Archive | November, 2016

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 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.

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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)