The innocent meteor

22 Nov
Support eventually cratered. Source: thegreenhead.com

Support eventually cratered. Source: thegreenhead.com

 

Back before the world ended, I came across this story in the subs’ queue:

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That doesn’t sound good: “nearly one in four” of young people voting for an “imaginary alternative candidate”? But then you read on, and – most unusually for journalism – you find that there are even bigger numbers in the third paragraph than there are in the first.

Some 53% of the 1,247 people aged 18 to 35 said they would prefer to see a meteor destroy the world than have republican Trump in the Oval Office, with 34% preferring planetary annihilation to a win for the Democratic former secretary of state.

This almost never happens: the standard newspaper rule is that the largest number – in an election, a poll, a statistics release – is the news. The tendency is to calculate the worst possible case, the theoretical maximum jail term, the largest achievable bonus payout, and set your baseline at that. This is how the term “headline figure” has come to have a qualified edge to it: even in newsrooms, it means “the number that needs a bit of context” rather than “the definitive total”.

But why, then, if Reuters is writing a story about millennial disaffection, is it ignoring the biggest number – more than half of young people would rather face destruction than Donald Trump – in the survey? Why has it led with the finding that, in statistical terms, crosses the line in a distant third place?

Because, as an American mainstream media outlet, it has to. Because, in Professor Jay Rosen’s words, it needs to be “innocent”.

Rosen has written extensively about the historical requirement for American news providers to appear impartial. As he puts it:

Alongside the production of news and commentary American journalists working in mainstream newsrooms have to continuously reproduce their own innocence. By “innocence” I mean some kind of public showing that they have no politics themselves, no views of their own, no side, no stake, no ideology and therefore no one can accuse them of unfairly tilting the news this way or that.

In Britain, we have the BBC to provide balance while the different sides of Fleet Street wage war on each other’s beliefs. But in America, it’s different. Its geographical vastness helped to create media monopolies, cities in the plain with just three TV channels and a newspaper that had a whole town of Democrats and Republicans to itself. Straight-down-the-middle news, in those circumstances, was not just the fairest approach but probably the best business model too.

Since then, as cable news and social media have spread and the culture wars have intensified, there is a new pressure on the mainstream to prove its rectitude under constant accusations of bias – never more so than with political news, and of course never more so than at election time.

So, from one aspect the angle Reuters chooses in this story – “young people equally disaffected with both candidates”  – might be seen as a classic fair-dealing compromise. But it also generates some misleading implications: an impression of millennial ennui and of a demographic split down in the middle. In fact, the numbers show that many more young people fear Trump than Clinton – a 19-percentage-point difference – and that the nihilistic none-of-the-above option is the least favoured, not the most, of those three choices.

Of course, these numbers would swing strongly towards the Republican side if the poll had been conducted among border patrol officers in Arizona or autoworkers in Saginaw. But that’s the point – whichever way a demographic leans, almost none of them can offer the kind of 50/50 balance that a good-faith media organisations would feel comfortable with. Young people are strongly for Clinton; white working class voters are strongly for Trump. Whoever you to choose to focus on, innocent, even-handed conclusions are very hard to extract from this sort of sectoral polling.

Media organisations on the left and the right are accused of cherry-picking statistics for reasons of bias. The trouble is, in cases like this, impartial wire services are cherry-picking statistics too – except that instead of choosing the biggest number, they are choosing the safest one.

Not that any of it matters now, of course, and the interstellar third-party candidate never really featured in the race. But at this rate, possibly more than a quarter of young people may be scanning the Kuiper belt hopefully as we approach the midterms.

Invisible mending

8 Nov

“Most writers I know have tales to tell of being mangled by editors,” writes the esteemed academic John Gross,*

“… and naturally it is the flagrant instances they choose to single out – absurdities, outright distortions of meaning, glaring errors. But most of the damage done is a good deal less spectacular. It consists of small changes (usually too boring to describe to anyone else) that flatten a writer’s style, slow down his argument, neutralise his irony; that ruin the rhythm of a sentence or the balance of paragraph; that deaden the tone that makes the music.”

Here at the Tribune, we are a “writer’s paper”: that is to say, we allow our senior writers – and especially our columnists – not just their own opinions, but their own style as well.  Of course, in theory we edit everything perfectly – we intervene whenever it is required, and keep clear whenever it is not – but to the extent there is an institutional bias, it is to be hands-off: not to flatten a style or ruin an argument for the sake of enforcing “good English”. So we are, one would hope, less likely than some of Gross’s targets to “pounce mercilessly on split infinitives … and all the other supposed offenses that are often no offense at all”.

But hands-off editing comes with its own set of hazards. Specifically, it can create a culture of under-intervention: we do basic editing, correcting spellings and checking dates, but perhaps decline to step in when a columnist has mixed a metaphor, or written a sentence so long that it provokes amusement on Twitter. In the worst cases, faced with something notably angry, funny, colloquial or emotional, we can become paralysed: confronted by a confessional tour de force or celebrity stream of consciousness, we freeze, run a spellcheck and send it through without doing the whole job.

So, bearing the countervailing risks in mind, where you would you step in, and where you would you step back, here?

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This is Laura Craik’s “Upfront” column in the Evening Standard’s ES magazine. She is a fashion and trends commentator who writes in a  chatty, informal style typical of that genre: even if you don’t know her, that much becomes immediately apparent when you read the copy. The tone and register are easy to grasp, and so are the editing parameters: you instinctively allow “mahoosive”, “yada yada”, the sentence fragments, or “Soz” in a way that you wouldn’t if they cropped up in a Telegraph editorial.

But I’m not so sure about “pontificating”. Given the context (“I say ‘rushed’, but really I’d been pontificating since May”),  I strongly suspect what’s meant is “prevaricating”. Even if the intended sense is something closer to “I’d been talking about it to everyone for months”, “pontificating” still isn’t quite right: it carries the sense of speaking (like a pontiff) from a sense of real or imagined authority, and the whole point of the piece is that the author didn’t know what to do. In a piece where nearly everything should be allowed to stand, this is something that needs to be changed: the one reason in 600 words not to step back and wave the copy through.

Intentional malapropisms are funny. Unintentional ones on the way to making a different kind of joke are just distracting. That’s where the kind of invisible mending that broadsheet subs do comes in. Tone is exclusively the province of the writer – there is a lot of truth in the columnist’s weary complaint that “it’s my column, not yours” – but sense and cogency are the business of the newspaper as a whole, and particularly the copydesk. Making a change like that doesn’t “flatten the writer’s style” but enhances it, by removing a distraction over which a literate reader might trip. Editors shouldn’t do too much, but we usually have to do something.

 

* Editing and Its Discontents“, in The State of the Language, edited by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels (University of California Press, 1990)

All-Star style guide

24 Oct

Style guides have their weak moments, of course:

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(What? Why?). But at their best, on their home turf, they’re a concentrated distillation of expertise: a guide not just for how to spell words, but for how to think about them as well.

The trouble is, none of them is uniformly good. On the areas that matter most to their readers, where the need for credibility and level of reader feedback is at its highest, they excel. In non-core areas (club culture for the Telegraph, say, or ecclesiastical titles for the Guardian), they carry far less authority. But what if you could take the best parts from each and put them together? What if you could create an All-Star style guide?

It’ll take a while to build a complete roster, but here’s a core group of style guides who have reached inspired heights on their home turf. More suggestions welcome.

Best for formal niceties: The Telegraph

The Guardian’s style advice on “colonel”:

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Colonel Napoleon Bogey, subsequently Bogey (Col Bogey in leading articles)

The Telegraph’s style advice on “colonel”:

Do not confuse Colonel in Chief, an appointment accepted by a (usually royal) notable as a compliment to the regiment, with a lieutenant colonel (or other officer) commanding a battalion (infantry) or regiment (cavalry and artillery units) of the British Army. The Colonel of the Regiment is usually a retired senior officer of the regiment/battalion responsible for recruiting. His is an honorary position. Some regiments have a Colonel Commandant (eg the Parachute Regiment, the Gurkhas).

AP’s style advice on the Queen Mother:

Capitalize king, queen, prince and princess when they are used directly before one or more names: … Queen Mother Elizabeth, the queen mother

The Telegraph’s advice on the Queen’s mother:

Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother ceased to be “Queen Mother” on her death and it is as incorrect now to refer to her as such as it would be still to call her deceased husband “the King”. Like Queens Alexandra and Mary before her (who were both Queens Mother after the deaths of their husbands) she should now be referred to as Queen Elizabeth. To avoid the possibility of confusion with the Sovereign or even with Queen Elizabeth I, she should be referred to at first mention as “the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother” and subsequently as “Queen Elizabeth”.

The Economist’s advice on female peerages:

Long incomprehensible to all foreigners and most Britons, British titles and forms of address now seem just as confusing to those who hold them. Snobbery, embarrassment and obscurity make it difficult to know whether to write Mrs Thatcher, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, Lady Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, Lady Margaret Thatcher or Baroness Margaret Thatcher.

The Telegraph’s advice on female peerages:

Baronesses … are described by their full title at first mention and are Lady xxxx subsequently. This distinguishes life peeresses from the handful of hereditary baronies that descend through the female as well as through the male line, and whose holders (when female) are always described as “Lady Smith” …

The wife of a marquess is a marchioness, of an earl a countess, of a viscount a viscountess. Use Lady at second and subsequent mentions. But the wife of a baron is always Lady at first and subsequent mentions. Some women other than life peeresses hold hereditary or life peerages in their own right. Their husbands do not take their rank and, therefore, a title (The Countess of Someshire and her husband John Smith).

The designation “Lady” is used with a forename by the daughters of dukes, marquesses and earls, before the family surname. The style is Lady Mary Russell and then Lady Mary, never, in such cases, Lady Russell.

The wives of younger sons of dukes and marquesses use “Lady” with their husbands’ forenames, as in Lady John Russell. At second mention, she is Lady John, never Lady Russell…

The widow of a baronet whose son, the present baronet, is married is Mary, Lady Smith. Should the wife of a baronet or knight be the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl then she will still use her rank and be Lady Mary Smith rather than Lady Smith.”

Best for popular culture: BuzzFeed

Every news organisation covers mass media, but some really feel it. This is a style guide whose “key names” list contains 92 celebrities and a grand total of 13 political and religious figures. The entry covering the dynasties in Game of Thrones is longer than the entry for the British royal family. The explanatory note given for “updog” is: “Nothing. What’s up with you?”. No Gen X-er putting on his reading glasses to stumble through the Urban Dictionary is going to generate this kind of youthful spirit.

The entry on Harry Potter is as crisp and authoritative as the Telegraph writing about the army:

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And whereas others might instantly delete “like” as an interjection or verb of speech, BuzzFeed has explicit instructions about how to punctuate it in all contexts:

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This is also the only guide with entries for mpreg, struggle bus, ugly-cry and two-buck chuck. It has alphabetised runs of unglossed, largely mystifying expressions that border on the poetic: amirite, anti-vaxxer, apeshit, Apple store; Britpop, bro-down, bro-ing, brony; creepshot, cringey, crop top, crossfire.

As the introduction says: “knowing how to treat numbers correctly is important, but so is correctly spelling ‘fangirl’.”

Best for amateur meteorologists: AP

You wouldn’t have expected it, but Associated Press has five whole pages in its guide – five – dedicated to weather terms, including “degree-day” (“a unit of measurement describing how much the temperature differs from a standard average for one day”), “stockmen’s advisory” (“alerts the public that livestock may require protection”), separate entries for “sleet” and “sleet (heavy)”, and a complete 10-row, 15-column table for calculating your own wind chill factors (“winds of more than 45mph add little to the chilling”). By contrast, the entirety of the Telegraph’s advice on the subject is as follows: “weather is enough: we do not need to say weather conditions”.

Best for creating entirely new words: Variety

Style debates are a lot easier when you invent your own terms, and Variety’s guide is probably not much use to you unless you’re actually asking a helmer whether his suspenser will preem on feevee. But this is the magazine that brought the world “biopic”, “deejay”, “sitcom”, and “sex appeal”, as well as the following:

aud — audience; “Liza Minnelli has always had a special rapport with her aud.”

cleffer — a songwriter; “Jay Livingston was the cleffer on many Bob Hope films.”

diskery — record company; “The artist signed a five-album deal with the diskery last year.”

hardtop — indoor movie theater; “The film is playing in Tampa at seven hardtops and two ozoners.”

sprocket opera — film festival; “The actor plans to attend the annual Sundance sprocket opera next year.”

As an achievement, that’s boffo, verging on socko, and certainly worthy of inclusion in a kudocast.

This mass-production of synonyms was once much more common in American journalism than it is now, but not many did it as well as Variety, or carried on as long. Indeed, they carried on so long that the practice is now synonymous with them and them alone; now an article in Variety style is instantly recognisable wherever it is reprinted or quoted, an indelible marker to deter passing-off and plagiarism. Variety-speak doesn’t just reflect usage: it creates it. What higher ambition could there be for a style guide than that?

The 100-word headline

11 Oct

You’ve been around, and you’ve seen some things. You’ve seen the New York Times write four different heds for the same story and stack them all at the top of its front page; you’ve seen the Sun cause so much offence with a single word on the front that it pulled apart its page one and re-made it that same night. But I promise you’ve ever seen anything like this. Ladies and gentlemen: the 100-word headline.

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If you’re scoring at home it’s a 4/40/8 + 3/40/2 + 2/40/6 + 3/40/4. Twenty decks in all, with a yellow first line for a kicker. And it’s the biggest feature in the paper this week, so try to make it sing.

Still, I suppose at least there isn’t a standfirst.

Double exposure

27 Sep

I wish Agence France-Presse would stop doing this, because it’s perilously easy to make a mistake:

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It’s an unusual name, you think, but a resonant one: puts you slightly in mind of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the late king of Saudi Arabia. Unfamiliar though “Alhalbiameer” may be, it has a strangely correct ring to it – a patronymic, maybe? An unfamiliar theophoric name? Except of course, it’s nothing of the sort: AFP, as is its unvarying practice, has repeated Ameer Alhalbi’s name twice without a break in the middle. And that’s the kind of thing that can easily get transcribed from the credit across onto the page when you’re in a hurry:

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It happens with other AFP snappers with non-anglophone names too: Aref (Karimiaref) Karimi, Mandel (Nganmandel) Ngan, Louai (Besharalouai) Beshara and Ilyas (Akenginilyas) Akengin have all made it into publication.

Very obvious once it’s pointed out, of course, and very embarrassing when it happens. But in a world with naming conventions as diverse as Burma’s and Spain’s, it’s not entirely surprising that a striking-looking ‘middle name’ might sometimes slip through. As we have discussed before, pictures and captions have a shorter route into publication, and pass under fewer eyes, than anything else on the website or in the paper.

Fortunately, because it’s the Tribune’s practice to put photography credits on the end of the caption, this is the kind of thing one is prompted to notice in print – if only because there’s so little space in a standard two-column caption that your heart sinks when you see a long name. But come on, AFP: we’re working at speed here. Everyone understands why you’d want to repeat names for clarity, but at least put a space between them. Give us a break.

Too chill for comfort

13 Sep

If you were looking for snark, the official Twitter feed of a major American-English dictionary might not be the first place you’d look. But, oh boy.

A few days ago, Gabriel Roth of Slate unwisely allowed his inner prescriptivist out for an airing after reading the following tweet from Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Articulating the silent twinge that many editors and writers feel at the sight of descriptivism in action, he wrote:

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And then unexpectedly this reply, from the dictionary itself, appeared:

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Ouch. Owned. Or – to use the correct spelling of the word in this context – “pwned“. As a rueful Roth wrote later, “I find myself wistfully remembering the days when tweeting at brands was a safe, innocuous pastime”. And other responses to M-W’s intervention have been broadly favourable: the tweet was rude, yes, commenters thought, but also uncompromisingly truthful about the ineluctable nature of language change.

However, scrolling down through M-W’s Twitter feed, it emerges that this is not the only time it’s taken a bold line in such matters. Five days earlier, in similarly lively terms, it made the following observation:

Well, hang on. Yes, “enormity” can indeed mean “great size”, and has done for centuries. But, no, it’s not “fine”: currently, as a word, it’s totally skunked. As we discussed last month, “enormity” is hovering uneasily on the brink of a permanent change in meaning, but is still tending to drag its other meaning of “moral horror” into simple discussions about size. It’s a very tricky word to be employing at the moment; a while ago, for example, we saw fit to remove it from a news story about the heated subject of the Scottish referendum because of its overtone of opprobrium. It’s far from clear that, in these circumstances, a major dictionary should be recommending it quite so breezily. Authorities are looked up to; these things get taken seriously.

As this blog has had occasion to remark before, people don’t require help with informal English. They speak it well. They do not seek the assistance of their editor friends when composing a tweet or posting on Instagram; but they do, sometimes, when updating their CV or writing to a solicitor. What they want is help with formal English: a register whose social significance they grasp, but one in which they perceive themselves not to be fluent.

This is when they turn to the dictionary: to be briefed on the meaning of a legal idiom, or the appropriate use of a word in their own reply: to find out, perhaps, whether “enormity” means what they think it means. But they are doing this at a time where one of the prime objectives of linguistics is the debunking of the prescriptive maxims about language that have been taught during last two centuries. An unsatisfactory dialogue has therefore developed between linguists and the public in which queries about the niceties of formal English are met only with assurances about the validity of informal English. For the last several decades, it seems, lexicographers have been talking about what’s changed in the language while their readers have been asking about what hasn’t.

The spirit behind this objective is democratic to a fault, and the efforts to expose the frailties of formal English are intellectually impeccable. But nonetheless, they are starting to amount to the total deconstruction of a dialect that many people still have no choice but to speak.

The ghosts of Fowler, Strunk and White still haunt the sphere of formal discourse. It is highly commendable that more modern authorities like Merriam-Webster should be getting involved in the conversation about usage. But burning a grumpy prescriptivist on Twitter? Waving off debate about a word in difficult transition?  That isn’t advice; it’s advocacy. Roth is right: counsel as blasé as this is just a little too chill for comfort.

Citations needed

30 Aug

Wow, the episode titles of Ryan Lochte’s old reality show were eerily prescient, given what happened to him in Rio … wait, hang on. Has this been tampered with?

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That’s Wikipedia for you: somebody makes the news and the pranksters come out in force. A quick glance at the edit history of the page reveals a calm lack of activity until 18 August, at the height of the row over the alleged robbery the US swimmer suffered, at which point a brief “edit war” appears to break out:

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The signs are classic: the sudden influx of anonymous users; the addition of 529 characters without explanation; the deletion of 531 characters without explanation; then the intervention by an adult some 10 hours later  (“removed spurious entry”)  to restore the site to its correct state – a state in which, at the time of writing, it still remains:

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This is, as has frequently been pointed out, the uniquely alarming thing about Wikipedia: not that some of it is wrong, or that some of it is badly written, but that all of it might change. As John McIntyre put it years ago:

“This is the most troublesome part[:] the editing is not stable. An editor corrects an error, and an hour later or a day later, someone undoes the editing. You cannot tell, when looking at a Wikipedia entry, whether it is correct at this moment.”

That is true: it would be most unwise ever to cite a Wikipedia article in a book, if only because you would have no idea what the page might be saying in a year’s time. But as a user of the site, clicking on the page to read at any given moment, it’s often pretty easy to tell what state things are in. For example, it wouldn’t be hard to detect the damage in these examples from Wikipedia’s own list of its most vandalised pages:

Oklahoma Christian University  Vandalized a lot given the nondescript nature of the school. Students there vandalize pages and employees there revert them.

Dyslexia  Vandalized daily, multiple anonymous edits, usually with deletions, obscenities, deliberate scrambling of text, or insertion of jokes.

Taiwan  Anonymous vandal with ever changing IP addresses who turns this into an article on the Republic of China

Rove McManus Vandalised regularly by anons who insert scare quotes around the word “comedian”.

That’s not to say vandalism hasn’t caused problems – big ones – in the past. While entries about topics in the news are often monitored closely and re-edited quickly, the dusty historical corners of the site can go unexamined for years, as this hair-raising example – recounted by Wikipedia in its own article about frauds it has suffered – shows:

In May 2010, French politician Ségolène Royal publicly praised the memory of Léon-Robert de l’Astran, an 18th-century naturalist, humanist and son of a slave trader, who had opposed the slave trade. The newspaper Sud-Ouest revealed a month later that de l’Astran had never existed—except as the subject of an article in the French Wikipedia. Historian Jean-Louis Mahé discovered that de l’Astran was fictional after a student, interested by Royal’s praise of him, asked Mahé about him. Mahé’s research led him to realise that de l’Astran did not exist in any archives, and he traced the hoax back to the Rotary Club of La Rochelle. The article, created by members of the Club in January 2007, had thus remained online for three years—unsourced—before the hoax was uncovered.

And journalists have suffered too, not least in the notorious case of the Norman Wisdom Falsehood in the same year, which caught out several newspaper obituarists and revealed just how short – at least in those days – the route was from Wikipedia to the printed page. (For the record: for all his many talents, Wisdom did not write the lyrics to “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover”.)

But newsrooms have learnt something in the intervening six years. The Wisdom incident exposed some shameless cut-and-paste writing, but it also perhaps revealed an endearingly trusting approach to encyclopaedias – a pre-digital belief in reference sources as inviolate and trustworthy. A series of embarrassments over the last decade have changed that; our understanding of what a wiki is now is much more mature than what it was then.

For example, it is interesting that, as Wikipedia notes, the De l’Astran article was completely unsourced: nowadays, there would be a large flag at the top of the page pointing that out, and no fact-checker worth their salt these days would rely on a Wiki article without a single footnote. In more borderline cases, or faced with more subtle vandalism, you still have options: you can check the edit history of a page to get a feel for the bona fides of the contributor who made the amendment. Do they have a proper username, or are they just anonymous? Did they leave a note explaining what they had done, which is good wiki practice? Have they amended other pages too? What did they do there? Did anyone undo their revisions? If so, why?

To be clear: Wikipedia is not, and can never be, authoritative. The phrase “Source: Wikipedia” should never appear anywhere in a reputable publication. Nothing in it that is not cross-referred to an external source should ever be taken as true. The Britannica version of a subject is always greatly to be preferred – except that there is no Britannica entry for What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, nor for the many other ephemeral and trivial phenomena about which newspapers write. If you need some briefing on reality stars, talent show winners, Japanese video games or the Doge meme, there often is nowhere else – reliable or unreliable – to turn; just as sometimes, faced with hip-hop lyrics or regional slang that you don’t understand, there is sometimes no alternative but to resort, nervously, to the pages of the Urban Dictionary.

Wikipedia is still a hazard for the unwary. Of course it isn’t “safe”. But journalists make a living from assessing the probity of sources, and we can apply the same talent here. After the initial upheavals over vandalism, incompetence and mutability, we are starting to make a mental accommodation for a new kind of reference source: ones that are extremely useful but not entirely reliable. Wikipedia can never truly provide an answer; but sometimes it’s the only thing that can help you understand the question.