We the people

22 Jun

Apologies if you’re having lunch, but something has come up in the world of anglophone news. From the Mail’s UK homepage a couple of weeks ago:

The issue is not the shock value of this report from Daily Mail Australia, unpleasant though it is. Nor is it a lack of geographical specificity, something about which this blog has previously complained: the country of origin is clear. The issue comes at the end of the headline when the international mask slips and the sub-editor refers to “our” waterways.

At the Tribune, the audience team don’t like us saying “our” in the furniture. They have an eye to the global visibility of the website and want things to be accessible to all English-speakers. You can see their point: directly addressing a community to which some readers do not belong has an exclusionary effect. But at the same time, this kind of assumed familiarity becomes hard to avoid when one of your international newsrooms is writing a home news story for its home audience – all the more so when it is under instructions to cater to its home audience first, and not the mothership in London.

And the problem is not confined to accidentally identifying yourself as part of a community. Should you be making local jokes and allusions in headlines, like Guardian Australia does here?

Or do you take the International Herald Tribune approach and retreat from all signals of national identity? (For readers outside New South Wales, I should explain that the Big Banana here is not, as you might think, Russell Crowe: it refers to Coffs Harbour itself, which prospered in the banana trade and now has a large theme park of that name.)

And you’d need to be very local to New South Wales, I think, to grasp this headline first time:

The key is to know that the state police force has a squad known as the “fixated persons unit”, which investigates potentially violent lone-wolf offenders. Even with that information, you might find that a nine-word noun phrase is going it a bit for a headline: the verb-seeking reader does tend to fasten on “fixated” as a likely candidate and get confused.

Friendlyjordies itself is a YouTube channel that satirises Australian politics: not really a name to conjure with, then, across the anglosphere. But if you’re already in for “fixated persons unit”, you’re probably in for that too. And how else could you really put it? “Arrest of member of Australian satirical political YouTube channel by anti-terrorist New South Wales police unit… “? You solve the problem of alienating audiences, but then you run out of space. Localisms can be essential for compression and communication – but then, just as surely as if you’d said “we”, you’ve circumscribed the size of the audience you’re talking to.

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