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Who is this speaking?

7 Jan

This must be a big story, because the Telegraph has forgotten the claim quotes on the splash again:

And this isn’t the first time it’s happened. That was in 2015, when readers suddenly found themselves being addressed with unfamiliar directness on the day of the general election:

In both cases, a startling imperative headline sits above a straight, completely unexceptionable news story. And although the big type appears to come straight from the pulpit, what follows below makes clear that these are – of course! – just third-party opinions: the words of a “former immigration chief” in the first case and a now-former prime minister in the second. The attribution has unaccountably gone missing from the headline, but it’s right there in the standfirst.

It’s just that, in a respectable publication, one might reasonably hope to find attribution in the headline as well. Perhaps you might not want to waste a line on “…PM urges” or “says expert”, but you could always, for instance, put the entire headline in quotes?

Some newspapers don’t like to have quotation marks in headlines. But the Telegraph isn’t notably one of them, and there are some in the story right next to the migration splash. Did the quote marks get left off by mistake? But this has happened twice now, and both times on supposedly nation-in-crisis subjects that resonate strongly with Telegraph readers.

Nor is this explicitly a front-page editorial; it’s more transgressive than that. When you see “The Sun says…” or “Opinion …” as a strap on page 1, you’re forewarned as to the tone of the headline that follows. Without it, you’re not. Reading a splash, you’re expecting facts and fair dealing, and an opinion headline above a news story catches you off guard. As a rhetorical technique, it has the peculiar effect of breaking the journalistic fourth wall: as though the Telegraph were saying “we normally play the game of attribution and balance, but you know how the world works and so do we, and this is serious.”

It only happens for a moment: then the mask of impartiality is replaced in the standfirst. But the shock of having glimpsed the real face of the newspaper, or seen the limits of journalists’ patience with the niceties of their trade, lingers. This is particularly so in the case of the general election: on the same day as that front page appeared, the newspaper emailed every one of its subscribers openly urging them to vote Conservative.

It’s not that the Telegraph has contrived to put a pundit they agree with on the front page: many papers do that. It’s that they appear to have allowed him to write the headline as well. And yes, not everybody likes claim quotes: but strange things start happening when they disappear.

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Time-travelling bongs

16 Oct

Ah, the perils of writing ahead:

Picture 188

It’s 18.38 on Thursday 4 October, and PA has just published a short news story about Big Ben. Silenced since the start of the year, the great bell is to be test-sounded by a jury-rigged hammer system, set up so that it may later ring out for Remembrance Day and the new year.

When will this happen? “On Thursday”. What time? “Between 8 and 10pm”. Anything else? Yes, there’s a quote from an MP, “who was in parliament to hear the rare chimes”.

What, at 18.38? What did they do, reverberate back though time?

For some time, when specifying the time element for web news, it has become customary not to say “today”, “yesterday”, “tomorrow” or “last night”, but instead to simply state the day of the week on which an event took place. So an online news story, accessible around the world as it is, will simply say “Thursday” even when it means “today”.*

However, when writing for print, it frequently happens that significant events are due to occur between the copy deadline the previous evening and the appearance of the newspaper the following day. In such cases, what one is supposed to do is write in a cascade of conditionals and future perfects: “It is expected that the vote will have taken place by the early hours of this morning, by which point some senators are likely to have been detained in the capitol for more than 24 hours.” However, it has sometimes been the case that – how to put this? – certain events get anticipated, and written about as though they have already happened, hours ahead of schedule.

At its least harmful, this practice comes in the form of the spurious “last night”; “The Conservative party was in turmoil last night” leading a story filed at five to five in the afternoon. But this example is worse: here, an event that is likely but not certain is written about as though it had definitively occurred some hours before, a throwback to the worst practices of print – made even more conspicuous by the jarring change of tense from the start of the story, which is written, web-style, in anticipation of the moment.

This is the kind of thing sub-editors can head off firmly when they see it; but in this case the whole thing went up live on the Daily Mail’s apparently unedited wire feed, where it can’t have inspired much confidence in journalism among those who read it closely.

 

*This is still slightly confusing for middle-aged journalists: when this same PA copy came through to be used as a brief for print, members of Tribune staff stared at it blankly for almost a minute before realising it would need to be rewritten in the past tense for Friday’s paper

Shock treatment

25 Jul

Well, never mind the Paris Accords – thank goodness this has been settled, years in advance. A decisive example of international cooperation. Wait, hang on, what’s this?

Ah.

We have seen so many examples of claim quotes being used where they shouldn’t be – around claims that only the reporter has made, or around naked editorialising in the display type – that it’s quite a shock to see a headline not have them when it needs them. This Guardian story is not about a fact, it’s about a claim; not about a decision but a prediction. So the headline cannot stand like this, without any attribution at all.

Yes, the source of the assertion eventually appears in the standfirst, but that’s too late: a headline containing a claim must signal the existence of that claim within itself.* This is a highly sensitised part of British newspaper culture: there is a huge difference, to UK readers, between QUEEN AND PRINCE PHILIP TO DIVORCE and QUEEN AND PRINCE PHILIP ‘TO DIVORCE’. The former is a categorical assurance, a truth on which the newspaper is staking its reputation. The latter is clearly nothing of the kind: a secondhand claim at best, and one from which the newspaper is distancing itself by punctuation.

It puts one in mind of the hoary “that’s what …” construction beloved of US beat reporters and long studied by Fred at HeadsUp, in which a striking, apparently declarative opening sentence is only fully contextualised in the succeeding paragraph.

There’s no way a man could have blown up an airliner using explosives hidden in his briefs.

That’s what defense attorney Anthony Chambers is claiming in his latest court filing involving Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with a homemade bomb in his underwear on Dec. 25, 2009.

Or:

Monica Conyers doesn’t have a good enough reason to take back her guilty plea and her sudden claim of innocence doesn’t cut it.

That’s what the federal government argued in court documents filed Monday with the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, where Conyers is fighting to have her guilty plea withdrawn.

Which in turn raises a wider question about how long a newspaper should be allowed to keep its readers on the hook before revealing the contested or partial nature of what it’s saying. I would suggest – whether we’re talking about a headline or an opening paragraph – not very long at all.

 

*Especially because, on many news websites, it is only the headline, without the standfirst, that appears on the homepage.

How to write a claim quote

16 May

Breaking:

A US Congressman has shocked Capitol Hill by claiming to know the identity of crimefighting hero Superman. Hank Bystander (D-NY), whose congressional district covers southern Midvale in Metropolis, told a hearing of the newly formed House committee on media ethics: “It’s no secret in the neighbourhood. We know who Superman is. He’s another damn journalist. His name is Clark Kent, and he writes for the Daily Planet.”

This is a somebody-said-something story. It’s on the record, from a person of substance, and unquestionably attention-grabbing; but it comes without any supporting evidence. It is, to use the laconic phrase heard on the Tribune newsdesk, “interesting if true”. So the display type will not announce CLARK KENT IS SUPERMAN in the newspaper’s own voice: it will attribute the claim to the person who said it, and leave readers to judge for themselves.

How will it do that? There are a couple of options. The first headline option (Type A) is the splashy, read-me, direct-speech quote:

CONGRESSMAN: ‘WE KNOW WHO SUPERMAN IS’

This is beyond reproach: the quote is verbatim, the attribution explicit. The only problem with using a direct quote is that, as here, natural speech doesn’t compress all the news into the very short sentence you need. So you could take the more informative option (Type B) of reported speech plus attribution:

SUPERMAN IS DAILY PLANET JOURNALIST, SAYS CONGRESSMAN

The congressman did not actually utter the phrase “Superman is Daily Planet journalist”, of course, in crisp headlinese. He said: “His name is Clark Kent, and he writes for the Daily Planet.” But this is reported speech, not direct speech, and the paraphrasing of reported speech is uncontroversial, as long as it accurately reflects the sense of what was said.

And then, in the British headline tradition, there is a third option. In the UK, it is further permissible (almost always for reasons of space) to take that headline, remove the attribution and put the claim, in its paraphrased form, back into quotes to create a claim quote:

SUPERMAN ‘IS DAILY PLANET JOURNALIST’

It is sometimes thought that claim quote headlines are a cavalier, irresponsible form of Type A headline, in which a direct quote is rewritten to suit the newspaper’s purposes and passed off as another’s words. In fact, what they are – or should be – is this: truncated Type B headlines. The key test of a proper claim quote headline is not that you can find the exact quote somewhere in the story, but that you can reverse-engineer it into reported speech plus attribution using the information in the opening paragraphs.*

How, then, can you tell a claim quote from an actual quote? In British headline culture, the most significant clue is the presence of quote marks but the absence of attribution. Type B headlines, of course, do not need quote marks at all, and even in the UK, readers would be disappointed to see a Type A headline – quote marks and an attribution together – if the quotation was not verbatim from the source. Quotes are the lifeblood of journalism in the UK as they are everywhere else – the Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan once sourly observed that he saw media interviews as a reductive game in which journalists would try to get him to use a certain word: if he avoided saying that word, he won; if it slipped out, he lost. Accordingly, the presence of a direct quote and an attribution together in a headline is usually an indicator of a journalistic “victory” of this type, where the story is that a public figure has used a newsworthy turn of phrase.

However, to British readers, an unattributed quote does not primarily indicate the presence of speech, but the presence of a claim. If the quote happens to be verbatim, then so much the better; but either way its significance is the same. The likeliest purpose of an unattributed quote in a headline is to signal the newspaper’s reservations about its veracity. The presumption is that unattributed quotes in Fleet Street headlines rarely indicate speech; they almost always indicate doubt.

* This is the key measure of viability, but not the only one; HeadsUp has been collecting a number of claim-quote heds that scrape through this test but fail on wider grounds of comprehension or readability. Claim quotes may be widespread in British journalism, but they’re not exempted from the normal rules of syntax. 

You ‘can’t say that’

2 May

Years ago – and this is pre-YouTube, so I’ve been searching in vain for clips – there used to be a segment of a British satirical news quiz that revolved entirely around putting claim quotes in headlines.

I have a distinct memory of Dara O Briain being in charge, so perhaps it was a round on Mock The Week. Anyway, what would happen is that utterly scandalous, defamatory headlines about eminent people would flash up onto the screen, and the contestants would have to insert claim quotes around the most damaging parts to avoid their imaginary newspaper being sued for libel. The more of the headline you could let stand outside the quotes, the more points you got: those who played it safe and put the entire thing in quotation marks were greeted with jeers and cries of “Cowards!” from the chair.

The fact that this idea could ever form part of a national light entertainment programme says a lot about how well understood claim quotes are in the British public imagination. But it also reveals something slightly more worrying: a perception that claim quotes are not just a way to signal a newspaper’s distance from allegations, but a magic device that can be deployed to bamboozle lawyers, avoid editorial responsibility, or quarantine any phrase you’re not quite sure of.

Which is perhaps why we sometimes end up with headlines like this:

The saga of the young people who paid thousands to attend a de luxe event in the Bahamas only to find themselves trapped in ramshackle tents and fed packed lunches has been all the rage on social media, so it’s not surprising the Telegraph has been looking into it. This is their headline, containing not one but two quoted elements, on their main news story last week.

The second quoted element, “mugged, stranded and hungry”, is a classic claim quote – which is to say, not an actual quote, but an allegation in reported speech placed within quotation marks to signal its contested nature. This is the headline convention that British TV audiences are familiar with: the shorthand that stands in for a full attribution, such as “claim customers” or “say unhappy youngsters”, that will be made clear in the text. As you read the story, you do indeed find third parties complaining of all three of those things, although the case for hunger is perhaps more understood than explicit.

The first quoted element, however, is a different matter. You can look up and down the story, and not see a single reference to either the Hunger Games or Rich Kids of Instagram. And to be clear, I don’t just mean that nobody says it verbatim: I mean that nobody says it at all – not in the embedded tweets, not in the quotes, not in the reporter’s own words. What appears to have happened is that the back bench has perceived the resemblance between the news and two evergreen memes – one relating to teenage excess, the other to teenage suffering – and boiled the story down to one pithy phrase in the headline. But if so, why is it in quotes?

You can certainly quibble with this characterisation. Yes, the victims are (probably) rich kids who (probably) use Instagram, but Rich Kids of Instagram (#RKOI), as originally conceived, is something more specific: an ostentatious photography series published by heirs of wealthy families showing themselves driving Ferraris, flying on Learjets or emptying bottles of Krug over their waterproof Rolexes. Many of the Instagram influencers who were reportedly paid to publicise this festival are a different breed: semi-celebrities or actual celebrities with large personal followings rather than unknown trust-fund babies.

Similarly, you may not feel that an amusing photo of a cheese sandwich justifies a comparison with the Hunger Games novels, in which teenagers are forced to fight to the death for food in a post-apocalyptic tournament. It’s a judgment call: you might decide that the popularity and social implications of the story justify a little hyperbole.

But the point is: quote marks aren’t going to help. This isn’t a claim, or even a report of a claim: it’s a commentary. Newspapers are fully at liberty to editorialise in headlines, of course, but they have to do it in their own voice. If you feel the characterisation is witty and apposite, take the quote marks off. If you feel you’re pushing it by making the comparison, don’t make it. This is your idea, your analysis; you’re not entitled to pass it off as somebody else’s.

As this blog has had occasion to say before, claim quotes do not exist for headline writers to signal doubts about their own work, or avoid the consequences of their own words. Claim quotes are for claims: claims made by other people. They’re a peculiarly British convention that other anglophone journalists don’t immediately understand: that’s not entirely surprising, since we don’t always get them right ourselves.

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:

img_4915

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 organisation 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.

Crud distinctions

7 Jun

So this is what you don’t do. In the light of last time’s discussion about when you might, in the most uncomfortable of circumstances, be tempted to clean up a quote, here’s a clear example of the vast majority of cases when you wouldn’t and shouldn’t.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 11.16.51

I could listen to showrunners talk all day, and this splendid roundtable with five of television’s most in-demand producers is a good example of the flair with which the LA Times covers its hometown industry – even in the face of competition from Variety, the film mags and any number of specialist websites. But in the transcription of the interviews beneath the video, that most genteel of vulgar terms, “crud”, has appeared next to the name of Fargo creator Noah Hawley.

Did he really say “crud”? Does anyone ever say that? Well, because we have the video at the top of the page, we can check. And, as you might have suspected, Hawley doesn’t say “crud” (at about the 31.45 mark on the tape); of course, he says “crap”. The word has been censored in print. It’s a classic example, presumably, of the misplaced sense of editorial propriety that Bill Walsh describes in Lapsing Into A Comma:

It’s pretty likely that somewhere someone is watching on CNN as somebody says, “I ain’t saying nothing to you [bleep]er [bleep]ers,” while reading a printed account of the same statement that says, “I respectfully decline to comment, my good man.”

The rest of the roundtable is transcribed punctiliously. And I don’t have a problem with occasional square-bracketed clarifications when they’re inserted into long-form quotes in which interviewees can clearly be heard speaking in their own voice. But it does seem odd, when happily publishing a video of someone saying “crap” on your own website, that you would bother to expurgate the word in the text beneath.

Not that swearing doesn’t present a tricky problem for editors; it does, especially in quotes. The rule here at the Tribune is that obscenities should be printed in full and uncensored within direct quotes, but may not appear anywhere else in the paper. The Associated Press disagrees, and recommends to “replace letters of an offensive word with a hyphen” when there is no compelling need to reproduce the term in full. But it too advises against censorship:

In reporting profanity that normally would use the words “damn” or “god”, lowercase “god” and use the following forms: damn, damn it, goddamn it. Do not, however, change the offending words to euphemisms. Do not, for example, change “damn it” to “darn it”.

All of which doesn’t help much in dealing with the knotty problem that started this whole discussion off a fortnight ago: outfielder Carlos Gomez’s anger at the all-too-accurate transcription of his words as they appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

When a player gives you this as a quote:

For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.

What’s the correct way to proceed?

  1. Run the quote verbatim, as the Chronicle did? That’s the impeccable journalistic thing to do – except that the player might feel slighted about his halting English, as Gomez now does, other non-native anglophones may detect a whiff of native-speaker condescension, and a difficult debate about social disadvantage could develop over what was meant to be a simple baseball story.
  2. “Clean up” the quote? Definitely not: the amount of work needed to turn it into standard English goes far beyond what even the most lax judge would consider acceptable. Huge amounts of it would have to be changed: “Last year and this year, I haven’t really done much for this team. The fans are angry. They are disappointed”.
  3. Take some the words out of direct speech? You could do – except, again, because every single phrase is in non-standard English, you would have to report the whole thing indirectly, leading to the peculiar situation of a player “speaking to the fans” without giving a single actual quote.
  4. Just not run the story at all? That wouldn’t satisfy anyone – not the reporter who brought the story in, the readers who like to hear from their beloved Astros, or the player who wanted to get a message through to the bleachers. (And how would you explain it to Gomez? “Sorry, Carlos, but we really can’t run this until your English improves”?)

After two weeks of thinking about it, I’m still not sure what I would do.