“Crickets”? What do you mean, “crickets”?
This dropped into the subs’ queue, complete with question marks added by a baffled production editor, last week. It’s part of a piece about US presidential hopeful Ben Carson, written by a high-profile Capitol Hill commentator who regularly weighs in for the paper, so the OED probably wasn’t going to be the first place to look for an answer.
In fact, none of the heavyweight dictionaries, not even the American ones, record this usage. It’s only properly covered in the Urban Dictionary, which offers this nicely phrased explanation –
– and, in the process, makes it clear that the writer has got the metaphor slightly wrong. “Crickets” would not be heard from his faith-based supporters; in fact, it is the absence of comment on the part of those supporters that allows the crickets, who have been chirping throughout, to be heard.
So the figure of speech will need to be repaired. But that’s not the end of the questions that this piece throws up. In one of the multitudinous permutations of author, subject, commissioning desk, production desk and audience now possible in a multinational news organisation, this piece was written by an American, about America, in response to a request from the UK, and handed to subs in the London newsroom to produce.
Its intended home was the UK Sunday print edition of the paper, but of course it will be going up on the web to a global audience, some of whom will understand “crickets” and some not. So do you fix the metaphor, but leave it unexplained? Take it out and replace it with a British metaphor? Take it out and replace it with something neutral?
Of all the potential pitfalls like this that lie in wait for the globalised newsroom, many are negotiated with great success. Australasian reality stars make their debut to showbiz fans in Berkshire without adverse comment. Local news stories sneak onto global most-viewed lists and engage a far wider audience than they were ever intended for. Live blogs on major incidents are handed over from bureau to bureau to bureau, Sydney to London to New York, in a race to stay ahead of sunset and keep the news alive. Home news stories with no international pretensions can take themselves around the world without assistance and survive; strangely, the ones that struggle – the only ones that really cause trouble – are those written in one country specifically for consumption in another.
What used to be a staple of foreign-desk reporting – the what’s-happening-in-Washington dispatch written by an American for Britons – is becoming almost impossible to edit, because you become trapped between its intended print audience (British English speakers who want a primer) and its likely audience on the web (American readers with an appetite for Beltway news who may already follow that author). Add more newsrooms across the anglosphere and the problems multiply. Do readers feel more alienated by exotic localisms such as “white-anting”* or “bodega”**, or by having something they already know explained to them like novices? Because you can’t edit to please them both.
This time, we decided to remove “crickets” altogether and replace it with a simple reference to silence. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to remove a metaphor from the copy of a brand-name columnist, but it’s equally uncomfortable to wave through something that provokes open bafflement in your own newsroom.
It’s still not clear what the solution is to this problem; it’s a coin toss every time. But it’s possible that it might solve itself: given how well unmediated news seems to travel these days, the whole genre of letter-from-abroad explainers might soon become a thing of the past.
* (Austr) Metaphorically, to undermine or hollow out an organisation or movement; to destroy something from the inside, in the manner of a white ant or termite.
** (US, particularly New York) A local food and wine store, especially if of Puerto Rican ownership; a cornershop