest of the English-speaking world. The content being generated is not just letter-from-Los-Angeles dispatches for the foreign pages; it’s local stories for a local audience too.

So, if the Guardian’s Australian cartoonist chooses to commemorate Gough Whitlam on the occasion of his death, the sketches are not workshopped around three bureaus to check for name recognition. The cartoon is launched straight up onto the site from Sydney – side by side with the British cartoonists on Comment is Free – in the confidence that an audience interested enough to click on it will either know what it’s about or be interested enough to find out. When the Daily Mail puts Imogen Anthony straight onto its UK homepage with the briefest of descriptions (“23-year-old Australian model”), they are confident that the story (“sexiest dress I’ve ever worn!”) will make up for the other questions rising in British readers’ minds (“who?”).

And it follows that if the content is local, the language must be too. Rationalising the spelling and capitalisation of all proper nouns is almost as far as the style guide can go: any attempt to favour one dialect over another is just going to alienate the new home audiences that the overseas bureaus are trying to engage. The only thing to do is to let every bureau speak in its own voice and the trust that readers will adjust. If they can switch between the news agendas of three different territories – and, apparently, we already think they can – they can adapt to the unfamiliar expressions that go with them.

And that’s why the British headline isn’t dead. Perhaps it will now have to share space at home with transatlantic and antipodean ones, but the opposite is also true. For every British headline that disappears from a UK homepage, there will be another that appears on a screen in Detroit or Brisbane, encouraging a curious reader to go a little further, click on the link, find out why people are angry about a mysterious “Cobra briefing”, “D-Notice”, “ten-minute-rule bill”. The terms may be unfamiliar, but the issues might not be. And if it’s in the news, it’s probably important.

Red alert

8 Nov

This correction isn’t wrong, as far as it goes. But I’m not sure it’s right either.

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For sure, Antonov, based in Kiev, is domiciled in and owned by what is now the independent state of Ukraine. But the famous company was not exactly a pre-Communist symbol of national aviation. It was founded after the war as Soviet Research and Design Bureau No 153 in Siberia, under a Russian, before moving to Ukraine in the 1950s.  And the An-26 – Nato reporting name “Curl” – is a proper Cold War relic too: the first one flew in 1969; the last one was built in the year Gorbachev came to power. They were conceived at the height of Soviet influence, by a Kremlin-sponsored constructor operating in a highly centralised union that extended across 15 states. Is it historically meaningful to insist that they were “Ukrainian-made”? Or has the strife that has split the countries today created a retrospective sensitivity to a distinction that was much murkier then than it is now?*

Or perhaps the objection is simply related  to the continued use of “Russia” as a metonym for “Soviet”. Certainly, it’s hard to think now, amid the complexity of national tensions in the region, that the word “Russia” used to be taken to include Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states at a stroke. But it did, ubiquitously: during coverage of the Cuban missile crisis; in this piece written in 2007 by Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita; and in this one on Soviet design written earlier this year, to take just three examples from the Guardian itself. In each case, “Russia” appears in the headline for “USSR”; in the latter two, commenters regularly adopt the same usage below the line.

So it’s not quite clear why this correction has suddenly come up. Not, as I say, that the readers’ editor is wrong. The meaning and resonance of “Russia” is changing, and the best solution, here and probably every time this issue comes up, is to say “Soviet-made”. Perhaps it’s timely: stories about the eastern bloc will be high up the news list this weekend as we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down.

But when there’s an old Cold War turboprop droning into British airspace over Kent and RAF fighters going supersonic to intercept it, it takes you straight back to 1981. No wonder the writer reached for the comforting Iron Curtain terminology that people of my age grew up with. Enemies are like jokes: the old ones are the best.

 

An Antonov An-26 of the Hungarian air force. Photograph: Adrian Pingstone

An Antonov An-26 of the Hungarian air force. Photograph: Adrian Pingstone via Wikipedia

 

* And, if enforced, would this rule also applies to other eastern bloc products? Trabants are the vivid automotive symbol of the differences on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall; would they now be described as “German-made” because the DDR no longer exists? 

 

 

Errors and omissions excepted

29 Oct

Wow:

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Kevin Langston, the New York Post reports, who was given 15 years in jail for his part in a gun-running operation, “is about to get sprung from the slammer early”  because of a mistake: the court’s official record shows he was only given a sentence of five years. According to the Post, “prosecutors say the transcript showing the shorter term was missing a ‘1’ due to ‘an error by the court reporter’, who has since retired and can’t be found”.

The Brooklyn district attorney is clear that this is a straightforward mistake:

“It is our position that this defendant benefited from a court reporter’s error,” said a spokeswoman for DA Ken Thompson. Langston, she said, “heard the judge sentence him to 15 years. The sentencing judge gave him 15 years, and that is what he should serve.”

But the appeals court does not see it as being nearly so straightforward, and has now ruled that Langston had “acquired a legitimate expectation of finality” with the five-year sentence. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle points out, although the court did have the power to amend the errant transcript, it went uncorrected for seven years.

The ultimate decision in the case – the DA’s office is reportedly “weighing its options” – will be a complex one, likely to involve discussions of double jeopardy (for example, whether any change in the transcript would mean Langston was being sentenced twice for the same crime).  But the central problem is a very familiar one to anyone who, like me, used to work as a legal editor: in court, typos are not a trivial matter.

Years ago, while working on a book about bills of lading and maritime law, I was proofreading extracts from widely used bills quoted in the text against the original documents. Quite by chance, I discovered that a significant chunk of one popular bill’s terms and conditions had gone missing from the latest official reprinting of the form. They were present in our book, quoted from the previous version, but absent from the small type on the new document itself.

I drew the author’s attention to this as a curiosity. Somewhat to my surprise, he not only got in touch with the issuing authority – which confirmed this had been an accidental omission – but insisted on reopening that chapter to explain what was absent, concluding that, legally, “the effect of this is unclear, to say the least”. Whatever the upshot of a hypothetical dispute over the missing clauses on that form might have been, it was clear that they could not simply be taken as read.

In descriptivist linguistics, what is meant ultimately takes precedence over what is said: this is why double negatives become intensifiers, “head over heels” means “upside down” and “irregardless” means the same as “regardless”. But in law, and in legal editing, it is frequently the other way round. What is said can trump what is meant – even if there was no confusion about intent; even if there was a mistake. This is why when you’re editing a court report – or writing a headline that might one day appear before a judge – descriptivism may not be enough to save you. When the lawyers are hovering, it’s not enough to know what you meant; you have to know what you’ve said.

 

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