A talent to amaze

16 Apr

Goodness, can this be right? Is the most famous friendship in British showbusiness under so much pressure that fans have been reduced to tears – and all because of one presenter’s jibe about the other presenter’s wife?

No, of course not. Nothing of the sort. And yet every word of that headline is true.

For those concerned, And and Dec are not at each other’s throats over something Ant said about Dec’s wife. As soon as you  read past the headline, you find out what really happened. But of course by then, fearing the worst, you’ve already clicked on the link.

What actually happened was that, as part of hosting Britain’s Got Talent, Ant and Dec went on stage with an illusionist who played on the fact of their close friendship by blindfolding them and making it appear that each could feel when the other was being touched on the arm. They then both drew something with their eyes closed that turned out to be identical. This was the “test” of how close they were, and the thing that apparently moved viewers to tears. Prior to that – and unrelated to the “tests” – Ant had observed to Dec how amusing it would be if the illusionist, whose face was completely covered, turned out to be someone they knew, like Dec’s wife.*

Why, in a story full of celebrity moments and eyecatching variety acts – including my favourite, the tambourinist who hits himself in the face with his tambourine – did that brief aside make it all the way into the headline? Perhaps we can make a guess.

The misapprehension can’t survive through the lengthy standfirst, of course, so the confusion evaporates almost as soon as a reader has clicked through to the article. But we have talked before about how misleading headlines can be, even accidentally, when divorced – as they often are on homepages – from any accompanying furniture. If the ambiguity is not entirely an accident … well, then the sky’s the limit.

And you can see how easily such confusion can be created. After years of reading real news, the brain assumes the most important facts of the story are in the headline, that those facts are related to each other, and that, in the language of headlinese, prepositions imply causation. All you need to do is subvert any one of those conventions – and this headline, by accident or design, breaks all three – and you’ve created fake news. You don’t have to make anything up. You just have to leave things out.


* You might think that struggles to qualify as a “jibe”. And you might also think the viewers were reduced to tears by Ant and Dec jointly. You might not think it was entirely down to Ant (whose troubled personal life has made him, of the two, far more the subject of newsroom interest in the past two years).


Nice and accurate

2 Apr

“Completely bizarre Daily Mail article,” writes Neil Gaiman on Twitter, “possibly written by something not human, like an elk.”* And you can see what he means, although a competent elk would probably have made a better job of the first par/second par transition than this:

The article is, indeed, so odd that some people on Gaiman’s timeline wondered if it was written by a something like a bot (there’s only a ‘Daily Mail Reporter’ byline). “Also joining the 48-year-old was co-stars Michael Sheen and David Tennant.” (“Was”?) “Aisha fit right in with the Austin scene in a Rock & Roll T-shirt, blazer, jeans and dancer-like shoes.” (“Dancer-like”?) “The writer opted for a casual look in a black T-shirt and jeans, but attempted to dress up his ensemble with a blazer and dress shoes.” (“Attempted to”? Ouch.)

Then there’s the fact that the article describes the event as a premiere, when it was nothing of the kind: just a panel discussion. Then there’s the fact that it says the book was “co-written by Neil and the late Sir Terry in 1990” (Sir Terry who?) to “poke fun of” the Bible. Then there’s what Gaiman says is his favourite sentence in the piece: “Good Omens is based on a fictional book of the same name.” (Except that the article gives the title as “Good Omens: the Nice and Accurate”, which is longer than the title of the TV series and shorter than the full title of the book, “Good Omens: the Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch”).

And yet, when you look at the numerous photographs that accompany the article – in the best Mail tradition, eight of them in an article that barely musters 275 words – you do sense the presence of human intervention. Understandably in the circumstances, somebody has cut and pasted sentences wholesale from the text into the captions and prefaced them with the kind of slightly desperate, added-value kickers (“Plot thickens”, “Men of the hour”) familiar to any sub-editor who has ever had to pull together a picture story based on no information.

At least, I assume no bot yet devised is capable of noticing the non-rhyming alliteration of “Dapper Draper”, knowing where the boundary is between “casual” and “smart”, or creating that air of teeth-gritted conscientiousness as yet another photo of the same two people gets inserted into the end of the piece, requiring yet another caption. But who knows? If the alarming AI text generator GPT2 can imitate a columnist, it can presumably learn to think like a sub-editor. (Although if it has, why didn’t it call them the “O-men of the hour”? I mean, come on!)

*As noticed and passed on by Ten Minutes Past Deadline’s ever-alert Memphis office

Hard re-set

19 Mar

You see what we have to put up with?

This story’s set very densely, so all I wanted to do was split one paragraph (highlighted) to create a bit of air and improve the column breaks later on. But as soon as I did that, Adobe Paragraph Composer, of its own accord, generated an extra line in the next paragraph. In the next paragraph! Not only that, but it did it just by turning a single word.

What’s going on? Adobe says:

When you use the Paragraph Composer, InDesign composes a line while considering the impact on the other lines in the paragraph, to set the best overall arrangement of the paragraph. As you change type in a given line, previous and subsequent lines in the same paragraph may break differently, making the overall paragraph appear more evenly spaced.

Right: but that’s in the same paragraph. All that happened to the subsequent paragraph is that it moved a line further down the column. And yet it automatically recomposed itself? Why?

There’s some grumbling about Paragraph Composer at the Tribune because of its occasional habit of making a par one line longer, rather than shorter, when you cut a word out of it. But I’ve never seen it do this. It’s almost as though there were a phantom Article Composer controlling the overall density of the piece based on the user’s cues. But if there is, it’s not a documented feature. And really, life’s busy enough without your editing software making the stories longer too.

The cowboy and the president

5 Mar

Social media is changing journalism fast. Old news can be made fresh when something nearly 50 years old goes viral. Allegations of criminality can be sourced to a single user with a pseudonymous Twitter handle. We are becoming used to the idea that sources may be anonymous even to the journalists citing them. But, even in this complicated age, what are we supposed to make of this?

“An account parodying the late Richard Nixon”? What is the reader supposed to understand from that? Is this tweet meant to be:

  • Written in Nixon’s persona as a satire on the Nixonian worldview? (Although it doesn’t sound particularly like him.)
  • Written in Nixon’s persona, but meant as imagined serious commentary from an acquaintance and contemporary of Wayne’s?
  • Written by whoever is behind the parody account in their own voice, having dropped the presidential mask (which is what it sounds most like)?

In other words, is this tweet intended to say something about Wayne, or something about Nixon? And is anyone at the Mail going to help the reader navigate through the layers of meaning to find out which?

Further down in the same article, another tweet is quoted from “Twitter user” Jonathan Pie.

Jonathan Pie is the alter ego of the British comedian Tom Walker – a fictional, ranting TV news reporter who has become a cult YouTube favourite and has sometimes been mistaken for a real journalist (including, almost, once, at the Tribune). “Twitter user” hardly seems to cover the complexities of that CV. Is the reader absolutely sure who he is? Is the Mail?

Never wrong for long

19 Feb

… sorry, what?

It seems clear what’s happened. Someone at the Daily Mail has been alerted to a developing situation at the ITV studios and burst out of their office shouting “Phil and Holly’s chef hasn’t shown up, so the king and queen of daytime TV are winging it live in the kitchen! GET SOMETHING UP ABOUT IT NOW!” And the breaking news desk, leaping into action, and probably assisted by a further helpful visit from management (“IS THAT UP YET?”), has pulled a story together and got it live on the site. The first take went up at 12.24pm, while that day’s edition of This Morning was still on air, which is good going. The trouble is, it does need a bit of a polish:

An economist?

What’s she going to do, advise them to diversify out of euro-dominated debt and purchase more equity exposure?

But this is the web, not print, and where a hastily published story goes, the revise desk can follow. Nothing’s set in (or on a) stone; everything can be fixed. About an hour later, a repair crew arrives and the opening paragraph is refettled:

The new lede is also followed by a proper nut graf:

and a clearer third par:

But not everything has been fixed, alas, as is frequently the case with publish-now-edit-later stories. “Ensure Holly and Phil incase they hurt themselves” remains extant, although further down the text than before. The economist is still the economist, even though ITV’s official video of the incident shows Schofield immediately correcting himself to say home economist. And the hastily constructed elegant variation – “blonde mother of three”, “golden-haired co-presenter” – looks like it’s now baked into the story for good.

That’s the trouble with “back-revising”, as it is known at the Tribune. In theory, you can go back to polish things up, but there’s never quite time to do it properly, so the first take all too often ends up as the final take. However much attention a published story might need, there’s always something else that hasn’t gone live yet, about which the desk is now shouting just as loudly.

Noun pile etiquette question

5 Feb

The noun piles have been out in force in the BBC’s top 10 news lists recently:

They’re more common (and more readily understood) in Britain than the US, and possibly more common on the BBC news site* than anywhere else – all of these were found on one January evening. They’re a bit of an eyeful, but what they lack in clarity they make up for in brevity.

Not all of them are hard to understand. “New York parking spot row” is fine, even if you’re unfamiliar with the story. Others contain a small amount of ambiguity: “footballer plane search” could be a search for a footballer by plane, or (as was sadly the case) a search for him and his plane. Others will only be intelligible to those already au fait with the news: “browser warning U-turn” refers to the Daily Mail’s unhappiness with the fact that one Microsoft Edge plugin marks its site as fake news. “Care home patient pregnancy” refers to a scandal over a vulnerable woman in an institution who has given birth to a child possibly fathered by one of the staff.

As a construction, they look like a gleeful free-for-all, but there are some things that don’t quite work even in noun piles. Recently, HeadsUp, a leading authority on the subject, unearthed these two:

The first one – “duke crash A-road” – is fine. The second one, though, is a bit odd. No matter how ambitious noun piles are, they all tend to follow one basic rule: that every noun added to the pile further narrows and defines the thing being talked about. So: “the speed limit”. Which speed limit? The “road speed limit”. Which road? “The crash road”. Which crash road? “The Prince Philip crash road”. Ah, that one.

But “A149” doesn’t fit into that sequence because it doesn’t contribute to the narrowing-down process. It’s not a defining feature of the “Prince Philip crash road”; it is the Prince Philip crash road. It’s a (much shorter) synonym for the noun pile as a whole. Read in the way one conventionally parses noun piles, it suggests that there might be two A149s, a Prince Philip one and a non-Prince Philip one, and of course there’s only one.

It looks less like a noun pile and more like a URL slug or painstaking SEO headline with all possible search terms included. Which helps with understanding, of course: but if you’re tight for space, you might not want to be describing the same thing twice.


*Possibly, one suspects, because the headline counts are so tight on the Most Read lists.


Gene editing

22 Jan

Ha. At the end, this reads a bit like …

Absurd, of course, but you could almost mistake “He”, meaning rogue Chinese geneticist He Jiankui, for “He” meaning the last person who spoke, David Liu. Ha! Amusing.

I mean, only for a moment. It’s just the lure of low attachment. No one will be genuinely misled. Pointless to worry about hypothetical microseconds of confusion like this.

I mean, you don’t want to be one of those editors who insists on not splitting “15 million” after “15” at the end of a line. There are bigger fish to fry. Factual errors could be sailing past your nose while you worry about footling details.

I mean, for example, we’re specifically told in the style guide only to hyphenate compound adjectives when there’s a genuine risk of confusion, not just a hypothetical one. Edit for real-world readers, not copydesk professionals who are mordantly obsessed with ambiguity. Come on, get on with it. It’s fine.


I’ll just change it.