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Subs – please check

12 Oct

HMS Ambush on sea trials. © Crown copyright 2012

*

“We have been regularly referring to the value of the Aus-French submarine deal as $90bn,” writes an astute member of the Tribune’s night shift to colleagues. “But this is 90bn AUSTRALIAN dollars, not US dollars.”

That is an excellent point. “This makes sense for an Australian audience but is confusing for everyone else. Lots of writers and subs are referring back to Aus pieces for their info and copying this sum into stories for a US, UK and global audience. Non-Australia folk: please be on the alert for this (and for similar Australian stories of global import). Australia folk: if a story is very much global, would you consider using the notation A$? Anyway, something for discussion.”

It certainly is something for discussion: this blog has wrestled for years with the problems of anglophone news organisations trying to bestride the globe while remaining part of a national dialogue. The Aukus submarines deal, agreed between Australia, the UK and the US, looks like a perfect anglosphere news story – after all, these are the three countries where forward-looking British papers such as the Tribune now have newsrooms. But although that means the coverage has been panoramic, the small but essential details are proving as troublesome as ever.

Some newsdesks did fall into the trap. Eastern Eye converted the “$90bn” that France stands to lose from the cancellation of its own submarine deal with Australia into “£66bn”:

But that is the sterling equivalent of 90 billion US dollars, not Australian; the correct figure for A$ is about £48bn.

The Tribune does not appear to have gone that far, but by saying “$90bn” in several pieces without context we may have been giving the impression – it’s easily done – that we were speaking of the world’s reserve currency when we were not. And in this article in the Mail, focusing on the Biden angle and with a US political writer leading the bylines,

the $90bn figure also stands unqualified.*

Interestingly, the same article gives comparative costings of various submarine types further down,

and those figures are not in US dollars either. A Virginia-class boat seems to cost about US$3.4bn (which is about A$4.5bn) and a new HMS Astute would set you back about £1.4bn-£1.6bn, which is not as much as $2.6bn in US currency. It would seem that the costs in this US-focused article are being given consistently in Australian dollars, but without ever saying so.

Why would you not specify? Perhaps because, as we have discussed so often, journalists at the Tribune and similar organisations are often encouraged not to. Our purpose in expanding across the anglosphere is to provide local coverage in underserved markets, to bed in as a homegrown news source. So we write in different flavours of English depending on which continent we’re on, and speak of weights and measures as locals would. In which case, as the night sub’s email suggests, adopting international terminology for a national currency is something that very much needs to be “considered” before it is enforced. Too much globalist perspective, too much wire-service neutrality, betrays you as an outsider.

This causes a slight problem when local stories meant for one country’s consumption become visible on another country’s homepage. But it causes even greater problems when the three jurisdictions you cover collide in the same global story. Because then, whose worldview wins?

*“Advanced” warning – I know, I know.

The Lada of success

31 Aug

Along with the headlines we dream of one day writing (my ambition is to get “Crema vs. Crema” on a group test of espresso machines), I’m sure I’m not the only sub-editor to fantasise about making a stunning save on deadline – a last-minute intervention that prevents a disastrous error getting into print, and shows off one’s combination of erudition and alertness. One of those cool foreign-desk moments, pulling an earbud out of one ear to shout over to the desk: “My Pashto’s pretty rusty, but it sounds like the Mullah’s saying ‘retreat’, not ‘surrender’.” Except that, when my moment finally arrived, I didn’t get to say anything as cool as that. Instead I had to go up to the back bench, and, within earshot of most of senior management, mumble “excuse me, I think this is a Moskvich”.

The occasion was a colour feature about Havana and the struggle of its taxi drivers and mechanics to keep their old Lada cars on the road. Vivid, atmospheric, rich in castroismo, it was very Tribune. The trouble was, alongside the enthusing about the Lada’s Italian heritage and classic 1960s lines was the picture above. “A Lada car on the streets of Havana Centro” the caption says, but as someone who spent far too much of their childhood reading The Observer’s Book of Automobiles, I wasn’t so sure.

The picture editor gave me one of those picture-desk stares. “I don’t really know a lot about cars,” he said. “It says it’s a Lada.” “Ah yes, but if you look here below the rear window pillar, there’s a cabin air vent, whereas on a Lada …” “Yes, OK, if you say so.” I returned to the back bench. “Yes, I think we’d better change the pic. You see if you look at this feature here above the rear wheel…” “Yes, OK, can you just make sure it’s right? Thanks.” I returned to the subs’ desk in dorkish pride, looked round at my colleagues, thought about explaining what had happened, and decided to spare them.

(However, for those interested … If you look at the picture above and compare it with this fine machine belonging to the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria, which really is a Lada,

you will notice that the blue car has a small vent on the side of the body, above the rear wheel, whereas the police car doesn’t; instead it has a similar vent actually mounted on the rear cabin pillar.

Then, when you start looking properly, you can see the blue car has a curved crease, or wing line, running the whole length of its side, culminating in a vestigial tailfin, whereas the Lada does not. Also (he continued), although the blue car has lost its lights and badges, you can see that the radiator grille is a different shape and that the indicators, if they were still there, would be in a completely different position. (Could it be one of the very earliest Ladas, you’re asking? Ah, but they had round headlights. These ones, or what’s left of them, are clearly rectangular.) I’m confident that the blue car is in fact a Moskvich 2140 – a model, as we know, developed out of the classic Moskvich 412 – built in the USSR from the 1970s until the end of the Cold War.)

Not only that, but as I hunted for a replacement, it emerged that several other Cuban vehicles in the picture library were being wrongly advertised as Ladas, including this one, which is clearly another Moskvich,

and this one:

Good lord, man, that’s a Renault Dauphine.

But nonetheless, we were spoiled for choice with the images. A Lada with a hammer and sickle decal on its side. A Lada with its occupants waving the bandera nacional triumphantly from the windows. And the winner: a young couple kissing passionately between two parked Ladas in front of a sunlit mural of the revolution. Cuba can make anything look romantic.

Zeroes and ones, part five

13 Apr

This week on Journalists’ Adventures in Maths: percentage changes are not reversible, or why a 75% rise from 4 to 7 is not a 75% fall from 7 to 4.

Dutifully checking the numbers* in the copy as they come up, I first get a result at variance with the reporter’s:

and then, by swapping the numbers around, get one that agrees:

However, the minus sign at the start of the second answer is the clue: the numbers in that sum are declining from over 400,000 to less than 300,000. But the copy talks about a rise.

The same thing happens with the second pair of numbers: the percentage rise is calculated as though it were a percentage fall.

Why is it not the same? The difference between 8,276 and 12,092 is always constant: 3,816. But in a percentage, of course, you can relate that constant difference to different comparators, and 3,816 is a much larger proportion of 8,276 than it is of 12,092.

This will hardly come as news to people who can do maths. But for arts-heavy newsrooms, this is slightly more perilous territory than the answer just being wrong – it is wrong, but it seems right if you do the sum the wrong way round. You need the strength of mind to remember which number you’re starting with and stick with it. It seems somewhat analogous to the evergreen error of mistaking ancestors for descendants, or confusing “overestimating” and “underestimating”. It’s not just the relationship between the two things that’s important, but the direction of travel too.

*Use of a percentage calculator is highly recommended, of course; I like this one, with its clear, question-based approach.

The cowboy and the president

5 Mar

Social media is changing journalism fast. Old news can be made fresh when something nearly 50 years old goes viral. Allegations of criminality can be sourced to a single user with a pseudonymous Twitter handle. We are becoming used to the idea that sources may be anonymous even to the journalists citing them. But, even in this complicated age, what are we supposed to make of this?

“An account parodying the late Richard Nixon”? What is the reader supposed to understand from that? Is this tweet meant to be:

  • Written in Nixon’s persona as a satire on the Nixonian worldview? (Although it doesn’t sound particularly like him.)
  • Written in Nixon’s persona, but meant as imagined serious commentary from an acquaintance and contemporary of Wayne’s?
  • Written by whoever is behind the parody account in their own voice, having dropped the presidential mask (which is what it sounds most like)?

In other words, is this tweet intended to say something about Wayne, or something about Nixon? And is anyone at the Mail going to help the reader navigate through the layers of meaning to find out which?

Further down in the same article, another tweet is quoted from “Twitter user” Jonathan Pie.

Jonathan Pie is the alter ego of the British comedian Tom Walker – a fictional, ranting TV news reporter who has become a cult YouTube favourite and has sometimes been mistaken for a real journalist (including, almost, once, at the Tribune). “Twitter user” hardly seems to cover the complexities of that CV. Is the reader absolutely sure who he is? Is the Mail?

Catalonia vs Wallonia

6 Mar

Ah, the lure of low attachment:

No doubt the Leave voters of Britain can empathise with Catalonia wanting to be free from Brussels’s yoke. But one suspects perhaps that “from Belgium” is meant to attach to something slightly higher up in the sentence here, such as “continue”.

Low attachment” is the tendency to read a phrase as modifying the thing closest to it, in preference to anything mentioned earlier (or “higher up”) in the sentence. As the linguist Arnold Zwicky says, “low attachment is the default, but other factors favor high attachment in certain contexts” – one very important context being “real-world plausibility”.

Even then, it’s tempting to track back only to the first word that allows the phrase to make grammatical sense, however absurd, as in the case in one of Zwicky’s most impressive examples: “a resident reported a large animal in a tree with tall and pointed ears”. Here, although the ears don’t quite attach as high up as the resident, they certainly become disconcertingly separated from “a large animal” by “a tree”.

And it frequently makes life more interesting. Low attachment can operate in a sentence as short as a headline, as Twitter user @knapjack discovered earlier this month:

And in one of Language Log’s regular features, “Linguistics in the Comics”, a schoolboy in the Frazz comic strip is doing a presentation for careers week to his teacher.

“I want to be the guitarist for Iggy and the Stooges like my dad,” he says.

“Your dad is Iggy Pop’s guitarist?”

“No, he wants to be.”

The one thing you notice

9 Jan

This armchair-continuity-expert thing is getting addictive. Moving on from The Crown to Netflix’s excellent Manhunt:Unabomber – the birth of forensic linguistics in eight parts, featuring Paul Bettany in a beard, Sam Worthington in a suit and Chris Noth in giant ’90s spectacles – the following subtitle screen appears:

Like the costumes and the hairstyles, it all seems redolently in-period. That’s the old San Francisco airport control tower, not the new one that was opened in 2016. The 747 on the right looks convincingly retro in Air China’s old-fashioned livery.  But what about that plane on the left?

The lettering says “United”, but the logo on the tail, an outline globe over a blue background, is the mark of Continental Airlines – or it was, until United and Continental merged and decided, unusually, to adopt United’s name but use Continental’s livery on all its planes from then on. That merger took place in 2010: which means that this pleasingly period-looking footage cannot be more than eight years old.

How did I notice that? Just by chance. As a frequent flyer to the US, I eagerly hoard my airmiles. The obvious way to do that is by always flying with the same airline: that way, the free flights and upgrades come quicker than they would if you were slowly accumulating credit with multiple carriers. The airline I flew with repeatedly over the years was Continental: so I heard about the merger in customer emails, saw the name change on the website, nervously logged on to United’s loyalty programme to check that my airmiles had been transferred.

I had no idea that San Francisco had built a new control tower: I haven’t been there for years. I didn’t know that Air China was painting its planes to look like that well into the 2010s: I discovered those facts on Google. Now that I look into it, I’m not sure that the flowery logo on the 747’s tail is correct for the period either, or that that model of United Airbus was even around in ’95. But all this would have been a closed book to me before. I’m not an expert on civil aviation: the logo on the tailplane was the one thing I noticed.

And editing can be alarmingly like this as well. Internal inconsistencies in copy – variant spellings, bad maths, impossible chronologies – are obvious from the text. Names, dates and places can all easily be checked with other sources. But even with the highest levels of professionalism and diligence, some errors will only be spotted because you happens to know something.

Sometimes, it would need a baby-boomer editor to tell the difference between Bob Dylan and a Bob Dylan impersonator before broadcasting footage of the latter on the BBC. Sometimes, it would need a Gen-Xer to know where Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi first met (hint: not in the cantina). These are the kind of facts that have to be known, rather than checked: there is scarcely time in a daily news routine to compare photographs of musical pioneers or rewatch Star Wars, just in case.

And sometimes, you might need a youngster – someone who understands that users change their names on Twitter for all sorts of reasons – in order not to trip over something like this:

That’s so next year

4 Apr

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The sun is out and blossom is falling: here, spring has just begun. But on Planet Fashion, 2017 is already over; 2019 will begin in 2018, autumn and winter will happen in March, and spring and summer will start in October. Unless you’re male, of course, in which case different dates apply.

The reason I know this is that, at the Tribune, art, fashion and music reviews are mixed in with the news run as a matter of policy, so it frequently falls to we horny-handed front-section types to put down 300-word wire stories about rail strikes and address ourselves to subbing style copy.

This isn’t to everyone taste on the desk, but I quite like it. Although you might not expect it from watching Zoolander, my experience of fashion writers is that their news copy is generally clear, funny, accurate and on time, and that by and large they make a better job of explaining profit-and-loss and boardroom machinations than the City desk would of describing necklines. But when it comes to fashion weeks – the time at which catwalk reviews and commentary are most likely to appear in the news pages – the dates and seasons can become a little confusing.

The four “fashion capitals” of the western world – New York, London, Milan and Paris – hold two women’s fashion weeks each per year, one in spring (around February) and one in autumn (around September). But the clothes on the catwalk at those shows generally do not become available for several months, because of the traditionally long lead time required to get the retail and marketing operation geared up for sales. So the clothes that appear in the spring shows are in fact winter clothes for later that year, and the ones that appear in autumn are summer clothes for the following year.

The  confusion arises over how those shows are described: instead of being referred to by the time at which they are taking place, they are referred to by the season for which the clothes are intended. So the shows that took place this past February, in spring 2017, were the autumn/winter 2017 collections (AW17). The fashion weeks that will be held in September and October, in autumn 2017, will be the spring/summer 2018 collections (SS18). Next spring’s collections will be designs for the winter of 2018, and next year’s autumn collections will be for the spring of 2019. And so on.

The basic rule of thumb is, take the season you’re in now, move two seasons further on and add 1 to the year if you go past Christmas. This time-shifted mentality is second nature for fashion hacks, of course, but a bit of a challenge for news subs whose temporal horizon rarely extends beyond remembering to change “this week” to “last week” in copy destined for the Sunday edition.

The situation is slightly further complicated in the case of men’s fashion weeks, because they tend to take place in the depths of winter (January) or the height of summer (July) while still addressing the same season as the women’s shows. So the London male catwalk shows a the start of this year were also, like the female shows, for autumn/winter 2017 – a three-season “jump”.

Things have moved on, of course, since the haute-couture calendar was first set in the early 20th century. For one thing, fashion weeks are proliferating around the globe. Also, there are now “in-season” collections, in which clothes currently available in shops are shown on the catwalk, and even “see it, buy it” shows where the pieces on display can be bought at the event. But these are still new enough that you can rely on the fashion writers to explain how they work in the story.

You can rely on them for quite a lot, in fact. Although I’m still not sure about the elbow-length oven mittens.

Double exposure

27 Sep

I wish Agence France-Presse would stop doing this, because it’s perilously easy to make a mistake:

picture-31

It’s an unusual name, you think, but a resonant one: puts you slightly in mind of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the late king of Saudi Arabia. Unfamiliar though “Alhalbiameer” may be, it has a strangely correct ring to it – a patronymic, maybe? An unfamiliar theophoric name? Except of course, it’s nothing of the sort: AFP, as is its unvarying practice, has repeated Ameer Alhalbi’s name twice without a break in the middle. And that’s the kind of thing that can easily get transcribed from the credit across onto the page when you’re in a hurry:

picture-35 picture-36

It happens with other AFP snappers with non-anglophone names too: Aref (Karimiaref) Karimi, Mandel (Nganmandel) Ngan, Louai (Besharalouai) Beshara and Ilyas (Akenginilyas) Akengin have all made it into publication.

Very obvious once it’s pointed out, of course, and very embarrassing when it happens. But in a world with naming conventions as diverse as Burma’s and Spain’s, it’s not entirely surprising that a striking-looking ‘middle name’ might sometimes slip through. As we have discussed before, pictures and captions have a shorter route into publication, and pass under fewer eyes, than anything else on the website or in the paper.

Fortunately, because it’s the Tribune’s practice to put photography credits on the end of the caption, this is the kind of thing one is prompted to notice in print – if only because there’s so little space in a standard two-column caption that your heart sinks when you see a long name. But come on, AFP: we’re working at speed here. Everyone understands why you’d want to repeat names for clarity, but at least put a space between them. Give us a break.

Citations needed

30 Aug

Wow, the episode titles of Ryan Lochte’s old reality show were eerily prescient, given what happened to him in Rio … wait, hang on. Has this been tampered with?

Picture 29

That’s Wikipedia for you: somebody makes the news and the pranksters come out in force. A quick glance at the edit history of the page reveals a calm lack of activity until 18 August, at the height of the row over the alleged robbery the US swimmer suffered, at which point a brief “edit war” appears to break out:

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 09.38.44

The signs are classic: the sudden influx of anonymous users; the addition of 529 characters without explanation; the deletion of 531 characters without explanation; then the intervention by an adult some 10 hours later  (“removed spurious entry”)  to restore the site to its correct state – a state in which, at the time of writing, it still remains:

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 09.38.06

This is, as has frequently been pointed out, the uniquely alarming thing about Wikipedia: not that some of it is wrong, or that some of it is badly written, but that all of it might change. As John McIntyre put it years ago:

“This is the most troublesome part[:] the editing is not stable. An editor corrects an error, and an hour later or a day later, someone undoes the editing. You cannot tell, when looking at a Wikipedia entry, whether it is correct at this moment.”

That is true: it would be most unwise ever to cite a Wikipedia article in a book, if only because you would have no idea what the page might be saying in a year’s time. But as a user of the site, clicking on the page to read at any given moment, it’s often pretty easy to tell what state things are in. For example, it wouldn’t be hard to detect the damage in these examples from Wikipedia’s own list of its most vandalised pages:

Oklahoma Christian University  Vandalized a lot given the nondescript nature of the school. Students there vandalize pages and employees there revert them.

Dyslexia  Vandalized daily, multiple anonymous edits, usually with deletions, obscenities, deliberate scrambling of text, or insertion of jokes.

Taiwan  Anonymous vandal with ever changing IP addresses who turns this into an article on the Republic of China

Rove McManus Vandalised regularly by anons who insert scare quotes around the word “comedian”.

That’s not to say vandalism hasn’t caused problems – big ones – in the past. While entries about topics in the news are often monitored closely and re-edited quickly, the dusty historical corners of the site can go unexamined for years, as this hair-raising example – recounted by Wikipedia in its own article about frauds it has suffered – shows:

In May 2010, French politician Ségolène Royal publicly praised the memory of Léon-Robert de l’Astran, an 18th-century naturalist, humanist and son of a slave trader, who had opposed the slave trade. The newspaper Sud-Ouest revealed a month later that de l’Astran had never existed—except as the subject of an article in the French Wikipedia. Historian Jean-Louis Mahé discovered that de l’Astran was fictional after a student, interested by Royal’s praise of him, asked Mahé about him. Mahé’s research led him to realise that de l’Astran did not exist in any archives, and he traced the hoax back to the Rotary Club of La Rochelle. The article, created by members of the Club in January 2007, had thus remained online for three years—unsourced—before the hoax was uncovered.

And journalists have suffered too, not least in the notorious case of the Norman Wisdom Falsehood in the same year, which caught out several newspaper obituarists and revealed just how short – at least in those days – the route was from Wikipedia to the printed page. (For the record: for all his many talents, Wisdom did not write the lyrics to “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover”.)

But newsrooms have learnt something in the intervening six years. The Wisdom incident exposed some shameless cut-and-paste writing, but it also perhaps revealed an endearingly trusting approach to encyclopaedias – a pre-digital belief in reference sources as inviolate and trustworthy. A series of embarrassments over the last decade have changed that; our understanding of what a wiki is now is much more mature than what it was then.

For example, it is interesting that, as Wikipedia notes, the De l’Astran article was completely unsourced: nowadays, there would be a large flag at the top of the page pointing that out, and no fact-checker worth their salt these days would rely on a Wiki article without a single footnote. In more borderline cases, or faced with more subtle vandalism, you still have options: you can check the edit history of a page to get a feel for the bona fides of the contributor who made the amendment. Do they have a proper username, or are they just anonymous? Did they leave a note explaining what they had done, which is good wiki practice? Have they amended other pages too? What did they do there? Did anyone undo their revisions? If so, why?

To be clear: Wikipedia is not, and can never be, authoritative. The phrase “Source: Wikipedia” should never appear anywhere in a reputable publication. Nothing in it that is not cross-referred to an external source should ever be taken as true. The Britannica version of a subject is always greatly to be preferred – except that there is no Britannica entry for What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, nor for the many other ephemeral and trivial phenomena about which newspapers write. If you need some briefing on reality stars, talent show winners, Japanese video games or the Doge meme, there often is nowhere else – reliable or unreliable – to turn; just as sometimes, faced with hip-hop lyrics or regional slang that you don’t understand, there is sometimes no alternative but to resort, nervously, to the pages of the Urban Dictionary.

Wikipedia is still a hazard for the unwary. Of course it isn’t “safe”. But journalists make a living from assessing the probity of sources, and we can apply the same talent here. After the initial upheavals over vandalism, incompetence and mutability, we are starting to make a mental accommodation for a new kind of reference source: ones that are extremely useful but not entirely reliable. Wikipedia can never truly provide an answer; but sometimes it’s the only thing that can help you understand the question.

Zeroes and ones, part three

11 May

One of the occupational hazards of being a journalist is that when a howler appears in the paper, all your friends know exactly who to call. Especially when they’re highly qualified science and maths graduates, and especially when the howler in question is a pretty glaring failure to check the sums.

So when this the first paragraph appeared in an article from the US office:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.04.07

Followed by this information in the third paragraph:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.04.25

Followed by this handy graphic as an explainer:

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.04.16

It wasn’t long before this appeared on my Facebook page:

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Fortunately, because they’re all highly qualified science and maths types, when the bumbling former English student has questions, they have the explanations ready to hand:

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 12.51.43

So, for future reference: any percentage increase from 0% to any higher percentage is an infinite increase; but any percentage-point increase from 0% to a higher percentage is as simple a sum as can be: <higher percentage> – 0.

Meanwhile, the web news production editor has just sent this chastening email round to all subs:

Hi
A common error has popped up again so I just wanted to remind everyone that converting differences in temperatures is different to converting actual temperatures.
For example:
A temperature of 2C is 35.6F
but …
a difference in temperature of 2C is 3.6F.
 Thank goodness my friends didn’t see that story before it was corrected.