I’m sorry, a what?
A couple of months ago, we were tripping over a story on the Guardian’s most-read list that gave no clue that it was about Australia until about two paragraphs into the body text. Not much danger of that happening this time: whatever a “rort” is, it brings you up short before you’ve even clicked on the link.
Collins suggests that it’s a back-formation from the adjective “rorty” (“boisterous, high-spirited”), which I have come across in the northern hemisphere before (specifically in car magazines); this is a first for me with the noun, though.
It sticks out on a long way on a British web front page, but this is the same phenomenon we encountered last time with regard to multi-newsroom operations. This may have sneaked through the content management system into another hemisphere, but it’s an Australian story for an Australian audience about Australian tax affairs: of course it should be written in Australian English.
Language and locality questions aren’t always as simple as that, though. What if this were an Australia-bureau story ordered by and for the US newsdesk about a presidential visit to Canberra? What if it had been a Super Bowl preview from the New York sports editor, produced in the US but written as a primer for viewers in Britain? Or what if – as with an article I worked on last week – it were a feature by a UK-born but US-based writer about a major American corporation, commissioned by the London desk to brief a British audience, but still with half an eye on readers in the States?
The feature was about Starbucks’s controversial RaceTogether campaign – its attempt to stimulate conversations on the subject of race relations between baristas and customers at the counter. In the end, the idea was seriously rethought less than a week after it started, but not before one of our feature writers was sent out to canvass opinions in the district of Brooklyn where Starbucks’s founder, Howard Schultz, grew up. And one of the people he spoke to lived in – well, that was the problem.
The expatriate reporter, who now writes largely in American English, called it “public housing”. British readers won’t quite be sure what that is – they’ll almost know, but not quite. In the days before the Tribune had an internationally ambitious website, I would have changed this immediately to “housing estate”. But I’m aware that that term isn’t really used in the US, where a more usual synonym would be “housing project”.
So: what to do? Change it, for the British readers for whom the piece was commissioned? Leave it, for the American readers who may ultimately make up the bulk of the article’s readership?
In stories written in, by and for one country, these choices are easy. Even for articles written in one newsroom at the request of another, they aren’t too difficult, as long as it’s the bureau that ordered the piece that then takes responsibility for editing it. But what about stories written for more than one audience?
And it’s not simply a matter of word choice: the audience you have in mind will also dictate the news angle, presentation, tone and style the article ends up with. It will determine which bits of background or explanation you feel confident to cut and which must be left in.
Imagine, let’s say, a funny-photo story in which the US president takes the prime minister to a baseball game, and the photo shows the entire White House entourage leaping to its feet to cheer a triple play while the PM, the only one still seated in the photo, looks bemused. If you’re writing it up for the UK edition, you’re going to need to explain why a triple play is so rare; but a beginner’s explanation would alienate American readers. Even if you choose to skirt around it for the UK edition and just call it “a spectacular play on the field”, US readers are going to be curious about what the play was.
In the earliest days of the Tribune’s international operations, the flow of overnight stories from Australia was so novel that many of them found their way onto the UK front page, until it was gently pointed out that British readers might be seeing slightly too much of Tony Abbott in the morning. With websites as a whole, that’s easy to fix: you can just serve a different homepage to visitors depending on location, and curate their content accordingly.
But you can’t do that with an article: one piece of text is all you get, visible all across the internet. And, linguistically speaking, there’s no neutral ground: you have to pick sides. Maybe that explains the Guardian’s advertising banner for its expanded Major League Soccer coverage this season: “Follow our MLS stories. Soccer or football, whatever you choose to call it.”