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More anon

20 Feb

This blog has always had an eye for an odd correction, and this one certainly seems a bit odd:

As we were discussing last time, social media, and the anonymity it affords, is starting to have a noticeable influence on the tone of traditional journalism. One aspect of this is that news is starting to sound slightly less serious, as substantial stories are sourced from revelations published by Twitter users with silly names. But in another respect, the prevalence of pseudonyms on web platforms – including, in most cases, news organisations’ own sites – means that news is also becoming more profoundly anonymous.

Of course, this is hardly a new concept for journalism: some of the biggest stories ever broken have relied on unidentified informants, from Deep Throat to the person who sold MPs’ expenses data to the Telegraph. But in cases like those, although the reader did not know who the source was, the reporter did: and the organisation always had some opportunity to weigh up its informant’s bona fides. In the old days, anonymous sourcing worked because of an implicit assurance offered by the newspaper: we cannot name this person, but you can trust them because we trust them.

The crucial difference between then and now is that, in the case of an online commenter or social media user, it is not always possible to offer that assurance. Indeed, it is likely in many cases that nobody in the news organisation – not the journalists, and probably not even the website administrator – really knows who they’re dealing with. Typically, to log in to a newspaper website and make a comment, you need only give a name (not necessarily your own), an email address (not necessarily one that identifies you), and a date of birth, which hardly narrows things down. Everything you need to join the debate can be arranged from scratch in five minutes without ever making a personal revelation. This is no vox pop conducted on the street, when a reporter stops you and asks you how to spell your name. In this new, deeper anonymity, whether below the line or on social media, your identity is well protected even from the journalist who is quoting you.

Of course, this article was only the Guardian’s “Comments of the Day” roundup, not a major investigation. And of course, many arguments have been advanced about the benefits of anonymity in online forums – the speech tends to be freer and the focus stays for longer on the ideas, rather than the people propounding them. And of course, it’s not factually correct to say LearningIsLife said something when he or she didn’t. But still, the sense of strangeness doesn’t entirely dissipate.

Sometimes, assigning the wrong quotation to the wrong person does make a big difference to understanding, as in this example:

But the correction of attribution between upwthitimustput and LearningIsLife is something that could only really matter to the contributors, not the readers. The audience can hardly be any the wiser as to the authority of the comment, or more informed about its antecedents, if both the contributors concerned are anonymous. And it’s even slightly difficult to understand what’s in it for the commenters themselves: if you’ve opted for anonymity, what does it matter if someone gets your alias wrong?

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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:

The artist Cowabunga

16 Aug

If you’re not sure if you’re reading a broadsheet or a tabloid, check the corrections column. If you see a correction like this, you’re reading a broadsheet:

We confused the endings of two Bresson films in the article above when we said that the donkey hero of Au Hasard Balthazar died to the accompaniment of Monteverdi. The soundtrack to Mouchette’s suicide in the film of that name is Monteverdi, while Balthazar dies to the accompaniment of a Schubert piano sonata. This error has been corrected.

This is mother lode for a broadsheet readers’ editor: French directors, baroque composers, fine distinctions.  It can’t always be that way: too often, this level of expertise is lost in the quotidian struggle to correct homophones and pacify libelled entrepreneurs. But when there’s the slightest glimpse of home ground – a classical reference twinkling in the morass – that unique combination of erudition and patience comes to the fore:

In a feature about the return of the TV series Robot Wars, we said the first season “featured … robots with names such as Killertron and Recylopse”. The correct spelling of the latter is Recyclopse, being a play on the facts that the robot was made almost entirely of recycled material and featured one large eye, like the Greek mythical giant Cyclops

And you need patience, because some people’s grasp of 15th century art just makes you roll your eyes:

A film review on Friday about “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” referred incorrectly to the turtles’ names. Three turtles are named for Renaissance artists whose major works included paintings, not four. (Donatello was a sculptor.)

Prescriptivnik

21 Jun

For a moment, I wasn’t entirely clear what was being corrected here:

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Was this going to be a discussion about “refusenik”? In fact, it soon becomes clear that it isn’t: the quote is merely provided as context to explain why the non-standard noun “copyrighters” has become confused with “copywriters”. But perhaps we do need to talk about “refusenik”; because current usage is moving it rapidly away from what it used to mean.

“-nik”, (“-ник”), as imported from Russian and added to the end of English words, has become a gloriously compact morpheme for creating agent nouns (as well as a way of adding an implied hint or criticism about the subject’s politics): beatnik, peacenik, no-goodnik. But it’s so compact that it actually leaves the precise relationship between the noun and the agent unclear. A beatnik is someone enraptured by the Beat movement; a peacenik is a proud pacifist. Similarly, a “refusenik” is now someone who chooses to boycott something as a protest. But historically, the word meant something very different.

The original term, “отказник” (“otkaznik”), was applied to minorities in Cold War Russia – often Soviet Jews – who were being denied permission to leave the USSR and emigrate (in the Soviet Jews’ case, to Israel; in the case of other minorities, to join diasporas or seek asylum on religious grounds). The policy, which prompted an international human rights dispute, came to a head for several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s before bans were lifted for a period. So the original refuseniks were not people who had refused to do something; they were people to whom something had been refused; would-be refugees who were being prevented from travelling to any other country. They were victims of refusal, not proponents of it.

In these post-Soviet days, that usage is rarely heard. Many of the major dictionaries still record it, for example, Oxford, American Heritage and Merriam-Webster –

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– but Collins already describes the original, political meaning  as the “former” definition:

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and it’s clear that a word that could once have been a synonym for “detainee” is now well on the way to being a synonym for “dissident”.

Usage has radically changed the word’s meaning and laundered it, willy-nilly, of its political gravity and history. One might feel that this has not been language-change’s finest hour, although the compressed ambivalence of “-nik” as a suffix probably made some confusion inevitable. Now, as is the case with “enormity”, the new meaning of  “refusenik” has overwritten the old to such an extent that it’s no longer safe to assume the original usage will be understood.

But it can still be jarring to see the new meaning employed in text. And of course, one doesn’t have to use it; one can probably be a refusenik – I mean a dissident – about that for a while longer.

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:

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Followed by this information in the third paragraph:

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Followed by this handy graphic as an explainer:

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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:

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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.

 

Secrets of style

16 Feb

You should always put right a factual error, of course. But would you really issue a correction in the paper for not having followed your own house style?

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This correction, in the Guardian earlier this month, is purely a matter of preference, not error. Style guides sometimes deal with issues of fact – warnings about, say common geographical mistakes – but this isn’t one of those times. This is just an absence of quote marks that doesn’t seem to affect the sense of the sentence; something that only someone who had read the style guide would even know was wrong.

Admittedly, the Guardian’s guide is publicly available online for those who take an interest, but it’s not as though the reader’s editor feels compelled to apologise for every lapse in consistency. For example, Guardian style calls for “focused” with one “s”; it sometimes appears with two, but there’s never been a correction about it.

But the rest of the column makes it clear why these quotes matter. The Guardian has been a supporter of the Living Wage campaign, which urges employers to offer an hourly pay figure somewhat higher the statutory minimum wage. In the 2015 budget, George Osborne introduced what he called a “national living wage”, borrowing the campaign’s phrase but not fully winning its approval: his proposal does not include a higher rate for London, is not set according to a cost-of-living index, and came alongside a series of benefit adjustments for the lower-paid that were nowhere contemplated in the campaign’s calculations.

It is therefore the campaign’s, and the Guardian’s, position that the “national living wage” is not actually a living wage, but a rebranding and increasing of the minimum wage. So the style guide uses quotes to indicate that the phrase is not the paper’s but the government’s: it acknowledges the official title while maintaining its distance from it.

That means the correction is acknowledging not just a failure in neatness or consistency, but something bigger: a lack of critical thinking, a lapse in the acuity one would expect from the paper in its political reporting. A piece of parliamentary rhetoric has found its way into the paper unchallenged. It’s an apology, in effect, for seeming to be credulous.

Of course the British media’s openly displayed party preferences play a large part in the setting of style like this: the Telegraph, at the other end of the political spectrum from the Guardian, sees no reason to use quotes around the term in news coverage. It’s hardly unusual to see Fleet Street pick a fight over a phrase.

But it does show what consistent style can achieve, in addition to keeping a lid on misspellings. Style guides don’t just contain rules, they contain thinking: tiny position papers that encapsulate the reason for a choice on a sensitive issue, whether it’s between undocumented or illegal, Derry or Londonderry, Burma or Myanmar, refugee or migrant. The issues are unpacked once, considered, then formulated into a rule rather than opened up for debate every time. So then, when you follow the style guide, the paper’s worldview comes with it: the mosaic of rulings not only keeps the writing tidy, but infuses the text with the spirit of the paper. With a good style guide, you don’t need to read the leader page to know roughly where a newspaper stands: its choice of words on any page will tell you.

Snap judgments

6 Jan

The web production editor writes:

A reader has pointed out that generally when a Greek place name begins with Skala eg Skala Kalloni on Lesbos, the skala part means “harbour” or “landing place for boats” and it is used to distinguish it from a nearby inland town of the same name (minus the “skala”) eg Kalloni on Lesbos.

As such, please avoid just using the name Skala to refer to a town because it is nonsensical (unless, of course, that is its only name).

The caption on the agency photo on page 6 today referred to refugees arriving at the village of Skala on Lesbos. This was all the information provided by the agency so if we can’t verify the full name of the village it is better to avoid using it altogether if we can. (Emphasis added)

Mistakes in photographers’ caption information are a problem. They bypass the experienced eyes of the writer of the article; even when a photographer accompanies a reporter on the job, the reporter rarely sees the pics and almost never the caption details. They also often bypass the commissioning desk: news editors will try to familiarise themselves with their picture options when briefing the page designer, but not in every case; no one consults the head of foreign news on every downpage cutout or mugshot. And at the Tribune, with the amount of news being edited and published online every day, sub-editors have direct access to the photo library to select their own pictures, so many photographs launched on to the web even bypass the picture desk.

The result is that photographs and their captions have a shorter route into publication than any other piece of content except the Sudoku puzzle. In a fact-checking process that runs from reporter to news desk to sub to revise sub to (if you’re lucky) proofreader, the caption skips the first two stages altogether and, on the web, gets published after the third one, to be revised later on.

That explains why newspaper captions can tend to echo the present-tense descriptive style peculiar to agency photo information (“a man is seen waving …”) and their all-too-familiar verb choices (“celebrates”, “gestures” etc); captions get less polishing than other parts of the body text. It also explains why so much classic corrections-column material arises from how photographs are treated in the production process.

But when the error originates with the agency, what little protection there is against error disappears. If, as in the uncomfortable case of this Guardian correction, a reputable photo agency sends out a picture of a private individual who has been thrust into the news, and it turns out to be the wrong person, it’s basically uncheckable:

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Just as a sub-editor can be the single point of failure on picture choice and caption-writing, the photo agency is the single point of failure on veracity. Very few people except those acquainted with the individual in the news will know it’s a mistake, and not many of them are likely to be in the newsroom, so the first person to hear about it will probably be the readers’ editor. In the Guardian case, there was also internal miscommunication over a recall from the photo agency, but in any situation where there is a significant delay between release and retraction, the picture will be all over the web, and in Google’s caches, long before remedial action can be taken.

Many things have to fall into line for a mistake in raw copy to get all the way through to print: a misapprehension by the reporter, a fumbled effort at clarification from the desk, a sub who lets through an ambiguous paragraph, a revise sub in a hurry on deadline. But a mistake over an online photograph can happen, as it were, in a flash.