Archive | April, 2014

Don’t unquote me

24 Apr

“Partial” quotations – or to be more specific, “single-word” quotations – are widespread in journalism and have always been a little annoying. Now a coherent rebellion seems to be taking shape in the editosphere. John McIntyre writes at You Don’t Say:

“I suppose that what, if anything, is in the reporter’s mind is an impulse to indicate that the subject’s exact words are being quoted. But this can lead to unintended consequences, especially when the single word within quotation marks is unremarkable.

Try this: McIntyre said that he was ‘honored’ to be invited to speak to a group of Towson University students about editing.

The sentiment and the word are both commonplace, and eliminating the quotation marks would allow the reader to pass over this flat and unremarkable sentence quickly.

But the quotation marks catch the reader’s eye, leading to a question: I wonder what he meant by that.”

 And he links to Stan Carey, who amplifies the point:

“Quotation marks can also highlight that a word is being used somehow peculiarly – a writer may wish to indicate irony, inaccuracy, or scepticism, for example; used this way, they’re called scare quotes …

The Oxford Manual of Style says scare quotes may serve ‘to hold up a word for inspection, as if by tongs, providing a cordon sanitaire between the word and the writer’s finer sensibilities’. It’s a technique that quickly wears thin, so style guides sometimes caution against its excessive use. And there’s a related problem: non-standard emphasis.

Sometimes people use quotation marks to stress a word or phrase, and this clashes with the general understanding of how the marks – and scare quotes – are properly used. In a comment to my recent article on the use of apostrophes, Kristen said she found this habit troublesome, offering the example ‘fresh’ fish, which inadvertently casts doubt on the freshness of the fish.”

You Don’t Say’s advice is to restrict single-word quotations that are “foreign, technical, or exotic”. But there is one other aspect of the subject to consider.

In the rarefied world of political and diplomatic reporting, a choice of word, or a change in vocabulary, can be a story in itself. For example, there was a minor sensation on the Tribune’s business desk five years ago when the governor of the Bank of England first used the word “recession” in public as the financial crisis deepened, after a year of being determined not to “talk the economy down”.

And sometimes the very terms used by opposing sides in a conflict crystallise the point of dispute. Take this quote from a Guardian article about the Ukraine crisis:

“The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has accused Ukraine of violating an accord reached in Geneva last week aimed at averting a wider conflict.

‘Steps are being taken – above all by those who seized power in Kiev – not only that do not fulfil, but that crudely violate the Geneva agreement,’ he said on Monday.

Lavrov also told a news conference that a deadly gunfight on Sunday near Slavyansk, a Ukrainian city controlled by pro-Russian separatists, showed Kiev did not want to control ‘extremists’.”

“Extremists”, in quotes, is what the conflict is all about. Are the Kiev protesters and their interim administration a front for the neo-Nazi nationalist right? That is the whole basis on which Russia says it is intervening. Or is the characterisation of the new government as “extremists” simply Moscow’s cynical pretext for its expansionist agenda?

It’s hardly a technical or exotic word, but it’s certainly a loaded one: and you can’t take it out of its quotes. Once out, it becomes spoken in the reporter’s voice, not Lavrov’s, and at that point the paper, subtly, implicitly, takes sides.

Liberator/terrorist, anti-abortion/pro-life, Burma/Myanmar, AD/CE: all these little terms have lengthy stylebook entries spelling out the implications that choosing one over the other carries. Reporters and editors aiming to be neutral need to be acutely sensitive to the rhetoric used by both sides in war and political debate. Better a single-word quote than a suggestion of unconscious bias or naiveté.

Foreign, technical, exotic – that’s a good guide for when to allow the single-word quote. But there’s also another: “political”.


What might have been

15 Apr

So, which one do you like best?

It’s not just sub-editors who get their work reviewed, rewritten and sent back: designers suffer too. These are the proposals the chief designer came up with for our housing special a couple of weeks ago. Some of the variants exist because she wasn’t satisfied with the first draft; some of them exist because the section editor didn’t like any of the options she was initially presented with; some of the previously discarded options came back into favour and got reworked when the editor himself took an interest.

My favourites are the first two: the Monopoly theme and the bold “SOLD OUT” sign. The two house of cards ideas are good metaphors for our view of the overheating UK property market, but maybe not the most exciting pictorially. No one much liked “Through The Keyhole”. The outline of Britain made up of photographs was the designer’s own favourite, but it took me 20 seconds to get it; I thought it only really worked from a  distance. There was also support for the row of gentrified and ungentrified houses, the front door montage and the high-rise flat joke.

These went back and forth from design to editorial while heads were scratched and lips pursed. The upside and downside to working on the most high-profile parts of the paper is that you get lots of management attention: you’re right up at the sharp end, but it’s pretty exhausting. Further back in the book, in the business pages, the mood is a blend of relief at being semi-autonomous coupled with an occasional yearning for someone to take a keener interest.

All that work for just one page of one section in one week’s paper. The following week, everyone involved had entirely moved on to something else: one of the blessings of being a journalist is that difficult days are so swiftly and easily forgotten. There’s scarcely even time for a post-mortem.

And can you guess which one finally made the cut? That’s right: none of them.



Anatomy of a headline

3 Apr

Some of them are funny, some of them are confusing, some of them are dull, some of them are actionable. But they all start off looking like this:

Picture 13

Headlines, as we discussed briefly a few weeks ago, aren’t typed in as a coup de grace by the reporter who has just written the copy, whatever Hollywood might have you think. Long before the correspondent has filed, the newsdesk has usually told the designer what’s been commissioned, and at what length, and a layout has been sketched out with likely photos, dummy text and display type.

It’s not quite the same everywhere. On tabloids, some pages are designed around the headline: senior subs brainstorm jokes until they find an angle, then hand the gag to the designer and order them to make it fit. But at a broadsheet, page design takes precedence over copy-editing, so when you pick up the headline out of the subs’ queue, it looks something like this: a jumble of space-filling letters, bound in a pre-set box.

And it’s also not true – would that it were – that once the first draft has been put through, the presses immediately start rolling. That only ever happens in State Of Play. In fact, it all goes past several eyes and through several stages before the page is ever passed.

On a typical shift, I might write about six to eight headlines: this is the story of what happened to one of them last Saturday.

The story was a piece of first-person reportage from our Turkey correspondent in the run-up to the local elections. In a divided country, she had visited a loyal stronghold of controversial prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. She had discovered an oasis of calm in an Istanbul full of unrest, and a general view that, even though Erdogan was not standing in these elections, they would in effect be a referendum on his rule and the corruption allegations that surround it.

As it was our first Sunday piece on Turkey for a while, I felt something general was called for – a scene-setting, elections-coming-up, nation-in-ferment kind of thing. And I liked the picture the designer had chosen. So I wrote this:

Picture 12

I struggled with a synonym for “scandalised”. “Divided” was too short to fill out the second line. “Outraged” wasn’t long enough either.  So I talked myself into keeping it, despite its unsuitable Regency connotations,  and sent it through to the revise queue.

The revise sub – who, like all revise subs, can detect weakness in a headline like a tiger scenting blood on the breeze – immediately homed in on “scandalised”. It took her about a minute to find an improvement:

Picture 16

Then, with no other major changes, it and the rest of the story were put through to Finalled: the point at which the page can be proofed and shown to the editor and deputy editor.

Sometimes that’s the job done, and the page is nodded through and sent. At other times, though, the sight of a finished page serves merely to crystallise in the editors’ minds what they were really hoping for in the first place.

This was one of those times. They didn’t like the angle; they didn’t like the headline; they didn’t even like the photo. So the deputy editor called over the picture editor, talked to the designer, and sat down to write the headline himself. And it came out looking like this:

Picture 18

Rather than go for the general, as I did, the right thing to have done would have been to go for the particular. I guessed readers of the Sunday edition would be fresh to the whole story; in fact, the editors wanted to assume a certain amount of familiarity and emphasise the fact that we had a new angle. The picture is lively, colourful and shows an explicitly pro-Erdogan scene, to go with the explicitly pro-Erdogan interviewees in the story. With all the paper’s forces marshalled under the guidance of a senior figure, the whole thing has become sharper and more coherent.

And that’s how it really happens: by proofs and stages, by revisions and increments. At the end of the US remake of State of Play, after Cal McCaffrey has keyed his story straight onto the page, no one even asks to see a page proof, let alone have another crack at the headline. Yes, they’re four hours late, but it’s hard to believe that any editor – especially one played by Helen Mirren – wouldn’t imperiously demand a printout to hold up and sign off. Even if, in real life, by that stage the pre-press manager would be phoning the newsroom every three minutes to bellow himself hoarse.