Death of a Dictionary

4 Aug

Wikipedia; © Merriam-Webster

Manhattan, 1961. He was a charismatic gumshoe with a ready wit, the leg-man for a sedentary detective genius. She was a woman with money and trouble, big brown eyes and a “mouth that would have been all right with the corners turned up instead of down”. In the study of a New York brownstone, fear and murder are about to meet their match. Except there has been an outbreak of descriptivism, so the detective genius is indisposed:

“I’d better explain,” I told her … “There’s a fireplace in the front room, but it’s never lit because he hates open fires. He says they stultify mental processes. But it’s lit now because he’s using it. He’s seated in front of it, on a chair too small for him, tearing sheets out of a book and burning them. The book is the new edition, the third edition, of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged, published by the G. & C. Merriam Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language. In the past week he has given me a thousand examples of its crimes. He says it is a deliberate attempt to murder the — I beg your pardon …”

She was staring up at me. “He’s burning up a dictionary?”

He rarely stands when a caller enters, and of course he didn’t then, with the dictionary, the two-thirds of it that was left, on his lap. He dropped sheets on the fire, turned to look at her, and inquired, “Do you use ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ interchangeably, Miss Blount?”

She did fine. She said simply, “No.”

“This book says that you may. Pfui.”

Webster’s Third, as it is known, caused such a stir when it was published in September 1961 that it was condemned in the comment pages of the New York Times, described as a “political pamphlet” by the historian Jacques Barzun and ceremonially destroyed, as we see, by Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout’s thriller Gambit. For lexicographers, It was a landmark in the journey from prescriptivism to descriptivism that had begun in the 1910s; for the first time, a major US dictionary had been explicitly based on observation of words in everyday usage, rather than authoritative declarations of meaning.

As Wikipedia notes, it eliminated the labels “colloquial”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “proper”, “improper”, “erroneous”, “humorous”, “jocular”, “poetic”, and “contemptuous”, among others, leading to charges that it had abandoned the idea of “proper English”. Looking back in a 2012 article in Publishers Weekly, David Skinner wrote: “Pronunciations came to include a dizzying number of variations, all apparently equal in merit. Most controversial of all was [the editor’s] policy on disputed usages: Webster’s Third adopted a position of scholarly neutrality on words more conservative dictionaries rushed to label colloquial or slang or vulgar. It was a pure dictionary, all about the words, but utterly agnostic on many tricky issues dictionary users cared deeply about.”

It was, then, a classically descriptivist book: admirably humble and egalitarian in its intent, but maddeningly silent on the socially enforced niceties of discourse that readers nonetheless had to navigate. Like much descriptivist literature, it resembles an etiquette book that lectures you on the tyranny of dress codes when all you want to know is how to knot a tie. And although it is widely hailed for its great scholarship, its symbolic role in the culture wars makes it hard for some people to acknowledge even to this day.

In the historic gay rights case Bostock v Clayton County, decided in June, the US Supreme Court ruled that the employment protections of the Civil Rights Act did indeed extend to those unfairly treated as a result of their sexuality. The lead opinion was written by the Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch – a judge on the right of the court. But although he may have surprised liberals by finding in favour of Bostock, he was apparently still too much of a conservative to rely on Webster’s Third in doing so. As the lawyer and linguist Stephen Mouritsen points out on Twitter, Gorsuch used Webster’s Second (1954) to find a definition of “discrimination” as it was understood at the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, even though Webster’s Third was seven years closer in time to the passing of the Act in 1964.

A major consolidation of US civil rights for a minority suffering injustice? By all means. But not with the assistance of That Book.

It’s possible that this view of Webster’s Third has hardened over 60 years, but I’m not sure. One gets the impression that attitudes may have been entrenched right from the moment it was published:

There wasn’t much of the dictionary left, and, while I counted, five-hundreds and then C’s, he tore and dropped. I counted it twice to make sure, and when I finished there was no more dictionary except the binding.

“Twenty-two grand,” I said.

“Will this burn?” he asked.

“Sure; it’s buckram. It may smell a little. You knew you were going to burn it when you bought it. Otherwise you would have ordered leather.”

The Christiansen Method

21 Jul

‘I did not see anything about the Liberal transport proposals’: Christiansen on screen. (BFI)

Thinking further about Arthur Christiansen’s wooden yet commanding presence in The Day The Earth Caught Fire reminded me of a thought that frequently occurs to this blog: that journalists are only famous to other journalists, and even then not always for long.

He was editor of the Daily Express from 1933 to 1957, hailed as one of the great press innovators and a genius of presentation, but I wonder how many people in Britain today remember who he is. I had only barely heard of him until I saw him on screen, and even at the Tribune he is never mentioned as a guiding light in the way that others such as CP Scott and Harold Evans are. (Of course that may be because the Tribune is a broadsheet that only looks up to broadsheet figures; I’m sure he is venerated to this day at the Express).

In his glowing but not uncritical account of Christiansen in How Journalism Works (1964), Roy Nash writes:

Time may well prove him to have been the greatest of all creators of the commercially successful popular newspaper image. Night after night, for nearly a quarter of a century, he designed an ingeniously eye-catching paper so compelling in appearance that it had to be read … He and his work almost totally dominated Fleet Street, conditioned and moulded its life, and only now are the rivals of his Daily Express trying to free themselves from his powerful influence.

But, Nash adds, his drive to “capture the reader’s interest … and lead it along by the hand” had unforeseen consequences:

Reporting in the Christiansen manner called for great skill in writing and especially in sub-editing. Sub-editing was, in fact, for the first time raised to a high professional level. But the technique had its dangerous traps into which the unwary fell. The logical step in trying to present every story in a totally simplified fashion was to assume that most news was, inherently, composed of simple black and white elements …

This led to something that Christiansen had neither intended nor wanted; a return to embroidered reporting. News tended, in the Fleet Street phrase, to be “hardened”. Events that were compounded of the indecisive greys and off-whites of news were turned into apparently clear-cut blacks and whites. Selected aspects of many of the highly complex problems that Britain faced immediately after the war were reduced to ludicrous levels and treated with alarming irresponsibility.

The Express was still broadsheet-sized at the time Christiansen edited it, but what Nash is describing here sounds like, in effect, the birth of the modern tabloid: a combination of vividness, exaggeration and jumping to conclusions that one associates more these days with the likes of Paul Dacre and Kelvin MacKenzie.

As editor, Christiansen used to write a daily bulletin to his staff, and the former Express journalist Geoffrey Mather has collected many of the most engaging quotes from them on his website. They’re fascinating. And they do, as Nash suggests, hint at a journalist of a somewhat different type to Dacre and MacKenzie: one constantly struggling, not always successfully, to reconcile the instinct to excite with the desire to be high-minded. (At one stage, for example, he writes: “Watch out for loaded stories. There is a tendency for reporters to write copy which, sentence for sentence, seems innocuous, but which adds up in detail to the dangerous business of creating a prejudicial atmosphere.” Well, quite.)

Some of his observations are resonant aphorisms for modern journalists that might stand alongside words from Scott or Evans. Some of them are rather less so: dated quibbles about grammar or now-baffling social niceties. And many of them involve discussions of people and scandals that are now – like the journalists who wrote about them – almost completely forgotten:

Yesterday in a story about a broken romance we referred to the the girl’s occupation as that of bottler in a lemonade factory. We used to have a rule that we did not refer to the occupations of people in lowly stations when romance or broken romance was involved. It is a good rule and should be revived. (3 March 1953)

In the early editions at any rate there were too many stories about things and not enough stories about people. Significant news predominated – and while that is fine, you will never get people to digest significant news if there is nothing else on the diet sheet. Contrast is the heart and soul of a newspaper. (Even the Manchester Guardian, on a day pregnant with heavy news, found space on its front page to say that goats are to be replaced by sheep on the Malayan rubber estates.) (17 March 1953)

Many, many stories in the Daily Express today are of violent character. Maybe a leavening of more “thoughtful” news is necessary. I do not see anything about the Liberal transport proposals, for example. We should always seek to balance so-called shock tactics with an appeal to the thoughtful reader. (8 August 1952)

All my journalistic thinking is based on making the news so inviting to people that they read involuntarily news which normally would not interest them. That is why I rejoice when headlines such as “Four Mr Europes woo Miss Britain” are written on a story from the Strasbourg conference. It is the hope that such novel presentation will at least open the door. (27 November 1951)

With the arrival of June weather we should try to make the paper suit the optimism of the masses. Never forget that the Daily Express is noted for its tonic effect. And while on this subject, it might be well to restate the three-fold rule for our paper:

1. Never set the police on anybody.
2. Never cry down the pleasures of the people.
3. Remember our own habits and frailties when disposed to be critical of others. (4 June 1951)

I get queasy about salacious reporting. All the papers are going in for it, and in the case of the Indian doctor it was quite shocking for a family man to have to read so much detail. Surely we can take a decision to print as little salacious matter as is necessary to prove the case for the prosecution or the defence – and no more. A typical example last week was the phrase in the doctor case that there was “intimacy in a car on two occasions on the back seat”. It is the phrase “on the back seat” which leaves little to the imagination. (5 March 1951)

It is the journalistic fashion to concentrate on the first paragraphs of stories. I believe in that. But I believe just as emphatically in the perfection of the last paragraph. (5 February 1953)

Many more here.

 

 

First-paragraph blues

7 Jul

The column opens with a quotation:

Actually, some Googling reveals that the quote (from John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy) is actually a question and answer – two people speaking, not one – so there should be a closing quotation mark after “Keynesian”.

Actually, hang on. The whole thing is a quotation with dialogue inside it, so there ought to be a closing quotation mark at the end:

And of course an opening quotation mark at the start. The style at the Tribune is for quotation marks that form part of a drop-capital paragraph to be single when they open, and double when they close, in the body text. Thus:

But now that just looks like an opening double quote. Will readers understand that they are in fact two opening single quotes in a row? What if we go double-single?

Yikes. Three giant orange quotation marks. And look what happens to the line breaks.

It looks increasingly – and I hate contemplating this – that I’m going to have to compromise. In extreme circumstances like these, it is sometimes suggested that the opening paragraph can be rewritten. I always refuse to do it: the formatting should serve the writing, not the other way round. And in this case, I’m hardly about to start rewriting Le Carré’s bestselling dialogue to fit the column width.

So it turns out that if you quietly dispense with one of the opening quotes and tighten the gap between the two dropped characters, the paragraph suddenly fits neatly on six lines:

That looks nice. It’s wrong, but it looks nice. It’s good to have something to sweeten the pill of expediency. And it lets the reader get smoothly into the flow of the column without tripping over a picket of inverted commas. Or that’s what I’m telling myself.

What quotes say

23 Jun

Halfway through the paper review on the day after the dreadful terror attack in Reading, Nick Robinson stops at the Mail on Sunday front page – ‘3 KILLED’ BY KNIFEMAN IN PARK TERROR – and taps the closing quotation mark. “‘Three killed’: at the time of this being produced it hadn’t been confirmed; I think it now has been,” he says.

He doesn’t clarify why he’s pointing to the quotation mark. He doesn’t explain how he knows there was some uncertainty in the Mail newsroom last night. He doesn’t say “Claim quotes, although not verbatim quotes, are accepted in some news cultures as an attributional shorthand for unverified statements made by a third party“. He doesn’t need to. He’s speaking to a British audience who got up in time to watch the politics shows. Everyone understands.

The Third (Actually, First) Sub-Editor Ever To Be Portrayed On Film

9 Jun

‘There’s bound to be a big replate for second edition’. (IMDB/BFI)

The street shimmers. A man trudges towards the camera through an apocalyptic glow, bathed in sweat. A tannoy announces there are “nineteen minutes before countdown” to a scorched, empty city. It looks like Doomsday, but all is not lost: because the man is a journalist, and he’s on his way to the newsroom.

And so begins The Day The Earth Caught Fire, Val Guest’s 1961 film with an exploitation-movie title that in fact manages to be a nuclear thriller, ecological parable and gritty love story all at once. And, almost above all, a film about newspapers.

It stars Edward Judd as washed-up reporter Pete Stenning, Leo McKern as grouchy science editor Bill Maguire, and Janet Munro as Jeannie Craig, a government press officer who knows a secret. The two male characters work at the Daily Express, whose newsroom was exactingly recreated at Shepperton Studios for the film. And although the story concerns America, Russia and the disastrous coincidence of two H-bomb tests, nearly everything that unfolds is viewed from the inside of a newsroom or a bar.

Scene after scene is heavy with the presence of midcentury Fleet Street. Billboards proclaiming disaster are displayed on Evening Standard vans. The wall of a lido where Stenning and Craig, his new girlfriend, meet is covered with a huge advert for the News of the World. The newsroom is led by a commanding Arthur Christiansen-type figure, played by … Arthur Christiansen himself, who was also the film’s technical adviser.  It is a disaster movie, certainly, but it’s about the end of the world in the same oblique way that All The President’s Men is about Nixon.

And the hacks themselves are also very real. Messengers and copyboys are chaffed and ordered about. The troubled Stenning sulks and slacks off, and is confronted about it unsparingly by colleagues (“If you borrow my car for lunch, why bother to hurry back at six-thirty?”). When he gets a sniff of the climate-disaster story, he shows little compunction in forcing Craig, who works at the Air Ministry, to act as his source, exposing her to the fate of a whistleblower. The film was somewhat scandalous in 1961 for its frank love scene, but you suspect it got its X certificate not because of all the sex, but because of all the journalism.

In the opening scenes in the newsroom, as a flash comes in and a shocked desk realises what’s happened, we see a detailed recreation of a post-deadline panic. The news editor dials the switchboard: “Head Printer, fast!” Maguire reappears. “Give me a quick 50 words across three columns. You’ve got five minutes. I’ll write the headline.” The head printer picks up the phone. “Smudge: slip edition coming down in five minutes at most, so get a bloody move on!” (“Don’t we always?”).

Cut to the composing room, where the head printer calls out “front page lead reset!” and dials the press manager to tell him there’s a newsflash. (“OK George. Know what it is? Well as long as they haven’t made beer illegal!”). The press manager goes to the press foreman, and against the din of the machines, raises his index finger and makes an upward gesture, meaning “lift page 1”. Then he goes to the delivery manager to warn him “there’s bound to be a big replate for second edition”. (“Someone up there hates me! All right, I’ll warn them”). He dials the loading bay, where the first edition is being gathered and baled (and where we see Stenning, stumbling in after another lost afternoon, and follow him back up to the newsroom).

‘Why is he trying to alter my heading?’ (BFI)

It’s three minutes of tense Fleet Street life, a vivid glimpse behind the scenes – except that, as you might have noticed, it doesn’t appear to involve sub-editors. The news editor talks straight to the typesetters, writes the headline, and even organises the photographs (“Jock! Find me the biggest mushroom in the file!”). It’s possible that a busy news editor might take on the task of writing a stop-press headline, for speed, but in real life there would be upwards of a dozen subs around who could do it for him.

Fear not, though: in such an exactingly recreated newsroom, sub-editors are indeed present – pre-dating both their appearance in The Paper (1994) and The Post (2017). Earlier in the evening, we saw Maguire – who appears to be the kind of reporter who likes writing his own headlines – kicking up a fuss about changes to his feature on thrombosis. “But why’s he trying to alter my heading?”, he complains to a mild-looking middle-aged man, whose patient demeanour marks him out as a member of the copy desk. “Is he trying to make a job for himself?”

“Bill,” the man replies (with justification), “you can’t print a feature on thrombosis and call it YOU TOO CAN BE THE DEATH OF THE PARTY.”

And when the early copies of the first edition eventually arrive upstairs, Maguire is seen holding one aloft in disgust. “Eight hundred grisly words on thrombosis and look what they do to me: STUBBORN MEN AND THE KILLER THEY COURT. What kind of an impact heading is that? I might as well be working on the Police Gazette!”

I quite like it myself. But anyway, it didn’t matter: the whole thing got pulled for the second edition because the Earth had been blown off its axis.

Hat-tip to Theresa Pitt at Horny Handed Subs of Toil, who recommended the film to the group.

Sous rapture

26 May

“Since the word is inaccurate it is struck through,” Heidegger wrote, “Since it is necessary, it remains visible.” And so was born the concept of sous rature (literally, “under erasure”) – the simultaneous printing and crossing-out of a word on the page to show that, while you have no alternative but to use it, it does not fully mean what you need it to mean.

The word Heidegger wrote and struck through was “Being”. The Deconstructionists loved the whole idea, of course, and merrily struck through many more on their way to discovering, over and over again, that the signifier was not the signified and the author was dead.  Now it looks like sous rature has broken out and is going to make some serious money at last, because it’s found its way into the self-help publishing market.

Except that – and this is the annoyingly vigilant editorial conscience at work again – if you state something is not a diet book, and then you cross that out … doesn’t that mean that it is a diet book? Or is the language of deconstruction – like the English language itself – capable of supporting more than one negative in a clause?

On the night shift

12 May

Just one more quote from Roy Shaw’s book How Newspapers Work, because I can’t resist. This time it’s his cinematic depiction of the waning hours of the night shift:

Outside the main news room the specialist writers’ rooms are in darkness. Among the series of teleprinters one machine remains switched on, still occasionally bursting into life as the tail-end of the night’s news comes through. One copy taker broods in a lonely pool of light around his typewriter, waiting for the very last of late night stories from staff reporters or local correspondents. One reporter, isolated among rows of deserted desks, waits to see if that very late story – if there is one this night – requires any attention from him.

One or two sub-editors sit among the night’s debris of scrawled-on and discarded copy paper, and page plans and tattered copies of earlier editions, rummaged through, studied and left scattered. They wait now for any attention that a late story may demand from them, buoyed up, perhaps, by the romantic notion that they may be the heroes of the night, seizing upon the great, late story and magnificently scooping their rivals with a dramatic, final change of page.

Sadly, in fact, the lot of all these “late stop” men is one of tedium followed eventually, at around four or five in the morning, by the releasing thought that whatever news comes now will be too late for that day’s paper.

That was how it was, I am sure, at a well-ordered paper produced in hot metal. On an InDesign paper, though – particularly one with a culture of revisiting pages and an endlessly excitable editor – there was altogether a lot more going on.

In the old days on the Tribune night shift, you could send four pages at 8pm for second edition, 12 pages at 10pm for third, another 12 for fourth at midnight, and then another four, if you wanted them, for the fifth at 1pm. Thirty-two possible plate changes in total, and we used to use them all.

We would take over straight after the first edition had gone to press at 6pm (or, frankly, some time later). The day shift would go home, the crossover day/night workers would go for a break, the night production editor and her deputy would go into the late conference, and if you were on the 6pm-2am graveyard shift, you would be briefly left alone in the newsroom, the deserted bridge of a ship, earnestly hoping that the phone wouldn’t ring. (If it did, you would have no choice but to answer it with a crisp “Newsroom”, and then, in all probability, interrupt conference to explain in front of senior management that, eg, the front page had been sent without the barcode.)

If you were already in conference, by contrast, the editor would be flicking through the proofs in a random order with an increasing sense of restlessness, issuing a string of instructions about redesigns, story moves and page swops that you could barely scribble down fast enough. Emerging slightly dazed, with usually less than an hour to second edition, you would then have to triage the corrections for speed of completion, prioritising either the most egregious errors or the easiest ones to fix, to fill your three page slots for 8pm (the fourth being taken by the front page, which has to be sent for every edition even if it hasn’t changed).

As the crossovers returned from their breaks and the newsroom filled up again, you would push more changes out into the subs’ queue to be done in edition-time order (marked “8pm”, “10pm”, “12 or later”). Then would come the most difficult part of the evening; organising the “linked pages” of corrections.

For instance, imagine that the editor wants to make the whole of page two into a “turn page” for the splash, to give more space for the text overspilling from the front page, because new developments emerged as the first edition was going to press. To create that space, he wants to remove the turn of the other front-page story, currently at the bottom of page two, and put that on page seven, where it is vaguely thematically relevant. To make space on seven, the story in the last column will be moved to a similar sized slot on page 11, and the story currently in that slot on page 11 will be moved to page three, where it will function as a companion piece, crushed down into a short text box.

That’s a fair amount of work: re-editing the splash, re-cutting the other front-page story into a different shape, a light trim for the page seven story in its new slot, a redesign for pages two and three, and a heavy cut for the story moving from page 11. But the most significant thing about it is that none of those things can happen unless all the others happen at the same time. You can’t, say, take in the new splash with its longer turn on page two, send those two pages for third edition and then do the rest later, because the other front-page story will lose its turn and end in the middle of a sentence on page one. If you change page two and set up the new turn on page seven as well, that problem is solved, but then the story bumped off page seven will disappear for third edition readers and reappear for fourth edition readers  – hardly a satisfactory solution. And ideally, it would be best to get the updated splash on the page as soon as possible – but you have five linked pages in the run and only four slots available for 8pm. So in conference, heart sinking slightly, you scribble  1→2→7→11→3 on the top of your notepad and brace yourself for a busy third edition.

Then imagine that there is more than one run of linked pages to do that night (there often was). Or imagine that, say, the other story on the crucial page seven is also being refiled and will need a new picture, but might not be ready until close to the 10pm deadline, or might miss it altogether. Or imagine (thankfully, this is slightly before my time) that several of the linked pages in the run are in colour, but you’re only allowed a limited number of colour plate changes per edition.

It was non-stop. The hours used to fly by. After the 10pm edition, with some of the work for midnight already done, there would be time to tackle the office picnic of French bread, cheeses and salami, laid out on an empty desk. Then we would be back for another 16 plate changes – this time without the crossovers, whose shifts had come to an end. I would go home between 1am and 2am – not as bad as for Shaw’s “late stops” – fall asleep around 3:30, then wake up in late morning to the local dance station’s ambient techno show, designed to soothe people surfacing after a Saturday night on the town. It was oddly appropriate, because the night shift used to feel similarly exhausting and eventful: like clubbing, but without the euphoria.

It’s all changed now. The Tribune’s night shift was heavily reduced years ago, when cost-saving measures came in, and has been further cut back for logistical reasons during the epidemic. If there was ever a chance to sit in an Edward Hopper pool of light, waiting for the teletype machine to start clattering, it’s probably gone. And I’m grateful to have been on the day shift now these many years. But I still sometimes miss the feeling of walking into the newsroom as others are walking out, the quiet falling and the sun setting, and waiting to be handed the baton.

An exacting and perilous activity

28 Apr

“If reporters are the lifeblood of a newspaper, sub-editors may be said to be the main arteries,” writes W Roy Nash in his book How Newspapers Work (Pergamon, 1964) – by which of course he means that we are vital to a news organisation’s functioning, not that we steadily lose capacity and become hardened in middle age.

His book, which I came across quite by chance in Google Books, forms part of the Commonwealth and International Library, an educational series created by Pergamon (and therefore, yes, Robert Maxwell) in the early 1960s mainly for scientists, with the occasional arts subject thrown in to broaden horizons. And Nash, although a reporter (he was education correspondent for the Daily Mail), writes with sympathy about the “special sort of of craftsman*-cum-technician” sitting back in the office, and the symbiotic relationship between those out on a story and those eyeing the word count.

“For example,” he writes, “an industrial correspondent may be away from his office covering a trade union conference. As a specialist, absorbed in his particular field, he is closely interested in the events of the day and feels they warrant a fairly lengthy report.” Very delicately put. “All over the country, other reporters are doing the same sort of thing, applying their own personal yardsticks to the values of the stories they are writing.

“Back at the office the copy takers pound away at their typewriters as the industrial correspondent and his colleagues dictate their copy over the telephone. Gradually the total of words builds up … thousands upon thousands of words which will, in the course of a morning newspaper’s working night, be sufficient to fill a large-size novel. Clearly a newspaper has space only for a small amount of this gargantuan output, and so much must be discarded and much cut.”

Over to the subs’ desk, where, alas, the industrial correspondent’s work has fallen into the hands of the copy taster, who has passed it to Bill with the instruction: “Knock this down by a third and give it a K2 top across two.” Bill, “armed with a black soft-lead marking pencil”, sets to work with the clock ticking. “All sub-editors work at maximum pressure for each page of a newspaper must be ready for the printing presses at times laid down with all the exactitude of railway timetables – and far more rigidly adhered to.” Er, yes.

And so to the cut itself, “one of the most exacting and perilous of all sub-editorial activities”. Bill “must not transform himself into an editorial butcher, slashing away wildly with his pencil. Only rarely can a story be cut by drawing a line at the end of the first two-thirds of the copy and throwing the rest away.” Ahem. “So he must work his way through the copy with the utmost care, discarding a sentence here, reducing the length of a paragraph there.”

And then, with tremendous magnanimity for a reporter, Nash adds:

Of course, mistakes do occur from time to time as a result of sub-editorial cuts. Some ambiguity in the original copy may mislead the sub-editor or he may himself not appreciate the change of emphasis that will arise from a re-written sentence. He is working against the clock, and cannot sit indefinitely weighing up the pros and cons of his method of contraction. These are the really great hazards of newspaper work, and with the best will in the world they may be reduced to a minimum but they cannot be entirely eliminated. Reporters, correspondents and sub-editors are only human and not infallible machines.

Further on in the chapter, he has interesting things to say about another subject not often written about – the unspoken social contract between readers and journalists about what headlines mean.

Headlines today are an indispensable part of the clothing and style of a major daily. The telegraphic form of a modern headline is now acceptable because readers are accustomed to it and have learned to translate it at a glance … The U.S. show business journal, Variety, holds the record for extremes in telegraphic headlines but is apparently able to rely on the translating skill of its very specialised readership. Its most famous line read: HIX PIX NIX IN STIX. In translation it meant that comedy movies (“pix” for pictures) about rural characters (“hix” for hicks) were no box office attraction (“nix”) “in the sticks” (the rural areas themselves).

And, strikingly for a British book, flying verbs get a mention too:

US daily newspaper readers are now sufficiently schooled in headline-absorbing techniques to suffer no confusion even when nouns are omitted. They automatically supply the missing word for themselves. From the line RAID RICH VICE NEST they correctly infer that it is the police who do the raiding.

I’d never heard of Nash or the book, or seen it recommended. It’s more than 50 years old now, as well, and no one’s using marking pencils any more. But it’s still engaging, still relevant and, it appears, still on sale. I’ve already ordered my copy.

 

*Or craftswoman, of course. But this was written in the 1960s.

Batwoman or bane?

14 Apr

REVEALED! Shady Chinese lab was performing experiments on BATS! REVEALED! Heroic Chinese lab sequenced virus genome and was GAGGED! Oh no, hang on, they’re the same institution! Aaaaah!

It’s hard to know what to make of the Wuhan Institute of Virology from the Mail on Sunday’s coverage this weekend, especially when these two stories are right next to each other on the homepage at time of writing (and, indeed, appended to each other as footnotes). Are the staff disgusting Frankensteins playing fast and loose with nature, or courageous boffins trying to save the world?

In the scary story:

The Chinese laboratory at the center of scrutiny over a potential coronavirus leak has been using U.S. government money to carry out research on bats from the caves which scientists believe are the original source of the deadly outbreak.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology undertook coronavirus experiments on mammals captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan which were funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government …

The revelation that the Wuhan Institute was experimenting on bats from the area already known to be the source of COVID-19 – and doing so with American money – has sparked further fears that the lab, and not the market, is the original outbreak source.

US Congressman Matt Gaetz said: ‘I’m disgusted to learn that for years the US government has been funding dangerous and cruel animal experiments at the Wuhan Institute, which may have contributed to the global spread of coronavirus, and research at other labs in China that have virtually no oversight from US authorities.’

The $37million Wuhan Institute of Virology, the most advanced laboratory of its type on the Chinese mainland, is based twenty miles from the now infamous wildlife market that was thought to be the location of the original transfer of the virus from animals to humans.

According to documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday, scientists there experimented on bats as part of a project funded by the US National Institutes of Health, which continues to licence the Wuhan laboratory to receive American money for experiments. …

The news that COVID-19 bats were under research there means that a leak from the Wuhan laboratory can no longer be completely ruled out …

American biosecurity expert Professor Richard Ebright, of Rutgers University’s Waksman Institute of Microbiology, New Jersey, said that while the evidence suggests COVID-19 was not created in one of the Wuhan laboratories, it could easily have escaped from there while it was being analyzed.

Prof Ebright said he has seen evidence that scientists at the Centre for Disease Control and the Institute of Virology studied the viruses with only ‘level 2’ security – rather than the recommended level 4 – which ‘provides only minimal protections against infection of lab workers’.

In the heartwarming story:

… Shi Zhengli [is] known as China’s ‘Bat Woman’ after years spent on difficult virus-hunting expeditions in dank caves that have led to a series of important scientific discoveries.

The virologist was called back to her highsecurity laboratory in Wuhan at the end of last year after a mysterious new respiratory condition in the city was identified as a novel coronavirus – and within three days she completed its gene sequencing …

Shi is a specialist in emerging diseases and has earned global acclaim for work investigating links between bats and coronaviruses, aided by expeditions to collect samples and swabs in the fetid cave networks of southern China.

She was a key part of the team that traced SARS to horseshoe bats through civets, a cat-like creature often eaten in China …

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, based ten miles from the wildlife market blamed as the source of Covid-19, developed a £30million high-security laboratory after the SARS outbreak with French assistance.

It was the first laboratory in China with P4 status – denoting highest global biosafety levels – and contains the largest virus bank in Asia.

It was this fact that sparked now discounted conspiracy theories that Covid-19 was man-made.

Shi, the laboratory’s deputy director, admits that when summoned back from a conference to investigate the new disease, she wondered at first if a coronavirus could have escaped from her unit.

She has warned about the danger of epidemics from bat-borne viruses. But she says she did not expect such an outbreak in Wuhan, in the centre of China, since her studies suggested subtropical areas in the south had the highest risk of such ‘zoonotic’ transmission to humans.

Shi told the respected science journal Scientific American last month of her relief when, having checked back through disposal records, none of the genome sequences matched their virus samples.

‘That really took a load off my mind. I had not slept a wink for days,’ she said. …

Shi has worked alongside many of the world’s top experts on infectious diseases. ‘She is a superb scientist and very nice person,’ said James LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory, a high-security biocontainment centre in Texas.

‘She has been very open and collaborative for the decade I’ve worked with her.’

The fact that Shi’s superiors at the lab may have hushed up her conclusions is not contradicted by anything in the other story, and the wider narrative of Beijing’s bad faith in relation to the outbreak is not affected by either. But this seems to be essentially the same set of facts cooked two ways: one flavoured with angry, shoot-from-the-hip congressmen and conspiracy theories, the other with a personable heroine and glowing character references. An instructive reminder that journalism is not just about what you find out, but also who you then approach for comment.

Off-brand

31 Mar

At the Tribune, as we’ve discussed, we allow the US newsroom to write about Thursday ousters and the Australian newsroom to write about docos being spruiked, while the London office is exempted from calling football “soccer“. We “honour the writer’s voice” in each jurisdiction, so as not to foist an alien dialect of English on our intended audiences on different continents. If that means that, say, British readers are baffled by the phrase “spill vote” in an article written for Sydneysiders, then so be it. That has been always been the policy – or it was until we published a piece on the coronavirus paracetamol/ibuprofen controversy, and this email came round:

Now, I appreciate that there’s a war on, and that this may not be a harbinger of the future. But it is instructive that, when a story really matters – when it tramples across national boundaries, as the biggest stories always do – the writer’s-voice policy starts to wobble. You might argue that if the story has already been read half a million times in the US, then readers have successfully translated it for themselves, as they usually appear to do with international celebrity news. We’ve always held that line previously: that the domestic audience for each of the three newsrooms must not be offended by use of language that speaks first to another market.

But lives are at stake now, and in the bewildering blizzard of news about the pandemic, the thought of further confusion being caused by the separations in our common language is hard to bear. If only we could report the news so that everyone who read it could understand it equally quickly. Sadly, however, although we have a global crisis, we still don’t have a global English.