Ya gotta be championship

24 May

You never alter a direct quote: that’s the strict editing rule. Reported speech can be tweaked, but if it’s inside quotation marks, you don’t touch it. Except that one newspaper followed that rule to the letter – and got into trouble for it from the interviewee himself.

In marked contrast to the usual accusations made by athletes against journalists, Carlos Gomez of the Houston Astros has complained to the Houston Chronicle, not that he was misquoted, but that he was quoted too accurately. JA Adande of sports website The Undefeated takes up the story:

If you think quoting people accurately can’t be controversial then you haven’t read about Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle relaying the English words of Dominican-born Houston Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez verbatim:

Gomez: “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”

Critics, including Gomez himself, accused Smith of ridiculing Gomez by highlighting the native Spanish speaker’s grammatical inaccuracies. The editor of the Chronicle apologized.

Since when should journalists apologize for being accurate?

You can understand Adande’s surprise. But in fact, the answer to his last question is actually contained in his previous paragraph: “Critics, including Gomez himself, accused Smith of ridicule”. This isn’t just officious peevers intervening over the head of the player being quoted: this is the player himself, feeling exposed in a foreign country over his inability to speak a foreign language. That’s when it’s at least worth thinking about what consequences “accuracy” has for the people we write about.

Adande is firmly of the opinion that forcing quotes into standard English is never the answer. He writes:

The Smith-Gomez flap brought up a debate about the old journalistic tradition of “cleaning up” quotes — that is, making slight fixes to align grammar and pronunciation with standard English.

This is a tradition that needs to go.

For one, it’s patronizing, with the implication that anything that deviates from the norm is inherently inferior and must be corrected. Black English, for example, isn’t a referendum on intelligence — it’s a reflection of centuries of segregation, just as American English is a linguistic representation of our country’s split from Britain. Passing judgment based on speech can often say more about the listener than the speaker.

He also cites the example of the Brazilian basketball player Leandro Barbosa of last year’s title-winning Golden State Warriors. At the end of an on-court interview after a win, Barbosa exclaimed, by way of conclusion, “We gonna be championship!”. The phrase, broken English or not, immediately took off on social media, became a rallying cry for the fans and the team, and is now firmly associated with the Warriors’ run to victory.

Adande’s interesting piece provoked another one, this time by Sports Illustrated columnist Richard Deitsch. Taking Adande’s bold thesis (“Do we consider Yoda any less wise because of his mixed-up syntax?”), he asked several fellow sports reporters how they dealt with the issues of culture, language and dialect when handling interviews.

Several of them share Adande’s uncompromising standpoint on accuracy: Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski, who writes about ice hockey, says of the NHL’s many Russian stars:

They said what they said in the manner in which they said it, and that was their intention. Just like I wouldn’t want someone changing some Jersey-fied malapropism in my quotes because it’s not correct, I wouldn’t want to do the same to Evgeni Malkin.

However, several others disagree and feel an obligation to protect their interviewees. Speaking of some of the Hispanic baseball players he covers, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News says:

“They might say ‘that team have two good player.’ Isn’t it only right to make it plural?”

And Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, while conceding that some colourful or expressive quotes are better left untouched, makes this distinction:

“It’s different with a person who struggles to explain himself or herself, or for whom English is a second language.”

And that, I think, is a key point. Professional sportspeople, these days, are not simply allowed to perform on the field: they are expected to perform off the field as well by giving interviews to the media. In professional leagues, such public appearances are usually mandatory, at the expense of a fine for non-compliance. This means that everyone – confident anglophone and withdrawn Russian-speaker alike – has to try to answer questions whether they are articulate in English or not.

That’s why it’s hard to agree in every case with Wyshynski’s position that players “said what they said in the manner in which they said it, and that was their intention”. Sometimes an interviewee may have made a conscious choice about using non-standard English; sometimes they may be talking in their natural voice. But, in many cases, they may not speak the language well enough to distinguish one register of English from another, and what they end up saying may be far from what they intended to convey.

Isola’s example, “player”/”players”, is also well-chosen. Many Spanish speakers of English have a tendency to devoice the final consonants of words, so rigidly transcribing what sounds like a singular in the name of “accuracy” can actually come across as an uncomfortable attempt to imitate someone’s accent.

So what to do? Well, one key distinction a reporter can make is to distinguish between those people who are speaking non-standard English deliberately and those who are speaking non-standard English by accident. Of course it would be crass, and sometimes racist, to completely rewrite a dialect-speaker’s quote into standard form. But you need to be able to distinguish between an extrovert centre-forward from Newcastle holding forth in his native Geordie, and a shy Montenegrin goalkeeper stumbling through a compulsory interview in a language he would rather not be speaking at all.

Adande is also bullish about the way non-standard quotes are being received in a world where “reasonable people can make allowances for those who use English as a second language”. But it’s not entirely clear that the picture is as rosy as that. Adande’s position is that Barbosa’s quote became a rallying cry despite not being in standard English: proof of how all English speakers can make themselves understood without the need for Strunk & White. But there’s also an uncomfortable sense that Barbosa’s quote became famous because he was not speaking in standard English: because native anglophones thought it was cute – ESL speakers say the funniest things! – and passed it around for the enjoyment of others more fluent in the language.

It can, admittedly, be difficult to tell which side of the line a case falls. Here’s a Vine of Barbosa’s famous quote: you can hear that he’s far from a defensive interviewee,* and is certainly confident enough with the media to offer an epigram at the end of a question. But equally, it’s not clear that he intended to cause the delighted amusement he apparently provokes.

It must be hard for players to know how to respond when something like this happens. Imagine you were a goalkeeper in the Bundesliga and mangled what you hoped would be an inspirational quote in your faltering German. Then imagine that this quote inspired such joy among the fans that it got painted on banners all over the stadium and chanted whenever you made a save. Would you feel proud that something you said, by accident, had caught on? Or would you feel embarrassed at how poor your language skills were? Certainly Barbosa has made the former choice: he embraced his quote and is now promising “We Gonna Be Championship Part II” for 2016 on Twitter. Gomez – who was hoping for some protection from the writer or copydesk and didn’t get it – not so much.

The risk of being seen to patronise interviewees by cleaning up their quotes is at least partly balanced by the risk of being seen to have ridiculed them by leaving them untouched. Barbosa’s quote went out live on TV and became a phenomenon straightaway, but print journalists have time to think before they make a player a star because of a picturesque malapropism.

So you have to make a judgment about the speaker’s intent. Are you riding roughshod over an athlete’s right to choose his register, or are you taking advantage of a man who is only speaking English because the league ordered him to? If a running back delivers a confident tirade in African-American English about race relations in the NFL, then of course you shouldn’t change a word of it. Run it verbatim. But if the kicker’s just forgotten the word for “stadium” in his third language, you might want to give him a break.

(hat-tip to @TheSlot for posting the links to both articles)

* You can see the full interview here.

 

 

Zeroes and ones, part three

11 May

One of the occupational hazards of being a journalist is that when a howler appears in the paper, all your friends know exactly who to call. Especially when they’re highly qualified science and maths graduates, and especially when the howler in question is a pretty glaring failure to check the sums.

So when this the first paragraph appeared in an article from the US office:

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Followed by this information in the third paragraph:

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Followed by this handy graphic as an explainer:

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It wasn’t long before this appeared on my Facebook page:

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Fortunately, because they’re all highly qualified science and maths types, when the bumbling former English student has questions, they have the explanations ready to hand:

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So, for future reference: any percentage increase from 0% to any higher percentage is an infinite increase; but any percentage-point increase from 0% to a higher percentage is as simple a sum as can be: <higher percentage> – 0.

Meanwhile, the web news production editor has just sent this chastening email round to all subs:

Hi
A common error has popped up again so I just wanted to remind everyone that converting differences in temperatures is different to converting actual temperatures.
For example:
A temperature of 2C is 35.6F
but …
a difference in temperature of 2C is 3.6F.
 Thank goodness my friends didn’t see that story before it was corrected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Used’ misused

27 Apr

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Hmm, not quite. There seems to have been a lot of this coming across the desk recently: politicians “using” speeches to say things. It used to be that speeches were only ever “made”; now, more and more of them are apparently serendipitous opportunities to be taken advantage of, as though every speaking engagement offered an open platform and a plastic audience, waiting for a politician to set the debate.

It’s a minor point, but the two aren’t quite co-terminous. It’s correct to say “use” for some occasions – for example, major set-piece speeches that exist on the calendar as regular events. When President Kennedy exhorted Americans to “ask what you can do for your country”, he was speaking at his inaugural address: something that all new presidents can be expected to make, but whose content depends entirely on the speaker. That, had anyone been using the phrase at the time, would have been a good example of “using a speech” to rally the country. And on a slightly less elevated note, when George Osborne announced the re-privatisation of Britain’s nationalised banks, he did so at the 2013 Mansion House speech – again, an annual diary event at which the chancellor is expected to appear and say something, but whose agenda is left entirely open.

However, if there’s no such diary event in prospect – if the opportunity to speak has to be created out of nothing – the term isn’t nearly so accurate. If Jeremy Corbyn is standing in front of a backcloth saying LABOUR IN FOR BRITAIN while making a speech about staying in the EU, or Michael Gove is urging Brexit in front of a huge banner saying VOTE LEAVE TAKE CONTROL, that’s not using a speech; that’s making a speech. Those addresses aren’t open-mic nights in neutral venues, they’re campaign stops: media opportunities where the event has been created for the message, not the message for the event.

There’s a difference. Or there is at the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if usage makes it blur.

What’s in a Neym?

11 Apr

This is a bit easy, don’t you think? I know the headline counts on tabloids are pretty tight, but things get an awful lot simpler if you’re allowed to shorten anybody’s name to anything at all you like. Wayne Rooney becomes Roo, Neymar becomes Neym, Roman Abramovich becomes Rom; in America – or at least, in that most British of American tabloids, the New York Post – Mayor Bill de Blasio is Blas and NYPD officers on the receiving end of disciplinary action from Commissioner Bill Bratton get a “Bratt Whack”.

You can apparently even do it two different ways in the same article: on one Sun back page, Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino is POCH in the headline and MAUR in the standfirst, to go with MOUR (Jose Mourinho). Sometimes tabloids have quite strict style-guide rules for this sort of thing, but apparently not in this case: pick any short group of distinctive letters that fits your measure, and away you go.

It’s not even as though these are anyone’s established nicknames. Wayne Rooney is known to team-mates as “Wazza”, not “Roo”. Teenage sensation Marcus Rashford’s nom de guerre is reportedly “Money”, not “Rash”. And whatever David de Gea’s nickname is, I’m pretty sure it’s not “De”.

It’s enough to make any punctilious broadsheet sub jealous. Just imagine what we could do given the same freedom: NIX QUITS. DEW DEFEATS TRU. But while the tabs have been granted the licence to dance around Jan Vennegoor Of Hesselink with abandon, we’re on our own when it comes to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov. Let’s hope nothing serious happens regarding the Madagascan presidency before Hery Rajaonarimampianina steps down.

Where’s the splash?

29 Mar

newyork_times.750-2

Back in New York last week, just in time to see spring: sunlight illuminating wide, peaceful Broadway on the Upper West Side, blossom bobbing in the cold wind outside 72nd Street station. Like any Manhattan visitor, I did the Manhattan things one does: walking the High Line, going to a Broadway show, spending five solid minutes looking at the map trying to work out which F trains stop at Second Avenue.* And, of course, I read the New York Times.

As a broadsheet journalist, I understand the value of restraint, of course. And nuance, and the plurality of agendas that need to be reflected on a mature front page. But as I read (and, annoyingly, mislaid) an edition last week that was laid out just like the one pictured above, I still found myself wondering: which story’s the splash?

Instinctively I look first to the top left of a front page, to the first column, where there is indeed a story: the Bloomberg one. Is that the lead? The famously distinctive typography offers few clues: but the headline for the four column pic story appears to be in almost exactly the same bold italic. Over on the right, though, in column 6, the headline is in semi-bold caps. Does that outrank bold ital? There’s a subhead and a standfirst too: on sheer weight of furniture, it’s probably Saudis that’s the splash, way over on the right. But it took a while to find it.

The similarity of headline styles above the fold is one of the most striking things about the NYT to British eyes. It’s not that they’re small; it’s that they seem almost all the same size. By comparison, the template for a big double-page spread at the Tribune envisages a fully 40-point gap between the main headline on the page (66pt bold serif display) and the second and subsequent ones (26pt sans regular).

In fact, if you look at another striking Times layout, with the lead story in column 6 and the second story in column 5,

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you can see that there is a difference in size between the caps and the bold italics, but it’s hard to detect if they’re not right next to each other. (Also, below the pic, there is a regular, unemphasised upper-and-lower headline that appears to be slightly larger than the bold italic headline next to it. Does that make it more or less important?)

Just add to the confusion, here’s another layout from January with two all-caps headlines, one on the right, one under the picture.

newyork_times.750

Again, the extra trimmings suggest the column 6 story is the splash, but it’s hardly what you’d call over-displayed. In fact, in all three examples, the paper is in effect being led by the photograph – especially the second one, which grandly takes up the first four columns on the page, displacing every headline down or to the right.

Typography in British newspapers is designed around the mystique of the splash: the one big story, with one big headline, delivered per day, with a supporting cast of other items as decoration. It makes every front page lively: everything looks good in 72-point bold. But the headline type doesn’t get smaller on a slow news day, so ordinary stories can end up getting a fanfare they can’t quite live up to. British news typography works on a relative scale: forget yesterday or the moon landings – this is what’s big today.

By contrast, the standard Times layouts functions at their best on slow news days: days where there are two lead stories, or, frankly, none. The single-column headlines over single-column stories communicate a judicious calm – a longer view – and a certain sense of honesty about the day’s events: an impression that many things are happening, and many things are news. So if you’re looking at a copy of the Times and wondering what the big story is, you can often find yourself agreeing with the paper: perhaps there isn’t one today.

 

* My provisional conclusion: they all do. In fact, I think, stopping at Second Avenue may be one of the defining characteristics of the F train, distinguishing it from the constellation of alphabetic alternatives (B, D, M etc) that share the line on their way to two different termini in Brooklyn, two in Queen’s and one in the Bronx via six different routes through Manhattan. I think.

 

 

New Day, old echoes

15 Mar

Regular reader Jeff writes:

Literally the first sentence of the first article in issue 01 of The New Day begins “The controversial Bedroom Tax will be under the spotlight…” – the benefit charge/penalty nickname unqualified, unquoted and capitalised. The paper says it has “no political bias” but this style decision would seem to indicate otherwise…

He’s got a point. The New Day, the breezy – and, remarkably for these days, print-only – tabloid launched in Britain this month makes a point, as its editor writes, of impartiality: “Welcome to the New Day. Here you’ll find no political bias. In fact, we’ll give you both sides of the argument and let you make up your own mind.” But, as Jeff points out, that can be a difficult promise to stick to. Not because it doesn’t provide both points of view – the New Day does that diligently, with a for and against opinion piece on either side of a fact-box briefing – but because, as we’ve discussed before, there are attitudes and biases buried deep in your choices of phrase, deep in your style guide, that betray what you really think.

The “bedroom tax”, of course, is only called that by its opponents. If you’re in favour of the partial reclamation of housing benefit from those deemed to have more space in social housing than they need, then it’s the “spare room subsidy”, as government ministers repeatedly attest on television. As a leftie Tribune journalist, I’m very much in favour of calling it the former; but even I’m aware that neither of them are anything like neutral terms. In fact, there is no neutral term for it at the moment: so the New Day has no choice but to pick sides in its headline.

And it doesn’t end there. In a subsequent edition we find this:

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Once again, there’s  meticulously balanced pro- and anti- opinion piece on the same page, but it’s rather a moot point given that the standfirst has already made up its mind. The “snoopers’ charter” – or, as its supporters prefer, the Communications Data Bill – is another of those subjects where the term for the initiative is itself in dispute, and presents a trap for the unwary.

It happens in the smaller type too. Refugees are “refugees”, not “migrants”: again, another ruling that chimes with Ten Minutes Past Deadline’s outlook, but one with which surely not all readers will agree. Also, the phrase “avoided jail” has made an appearance in an early edition; as the Tribune’s production editor notes:

This can sometimes read as if we think they should have been jailed … It would be better to say what punishment was actually given to them rather than take it on ourselves to imply that they should have been given a different one.

It’s not an easy problem to solve. In fact, the New Day might well argue, what are you supposed to call the snoopers’ charter in the furniture – especially in a three-word headline and a 16-word standfirst? You’ve got two or three words to signal to the reader what’s going on. There just isn’t space to give an impartial summing-up of the rhetorical differences. And the commitment to impartiality is genuine: the face-to-face shootouts between commentators signal it clearly. It’s just that even where the spirit is willing, the language can’t always follow.

 

Comment in chains

1 Mar

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What’s great about the internet is that there’s space for everyone. All views get an airing, even if it’s only in the comments below the line. This person thinks that Kanye is today’s Mozart: a minority opinion, perhaps, but one now proudly spoken. The voiceless have been given a voice.

Or perhaps not quite in this case, because this is my friend from California, trolling. He’s taking part in the “Daily Mail game”, in which competitors join in conversations in the comments under Mail articles and try to score as many downvotes (as awarded by fellow commenters) as possible for their remarks. As we can see, this one has scored a splendid 176 red negative votes, and, obviously a natural (“Honestly, we need closer ties with Europe!”), he’s already close to 5,000 down-arrows overall.

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And this, perhaps, is a hint as to why the tide appears to be turning against comments on new stories. In April 2014, the Chicago Sun-Times suspended reader comments on its site, and, as Wired recounts, over the intervening period almost a dozen notable news outlets have done something similar. In most cases, they have done it quietly, or partially, or temporarily, sometimes under the guise of technological upgrades to create “new commenting experiences”.

But now, since the start of the year, the Daily Telegraph has not only relaunched its website without a comments feature, but made it a point of public policy (“readers can continue to comment on and share articles through Telegraph Facebook pages, or via Twitter, in the usual way”). And, most strikingly of all, the Guardian – the paper that embraces the dictum of its most famous editor that “Comment is Free” – has announced a scaling back of its below-the-line facility that will see comments disabled automatically on race, immigration or Islam stories unless there are sufficient resources to provide the high level of moderation such subjects always require.

Comments under news stories have always created problems for their hosts: the lurking threat of libel or false rumour, the disingenuous astroturfing, the hate speech, the wandering off topic, the flippant bad taste over disasters. The rise of online engagement has led to the rise of what the Guardian’s former editor, Alan Rusbridger, has described as an entirely “new breed” of journalist – moderators – whose entire job is to control the risks commenters create. But until now, news organisations have stuck with them nonetheless, because of the one huge benefit they provide: audience.

People who just read a story click on it once. But if they comment on a story, they become involved. If someone replies to their comment, they click again to read and reply. If someone else comments, perhaps they reply to that. They check back in to see how the debate is progressing, or if the author has joined in, or how many recommendations their original comment has earned. Every time counts as a click, a visit; clicks and visits add up to an audience. And audience is what you use to sell digital advertising.

As print sales have declined and the internet has risen, newspapers’ strategy for survival has depended on this kind of audience – especially the loyal, core audience that comes back time and again. As hardcopy circulation declined and less money came in from print adverts, the reasoning went, digital readership would grow, and more money would come in from internet adverts. And digital readership did grow, smoothly – in the Tribune’s case, from 6 million to 7 million to 8 million a day. In fact, it’s still growing. But, as of last summer, the other half of the equation has failed: newspapers’ digital ad revenues have just collapsed.

The reasons for this are complex: some leading advertising figures are beginning to suspect that digital advertising is simply not being viewed, thanks to ad blockers, and are reluctant to spend. Many are turning towards the vast, data-rich, targetable audience that big social media sites can provide and away from newspapers’ much smaller, much more opaque readerships. (According to one set of statistics, the digital ad market grew by 30% year on year – but all but 1 percentage point of that went to Google and Facebook.) The future for newspapers was already looking tricky even while online revenues were going up. But, whatever the reasons, the unthinkable has now happened: there is now no growth in either print advertising or digital advertising.

Obviously, the consequences of this, if it continues, will be manifold, and the decisions to be taken difficult. But one conclusion seems inescapable: that the link between audience and revenue has been broken. And if that’s the case, then the risks papers run by publishing online comments suddenly seem much less worthwhile than they did before. Now a growing downside has to be managed – numbers of comments are still rising – while the upside has stagnated. And so one of the first things to happen in this new, underfunded future may be an extension of a trend that’s already becoming apparent: that comments will simply be turned off.*

 

 

*Not here though – comments are very much open, as always

 

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