Archive | April, 2020

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.