How to write a claim quote

16 May

Breaking:

A US Congressman has shocked Capitol Hill by claiming to know the identity of crimefighting hero Superman. Hank Bystander (D-NY), whose congressional district covers southern Midvale in Metropolis, told a hearing of the newly formed House committee on media ethics: “It’s no secret in the neighbourhood. We know who Superman is. He’s another damn journalist. His name is Clark Kent, and he writes for the Daily Planet.”

This is a somebody-said-something story. It’s on the record, from a person of substance, and unquestionably attention-grabbing; but it comes without any supporting evidence. It is, to use the laconic phrase heard on the Tribune newsdesk, “interesting if true”. So the display type will not announce CLARK KENT IS SUPERMAN in the newspaper’s own voice: it will attribute the claim to the person who said it, and leave readers to judge for themselves.

How will it do that? There are a couple of options. The first headline option (Type A) is the splashy, read-me, direct-speech quote:

CONGRESSMAN: ‘WE KNOW WHO SUPERMAN IS’

This is beyond reproach: the quote is verbatim, the attribution explicit. The only problem with using a direct quote is that, as here, natural speech doesn’t compress all the news into the very short sentence you need. So you could take the more informative option (Type B) of reported speech plus attribution:

SUPERMAN IS DAILY PLANET JOURNALIST, SAYS CONGRESSMAN

The congressman did not actually utter the phrase “Superman is Daily Planet journalist”, of course, in crisp headlinese. He said: “His name is Clark Kent, and he writes for the Daily Planet.” But this is reported speech, not direct speech, and the paraphrasing of reported speech is uncontroversial, as long as it accurately reflects the sense of what was said.

And then, in the British headline tradition, there is a third option. In the UK, it is further permissible (almost always for reasons of space) to take that headline, remove the attribution and put the claim, in its paraphrased form, back into quotes to create a claim quote:

SUPERMAN ‘IS DAILY PLANET JOURNALIST’

It is sometimes thought that claim quote headlines are a cavalier, irresponsible form of Type A headline, in which a direct quote is rewritten to suit the newspaper’s purposes and passed off as another’s words. In fact, what they are – or should be – is this: truncated Type B headlines. The key test of a proper claim quote headline is not that you can find the exact quote somewhere in the story, but that you can reverse-engineer it into reported speech plus attribution using the information in the opening paragraphs.*

How, then, can you tell a claim quote from an actual quote? In British headline culture, the most significant clue is the presence of quote marks but the absence of attribution. Type B headlines, of course, do not need quote marks at all, and even in the UK, readers would be disappointed to see a Type A headline – quote marks and an attribution together – if the quotation was not verbatim from the source. Quotes are the lifeblood of journalism in the UK as they are everywhere else – the Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan once sourly observed that he saw media interviews as a reductive game in which journalists would try to get him to use a certain word: if he avoided saying that word, he won; if it slipped out, he lost. Accordingly, the presence of a direct quote and an attribution together in a headline is usually an indicator of a journalistic “victory” of this type, where the story is that a public figure has used a newsworthy turn of phrase.

However, to British readers, an unattributed quote does not primarily indicate the presence of speech, but the presence of a claim. If the quote happens to be verbatim, then so much the better; but either way its significance is the same. The likeliest purpose of an unattributed quote in a headline is to signal the newspaper’s reservations about its veracity. The presumption is that unattributed quotes in Fleet Street headlines rarely indicate speech; they almost always indicate doubt.

* This is the key measure of viability, but not the only one; HeadsUp has been collecting a number of claim-quote heds that scrape through this test but fail on wider grounds of comprehension or readability. Claim quotes may be widespread in British journalism, but they’re not exempted from the normal rules of syntax. 

You ‘can’t say that’

2 May

Years ago – and this is pre-YouTube, so I’ve been searching in vain for clips – there used to be a segment of a British satirical news quiz that revolved entirely around putting claim quotes in headlines.

I have a distinct memory of Dara O Briain being in charge, so perhaps it was a round on Mock The Week. Anyway, what would happen is that utterly scandalous, defamatory headlines about eminent people would flash up onto the screen, and the contestants would have to insert claim quotes around the most damaging parts to avoid their imaginary newspaper being sued for libel. The more of the headline you could let stand outside the quotes, the more points you got: those who played it safe and put the entire thing in quotation marks were greeted with jeers and cries of “Cowards!” from the chair.

The fact that this idea could ever form part of a national light entertainment programme says a lot about how well understood claim quotes are in the British public imagination. But it also reveals something slightly more worrying: a perception that claim quotes are not just a way to signal a newspaper’s distance from allegations, but a magic device that can be deployed to bamboozle lawyers, avoid editorial responsibility, or quarantine any phrase you’re not quite sure of.

Which is perhaps why we sometimes end up with headlines like this:

The saga of the young people who paid thousands to attend a de luxe event in the Bahamas only to find themselves trapped in ramshackle tents and fed packed lunches has been all the rage on social media, so it’s not surprising the Telegraph has been looking into it. This is their headline, containing not one but two quoted elements, on their main news story last week.

The second quoted element, “mugged, stranded and hungry”, is a classic claim quote – which is to say, not an actual quote, but an allegation in reported speech placed within quotation marks to signal its contested nature. This is the headline convention that British TV audiences are familiar with: the shorthand that stands in for a full attribution, such as “claim customers” or “say unhappy youngsters”, that will be made clear in the text. As you read the story, you do indeed find third parties complaining of all three of those things, although the case for hunger is perhaps more understood than explicit.

The first quoted element, however, is a different matter. You can look up and down the story, and not see a single reference to either the Hunger Games or Rich Kids of Instagram. And to be clear, I don’t just mean that nobody says it verbatim: I mean that nobody says it at all – not in the embedded tweets, not in the quotes, not in the reporter’s own words. What appears to have happened is that the back bench has perceived the resemblance between the news and two evergreen memes – one relating to teenage excess, the other to teenage suffering – and boiled the story down to one pithy phrase in the headline. But if so, why is it in quotes?

You can certainly quibble with this characterisation. Yes, the victims are (probably) rich kids who (probably) use Instagram, but Rich Kids of Instagram (#RKOI), as originally conceived, is something more specific: an ostentatious photography series published by heirs of wealthy families showing themselves driving Ferraris, flying on Learjets or emptying bottles of Krug over their waterproof Rolexes. Many of the Instagram influencers who were reportedly paid to publicise this festival are a different breed: semi-celebrities or actual celebrities with large personal followings rather than unknown trust-fund babies.

Similarly, you may not feel that an amusing photo of a cheese sandwich justifies a comparison with the Hunger Games novels, in which teenagers are forced to fight to the death for food in a post-apocalyptic tournament. It’s a judgment call: you might decide that the popularity and social implications of the story justify a little hyperbole.

But the point is: quote marks aren’t going to help. This isn’t a claim, or even a report of a claim: it’s a commentary. Newspapers are fully at liberty to editorialise in headlines, of course, but they have to do it in their own voice. If you feel the characterisation is witty and apposite, take the quote marks off. If you feel you’re pushing it by making the comparison, don’t make it. This is your idea, your analysis; you’re not entitled to pass it off as somebody else’s.

As this blog has had occasion to say before, claim quotes do not exist for headline writers to signal doubts about their own work, or avoid the consequences of their own words. Claim quotes are for claims: claims made by other people. They’re a peculiarly British convention that other anglophone journalists don’t immediately understand: that’s not entirely surprising, since we don’t always get them right ourselves.

Worth a thousand words

18 Apr

You can almost see the brushstrokes:

When you’re adding a picture to a news story for the web, of course you have to write a caption. But you will also be asked to create some “alt text” – a brief, embedded description of the photograph that is invisible under normal circumstances, but may appear if you hover your pointer over it in the browser. By far alt text’s most useful function is that it can be read out loud by a screen reader – a piece of software that translates a web page into the spoken word for visually impaired computer users.

That means, of course, that you probably can’t just cut and paste the caption you’ve just written: this is no place for snark or commentary. If the photo is of the Alabama lacrosse team celebrating after breaking an 0-for-7 start, your caption may say “Tide: off the schneid”, but the alt text needs to say “Alabama lacrosse team players celebrating”.

And if that’s true for photographs, it’s equally true for cartoons. What’s being portrayed may be a little more, er, unusual, but that doesn’t alter the nature of the task: you still have to provide a faithful verbal description of what the illustration shows. Have confidence, and the muscular metaphors of the political cartoonist will come to life in the mind’s eye almost as surely as if they were looking at the original watercolour.

You could practically display them in a gallery:

 

That’s so next year

4 Apr

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The sun is out and blossom is falling: here, spring has just begun. But on Planet Fashion, 2017 is already over; 2019 will begin in 2018, autumn and winter will happen in March, and spring and summer will start in October. Unless you’re male, of course, in which case different dates apply.

The reason I know this is that, at the Tribune, art, fashion and music reviews are mixed in with the news run as a matter of policy, so it frequently falls to we horny-handed front-section types to put down 300-word wire stories about rail strikes and address ourselves to subbing style copy.

This isn’t to everyone taste on the desk, but I quite like it. Although you might not expect it from watching Zoolander, my experience of fashion writers is that their news copy is generally clear, funny, accurate and on time, and that by and large they make a better job of explaining profit-and-loss and boardroom machinations than the City desk would of describing necklines. But when it comes to fashion weeks – the time at which catwalk reviews and commentary are most likely to appear in the news pages – the dates and seasons can become a little confusing.

The four “fashion capitals” of the western world – New York, London, Milan and Paris – hold two women’s fashion weeks each per year, one in spring (around February) and one in autumn (around September). But the clothes on the catwalk at those shows generally do not become available for several months, because of the traditionally long lead time required to get the retail and marketing operation geared up for sales. So the clothes that appear in the spring shows are in fact winter clothes for later that year, and the ones that appear in autumn are summer clothes for the following year.

The  confusion arises over how those shows are described: instead of being referred to by the time at which they are taking place, they are referred to by the season for which the clothes are intended. So the shows that took place this past February, in spring 2017, were the autumn/winter 2017 collections (AW17). The fashion weeks that will be held in September and October, in autumn 2017, will be the spring/summer 2018 collections (SS18). Next spring’s collections will be designs for the winter of 2018, and next year’s autumn collections will be for the spring of 2019. And so on.

The basic rule of thumb is, take the season you’re in now, move two seasons further on and add 1 to the year if you go past Christmas. This time-shifted mentality is second nature for fashion hacks, of course, but a bit of a challenge for news subs whose temporal horizon rarely extends beyond remembering to change “this week” to “last week” in copy destined for the Sunday edition.

The situation is slightly further complicated in the case of men’s fashion weeks, because they tend to take place in the depths of winter (January) or the height of summer (July) while still addressing the same season as the women’s shows. So the London male catwalk shows a the start of this year were also, like the female shows, for autumn/winter 2017 – a three-season “jump”.

Things have moved on, of course, since the haute-couture calendar was first set in the early 20th century. For one thing, fashion weeks are proliferating around the globe. Also, there are now “in-season” collections, in which clothes currently available in shops are shown on the catwalk, and even “see it, buy it” shows where the pieces on display can be bought at the event. But these are still new enough that you can rely on the fashion writers to explain how they work in the story.

You can rely on them for quite a lot, in fact. Although I’m still not sure about the elbow-length oven mittens.

The cook, the thief, his wife and her headline

21 Mar

picture-178

So the allegation is that City regulators waved through an allegedly illicit payment for a supposedly profitable oilfield to a man who had been convicted of a money-laundering offence over an unrelated matter. Two huge oil companies allegedly completed the transaction with this man via the offices of a national government. Former MI6 officers are claimed to have been at the heart of the deal and some of the money in question was also used to purchase armoured cars, it is alleged.

Picking the right verb for the headline at times like this is tricky – or at least, finding space for the kind of caution that the Tribune’s lawyer will be happy with. “Accused of”, “said to have”, “reported to be” – they make the story safer in the courts, but dilute its impact on the page. As previously discussed, you could always replace the verb with “in”, for that useful combination of vagueness and implication. Or you could use “amid” for those collections of circumstances whose precise relationship to each other is hard to elucidate.*

But if the verbs are hard, the nouns are easy in stories like this: they jump out. Oil, disgrace, MI6, armour, $800m: there’s too many to choose from. With ingredients this good, you don’t actually need to write a sentence: you can just write a shopping list.

And they’re easy to assemble. Start with one or two of the most colourful bits of the story. Put the core of the news last. If you like, add an EMPHATIC Daily Mail intensifier in uppercase as garnish … and you’ve got yourself a list headline.

Like this:

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-19-00-49

This is, of course, the General Petraeus love-affair scandal that shook the US in 2012. By this stage of the investigation, the whole story had become quite complicated, with a second woman and another leading general drawn in to the narrative. This Mail article actually reveals there were two sets of emails, sent independently between more than one pair of protagonists; the second was only discovered by chance after an unrelated police inquiry. That’s a lot to try to explain even in headlines as long as the Daily Mail’s. So the obvious thing to do is to abandon the verbs and go with the nouns.

What’s even more impressive is the second part of that headline: an adverbial clause followed by an object noun phrase, separated by a comma and nothing else. That’s advanced verb-avoidance indeed.

Admittedly, in this case, it’s hard to read any but the most benign missing words into the gap:

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [read] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [this is] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

But it goes to show how well you can attract readers’ attention without ever telling them what’s going on.

*Or, indeed, is non-existent.

Fly me to the Sun

9 Mar

BONUS UPDATE: It’s the day after Budget Day, and what the heck does this mean?

The nation may be abuzz with debate about whether the chancellor’s change to National Insurance for the self-employed is retribution against the wealthy and their artificial “service companies” used to avoid tax, or an attack on the working-class independent contractor – the Sun’s beloved “White Van Man” – at a time of economic upheaval. But never mind that. By far the most pressing question of the day is: is this a flying verb?

Scarcely two days after this blog made the confident assertion that flying-verb headlines would never be seen in Britain as they used to be, decades ago, in American tabloids, up pops the Sun with something that looks an awful lot like… well, what is it?

It’s not an adjective: “spite van man” might be an acceptable pun to refer to a van-driver who has done something unpleasant or vicious, but that’s not the story here. It’s not, similarly, an imperative: the article isn’t calling for retribution, simply analysing the news.

Is the chancellor himself, in the picture, being described as the “spite van man”, perhaps? Hard to see how: he doesn’t have a van, nor is he spiting the vehicles themselves. And look at the first standfirst: “Hammond £240 raid on self-employed”. Doesn’t that tempt you to believe that the sense is “Tories spite van man” – that the subject of the sentence has been deleted, leaving the verb to fly?

Perhaps not, in fact. The likeliest explanation is that it’s a simple rhyming pun that ultimately fails to mean anything: a bit like the baffling (and much-criticised) “NOD IN MY NAME” front page the Sun ran about Jeremy Corbyn supposedly not bowing sufficiently at the Cenotaph. That was a familiar pacifist phrase with one word altered to fit the news, but not something you could actually parse for sense.

But on a day when even the Daily Star (“ROB THE BUILDER!“) is running strange, agentless Budget headlines on page 1, you’re entitled to wonder if an old headline form is lumbering improbably back to life. Who exactly is doing the robbing?

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Day 2, and I think this idea is approaching the end of its development curve.

Still, at least it’s clear that this one’s an imperative.

 

Is it a verb? Is it a plane?

7 Mar

Quite by chance, while trawling through the New York Daily News archives for last time’s post on baseball, I found two fine examples of one of the strangest phenomena in journalism: the “flying verb”.

When I first came across them, courtesy of Fred at HeadsUp, I found them utterly baffling. The placing of an isolated verb at the start of a sentence is an almost exclusively American phenomenon, now vanishingly rare even there. And when you see them for the first time, it’s almost impossible to parse them correctly. To me, they read automatically as imperatives, like a thunderous headline on an editorial demanding action (“Won’t someone – anyone – trap Coster’s arms dealer?”).

But in fact, they’re not imperatives, or some obscure form of passive construction; they’re even odder than that. What they are, as Fred explains, is perfectly normal subject-verb-object sentences, but with the subject of the sentence deleted. So the sense of “Seize 62 Mafia Chieftains in Upstate Raid” is “Police Seize 62 Mafia Chieftains In Upstate Raid”. Similarly, “Trap Coster’s Arms Dealer” means “Authorities Trap Coster’s Arms Dealer”.*

The construction is so alien to British eyes that you would think they would never appear over here. But in fact, a species of them does exist, in plain sight, on one of the most widely read sites in British journalism: the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame.

Indeed, alongside the very long headlines and very short standfirsts, they are one of the most distinctive features of Britain’s pre-eminent source of dispiriting online gossip. As we can see from these examples, taken from the site in a single visit, the Sidebar’s standfirsts – perhaps for lack of space if no other reason – frequently employ flying verbs (here “looked”, “got”, “added”, “opted”) to add detail to the story.

Of course, in these cases, they always follow sentences in which an agent has been clearly identified, and always seem to be in the past tense, which rules out their being read as imperatives. I don’t think British readers are ready for full flying verbs in 120-point caps on page one with no sign of a subject in sight. Write headlines no one can understand.

 

*Mr Coster, who made the News’s splash that day, was unknown to me, and also not the reason that that page has entered posterity (that was because of the picture story below, which is of Mayor LaGuardia** with a black eye after a confrontation in the street). But some tenuous Googling reveals that he was F Donald Coster, real name Phillip Musica, a notorious Prohibition rum-runner turned arms dealer whose criminal activities were at the centre of the McKesson & Robbins Scandal of 1938.

** After whom, of course, the airport is named.