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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 cook, the thief, his wife and her headline

21 Mar

picture-178

So the allegation is that City regulators waved through an allegedly illicit payment for a supposedly profitable oilfield to a man who had been convicted of a money-laundering offence over an unrelated matter. Two huge oil companies allegedly completed the transaction with this man via the offices of a national government. Former MI6 officers are claimed to have been at the heart of the deal and some of the money in question was also used to purchase armoured cars, it is alleged.

Picking the right verb for the headline at times like this is tricky – or at least, finding space for the kind of caution that the Tribune’s lawyer will be happy with. “Accused of”, “said to have”, “reported to be” – they make the story safer in the courts, but dilute its impact on the page. As previously discussed, you could always replace the verb with “in”, for that useful combination of vagueness and implication. Or you could use “amid” for those collections of circumstances whose precise relationship to each other is hard to elucidate.*

But if the verbs are hard, the nouns are easy in stories like this: they jump out. Oil, disgrace, MI6, armour, $800m: there’s too many to choose from. With ingredients this good, you don’t actually need to write a sentence: you can just write a shopping list.

And they’re easy to assemble. Start with one or two of the most colourful bits of the story. Put the core of the news last. If you like, add an EMPHATIC Daily Mail intensifier in uppercase as garnish … and you’ve got yourself a list headline.

Like this:

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This is, of course, the General Petraeus love-affair scandal that shook the US in 2012. By this stage of the investigation, the whole story had become quite complicated, with a second woman and another leading general drawn in to the narrative. This Mail article actually reveals there were two sets of emails, sent independently between more than one pair of protagonists; the second was only discovered by chance after an unrelated police inquiry. That’s a lot to try to explain even in headlines as long as the Daily Mail’s. So the obvious thing to do is to abandon the verbs and go with the nouns.

What’s even more impressive is the second part of that headline: an adverbial clause followed by an object noun phrase, separated by a comma and nothing else. That’s advanced verb-avoidance indeed.

Admittedly, in this case, it’s hard to read any but the most benign missing words into the gap:

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [read] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [this is] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

But it goes to show how well you can attract readers’ attention without ever telling them what’s going on.

*Or, indeed, is non-existent.

Fly me to the Sun

9 Mar

BONUS UPDATE: It’s the day after Budget Day, and what the heck does this mean?

The nation may be abuzz with debate about whether the chancellor’s change to National Insurance for the self-employed is retribution against the wealthy and their artificial “service companies” used to avoid tax, or an attack on the working-class independent contractor – the Sun’s beloved “White Van Man” – at a time of economic upheaval. But never mind that. By far the most pressing question of the day is: is this a flying verb?

Scarcely two days after this blog made the confident assertion that flying-verb headlines would never be seen in Britain as they used to be, decades ago, in American tabloids, up pops the Sun with something that looks an awful lot like… well, what is it?

It’s not an adjective: “spite van man” might be an acceptable pun to refer to a van-driver who has done something unpleasant or vicious, but that’s not the story here. It’s not, similarly, an imperative: the article isn’t calling for retribution, simply analysing the news.

Is the chancellor himself, in the picture, being described as the “spite van man”, perhaps? Hard to see how: he doesn’t have a van, nor is he spiting the vehicles themselves. And look at the first standfirst: “Hammond £240 raid on self-employed”. Doesn’t that tempt you to believe that the sense is “Tories spite van man” – that the subject of the sentence has been deleted, leaving the verb to fly?

Perhaps not, in fact. The likeliest explanation is that it’s a simple rhyming pun that ultimately fails to mean anything: a bit like the baffling (and much-criticised) “NOD IN MY NAME” front page the Sun ran about Jeremy Corbyn supposedly not bowing sufficiently at the Cenotaph. That was a familiar pacifist phrase with one word altered to fit the news, but not something you could actually parse for sense.

But on a day when even the Daily Star (“ROB THE BUILDER!“) is running strange, agentless Budget headlines on page 1, you’re entitled to wonder if an old headline form is lumbering improbably back to life. Who exactly is doing the robbing?

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Day 2, and I think this idea is approaching the end of its development curve.

Still, at least it’s clear that this one’s an imperative.

 

If I had a hammer

21 Feb

Looks like the Bambino really put the good wood on this one:

babestory

At least, I assume that’s what the headline means here. “Carpenters”?

This blog has enthused before about the (now vanished) propensity for American journalism to mass-produce new synonyms. So this – the most famous achievement (home run record) by the most famous player (Babe Ruth) on baseball’s most famous team (1927 Yankees) – might be expected to inspire the New York Daily News to great heights.

And so it proves: the home run record is the “circuit mark”, the record-breaking hit is the “bam”; on the breathless front page (“O, Babe!”), Ruth is “the great G Herman” and the home run a “stupendous swat”, cheered to the echo by “shouting customers” at Yankee Stadium. Inside, a young Paul Gallico, who would later go on to write The Poseidon Adventure, is in awe: “When Ruth conks one it stays conked. Of all the home runs I have seen him hit, only one could be called a high fly, and then it was so doggone high that no outfielder in the world could have snagged it. It went so blinkin’ high that it looked like of those things they drop off the Flatiron building for a publicity stunt.”

The enthusiasm for variation even extends to the main illustration on page 28: seven different portraits of Ruth with different captions, variously describing him as “George Herman Ruth”, “G.H. Ruth”, “George H. Ruth”, “Babe Ruth”, the “Colossus of Clout” and the “Sultan of Swat”.

babecover

But still: “carpentered”? Although I’ve never heard it used as a verb, most dictionaries list it as one. Merriam-Webster’s entry is typical:

screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-13-34-29

But those definitions, and certainly number (2), suggest a kind of mundane repetition, or weary prefabrication, that hardly fits the hyperbolic tone of a newspaper “tickled silly” by all the excitement. So what’s the sense? Is it a failed neologism, perhaps meaning something like “to strike great blows with a hammer” or “to drive in the final nail”? Is it a piece of lost 1920s slang that readers would have understood?

Or is it just a slightly ironic way of saying in the headline, “look, he’s done it again“? Perhaps: Marshall Hunt’s match report, on the same page, at one point reads: “The coronation exercises took place tumultuously yesterday afternoon when that most famous of the famous, George Herman Ruth, patterned his 60th home run of the current season in the eighth inning and thereby established another world’s record.”

If so, though, it’s a slightly underwhelming verb to choose for a block caps main headline on a historic day, even if it does help fill out the measure. On balance, I think I prefer “Socko!”

Neutral News at Ten

24 Jan

Now this – this – is a news organisation that’s committed to impartiality:

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-13-54-12

On Fleet Street, where the culture wars rage, no one is surprised that newspapers take sides in their use of language just as they do on their leader pages. But imagine the pressure to stay out of trouble if you’re writing the BBC’s style guide – the benchmark for judicious, non-partisan, inclusive journalism, paid for by all and bound by conscience to reflect all views.

How does it do? By and large, very well. In all areas where it can stay aloof, it does. It frequently links to the painstakingly fair current affairs briefings on the BBC’s Academy website, and it demonstrates a capacity to make distinctions and see both sides that is almost jurisprudential. Whether distinguishing a population from the militants that claim to represent them, or identifying both winners and losers when interest rates rise, it’s hard not to like a style guide that reminds you “not all Tamils are Tigers”, or that “good news” is “not to be used as a blanket term”. For example:

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-17-14-09

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-14-15-49

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But the problem for all style guides is that there are areas of political language where it is impossible to stay aloof, because the only terms in common use have become polarised. The BBC guide is more silent than it should be on some of these: there is no help for its journalists on the choice between “bedroom tax” and “spare room subsidy”, for instance, or whether it is fair to call George Osborne’s higher national wage a “living wage”, as he did. But there is at least one controversial area where it does offer guidance, to say this:

Abortion

Avoid pro-abortion, and use pro-choice instead. Campaigners favour a woman’s right to choose, rather than abortion itself. And use anti-abortion rather than pro-life, except where it is part of the title of a group’s name. 

At the left-leaning Tribune, this is not a difficult conclusion to reach. We readily dismiss the term “pro-life”: as the duty editor sometimes observes, “everyone’s pro-life”. Over at Fox News and the Daily Mail, the opposite view is taken and the phrase is in widespread use. So the decision for a BBC style guide editors must have been very sensitive. Indeed, forced to make the best of the bitter rhetoric that surrounds an angry issue, they might have opened themselves to an accusation of  bias. But what would be the alternative? Only to adopt the other side’s terms and opt for framing the debate as “pro-abortion” versus “pro-life”, alienating a different group of licence-fee payers just as much.

Judicious evenhandedness is an admirable approach to journalism, but the straight and narrow way has an awkward habit of narrowing to a point in the trickiest areas. Reading the style guide, it is impossible to doubt the BBC’s essential fairness and good conscience. But when there’s no middle ground, everyone’s forced to pick a side.

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 organisations would feel comfortable with. Young people are strongly for Clinton; white working class voters are strongly for Trump. Whoever you to 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.