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The Great Quotes Quiz

10 May

Hello and welcome! Can you tell an actual quotation from a paraphrased summary of a third party’s position – just by looking? Can you tell the difference between a newspaper trying to teach you a new word and a newspaper trying to make you fear one? The you’re an ideal contestant for The Great Quotes Quiz, where contestants pit their wits against the subtlest form of headline rhetoric on Fleet Street.

In today’s quiz, you will asked to detect which of the following four journalistic devices are being deployed in a series of headlines:

Actual quotes Quotations taken verbatim from the mouth of a person in the news.

Scare quotes (or sneer quotes) Quote marks placed around a word or phrase to single it out for the reader’s fear or contempt.

Neologism quotes Quote marks placed around an unfamiliar word to signal that although it is new to the reader, it is important and will be explained in due course.

Claim quotes Not actual quotations at all, but quote marks placed around the summary of an assertion made by a third party, about which the newspaper is reserving judgment.

This is not always easy – sometimes it’s impossible to distinguish what kind of headline you are looking at without reading the article. (For example, scare quotes can sometimes perform a secondary function as neologism quotes, inviting the audience to dislike a new word.) But as you work your way through the questions, keep in mind some identification tips from the headline-spotter’s field guide:

Actual quotes

• Significantly more likely to be attributed than unattributed: if quote marks and an attribution are both present in the headline, the likelihood of it being a real quote is high.

• More likely to contain a colourful or controversial turn of phrase, in which case the choice of words may well be the story. Claim quotes, by contrast, are usually written in workaday journalese.

Scare quotes

• Nearly always identifiable from the negative rhetorical loading of other words in the headline: for example, the word in quotes may be described as “bizarre”, “disturbing”, “baffling” and so on.

Neologism quotes

• The word in quotes is either recently coined or completely unfamiliar, but presented neutrally, without the negative rhetoric of the scare quote.

Claim quotes

• Significantly more likely to be unattributed than attributed: in British headline culture, the quotes are shorthand for an attribution.

• More likely to use standard headline language than be unusual or colourful.

So, if everyone’s ready, let’s begin!

Q1

A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Q2

A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Q3

A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Q4

A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Q5

A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Q6

A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Q7

A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Q8

A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Q9

A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Q10 – for double points

First quote
A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

Second quote
A. Actual quote
B. Scare quote
C. Neologism quote
D. Claim quote

How did you do? Scroll further down for the answers:

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Answers

Q1: A. Actual quote: (NB the online headline has now changed and quote has been demoted to the standfirst.) Note the vividness of the language and the presence of attribution in the headline.

Q2: D. Claim quote: This is a slight hybrid: someone quoted in the piece does actually say the word. But the absence of attribution in the hed, and the bald quotation of the single word, means the primary function of the quote marks is to signal journalistic impartiality about the claim being made.

Q3: D. Claim quote: (Headline shown was for print: link is to the online version.) A classic claim quote that reproduces the first paragraph of the story with the quote marks standing in for the attribution.

Q4: C. Neologism quote: Perhaps familiar enough not to need quotes any more, but in any event the phrase is on its own in the homepage headline’s kicker, without any prejudicial rhetoric to colour your view of it.

Q5: B. Scare quote: Note the fear-inducing tenor of the whole headline, especially the “so-called” preceding the quote.

Q6: A. Actual quote: Slightly trickier, as the attribution in the headline is a little ambiguous, but it is present, and the words quoted are vivid.

Q7: C. Neologism quote: This is, possibly, a borderline scare quote – breadcrumbing is after all described as a “mistake” – but it is more obviously a neologism quote of an unfamiliar term. Note too that the overall tone of the headline is instructional rather than angry.

Q8: B. Scare quote: “Self-styled”. Scare quotes are not always unfair: they can serve the useful purpose of signalling widely held doubts about unlikely claims.

Q9: A. Actual quote: Not just one attribution but two – one of them is almost bound to have said it! This is a classic interview-format headline – name-colon-quote, or quote-colon-name – which are always direct quotes, or should be.

Q10: A. Actual quote and B. Scare quote: The link from the first quote to its attribution is very direct, which gives you confidence that the dietitian did use those exact words; “so-called” is a classic scare-quote tactic.

Bars to understanding

9 Nov

What’s going on with this graph in the Mail?

It says “Tory poll lead falls after standards row”, but it seems to show the Tories pulling well ahead of their hated rivals, the Tories, while Labour loses ground inexorably to the Labour party of last week.

Squinting at the small print, we discover that the lighter coloured bars represent the current polling, and the darker bars the previous week’s results. However, the later figures have been placed to the left of the earlier ones, not the right, in reverse chronological order – a methodology applied equally to all parties, but one which, visually, gives the opposite impression to what’s intended. It looks like a picture of continued blue success and red failure.

Similarly, what does this graph, from March, suggest to you is happening?

The correct answer is that the Tories have moved out to 45% of the vote and Labour has fallen back to 32%. But is that what you initially “see”? The Tories look to be declining and Labour surging. Isn’t it more usual to place the later figures on the right, as the eye tracks naturally from left to right across the page? And don’t the wide gaps between the different parties encourage you to compare their performance against themselves, rather than the opposition? Also, the brighter blue seems to count as a “dark” colour, but the brighter red a “light” one: going just by what’s most eyecatching, don’t you end up comparing 39% with 35% in the first graph and 45% with 36% in the second, neither of which represents the correct gap?

This isn’t some effort to obfuscate unfavourable findings, or try some Lib Dem-style sharp practice with the visuals: the Mail has been angered by the Owen Paterson/sleaze debacle, and first graph appears under this uncompromising headline:

It just seems that they always do them this way. But in the absence of any visible x-axis, readers are naturally going to read it from left to right, because that’s how nearly all x-axes run in every other graph. Why flip it for this?

An exacting and perilous activity

28 Apr

“If reporters are the lifeblood of a newspaper, sub-editors may be said to be the main arteries,” writes W Roy Nash in his book How Newspapers Work (Pergamon, 1964) – by which of course he means that we are vital to a news organisation’s functioning, not that we steadily lose capacity and become hardened in middle age.

His book, which I came across quite by chance in Google Books, forms part of the Commonwealth and International Library, an educational series created by Pergamon (and therefore, yes, Robert Maxwell) in the early 1960s mainly for scientists, with the occasional arts subject thrown in to broaden horizons. And Nash, although a reporter (he was education correspondent for the Daily Mail), writes with sympathy about the “special sort of of craftsman*-cum-technician” sitting back in the office, and the symbiotic relationship between those out on a story and those eyeing the word count.

“For example,” he writes, “an industrial correspondent may be away from his office covering a trade union conference. As a specialist, absorbed in his particular field, he is closely interested in the events of the day and feels they warrant a fairly lengthy report.” Very delicately put. “All over the country, other reporters are doing the same sort of thing, applying their own personal yardsticks to the values of the stories they are writing.

“Back at the office the copy takers pound away at their typewriters as the industrial correspondent and his colleagues dictate their copy over the telephone. Gradually the total of words builds up … thousands upon thousands of words which will, in the course of a morning newspaper’s working night, be sufficient to fill a large-size novel. Clearly a newspaper has space only for a small amount of this gargantuan output, and so much must be discarded and much cut.”

Over to the subs’ desk, where, alas, the industrial correspondent’s work has fallen into the hands of the copy taster, who has passed it to Bill with the instruction: “Knock this down by a third and give it a K2 top across two.” Bill, “armed with a black soft-lead marking pencil”, sets to work with the clock ticking. “All sub-editors work at maximum pressure for each page of a newspaper must be ready for the printing presses at times laid down with all the exactitude of railway timetables – and far more rigidly adhered to.” Er, yes.

And so to the cut itself, “one of the most exacting and perilous of all sub-editorial activities”. Bill “must not transform himself into an editorial butcher, slashing away wildly with his pencil. Only rarely can a story be cut by drawing a line at the end of the first two-thirds of the copy and throwing the rest away.” Ahem. “So he must work his way through the copy with the utmost care, discarding a sentence here, reducing the length of a paragraph there.”

And then, with tremendous magnanimity for a reporter, Nash adds:

Of course, mistakes do occur from time to time as a result of sub-editorial cuts. Some ambiguity in the original copy may mislead the sub-editor or he may himself not appreciate the change of emphasis that will arise from a re-written sentence. He is working against the clock, and cannot sit indefinitely weighing up the pros and cons of his method of contraction. These are the really great hazards of newspaper work, and with the best will in the world they may be reduced to a minimum but they cannot be entirely eliminated. Reporters, correspondents and sub-editors are only human and not infallible machines.

Further on in the chapter, he has interesting things to say about another subject not often written about – the unspoken social contract between readers and journalists about what headlines mean.

Headlines today are an indispensable part of the clothing and style of a major daily. The telegraphic form of a modern headline is now acceptable because readers are accustomed to it and have learned to translate it at a glance … The U.S. show business journal, Variety, holds the record for extremes in telegraphic headlines but is apparently able to rely on the translating skill of its very specialised readership. Its most famous line read: HIX PIX NIX IN STIX. In translation it meant that comedy movies (“pix” for pictures) about rural characters (“hix” for hicks) were no box office attraction (“nix”) “in the sticks” (the rural areas themselves).

And, strikingly for a British book, flying verbs get a mention too:

US daily newspaper readers are now sufficiently schooled in headline-absorbing techniques to suffer no confusion even when nouns are omitted. They automatically supply the missing word for themselves. From the line RAID RICH VICE NEST they correctly infer that it is the police who do the raiding.

I’d never heard of Nash or the book, or seen it recommended. It’s more than 50 years old now, as well, and no one’s using marking pencils any more. But it’s still engaging, still relevant and, it appears, still on sale. I’ve already ordered my copy.

 

*Or craftswoman, of course. But this was written in the 1960s.

Hands where I can see ’em

26 Nov

I don’t think that’s a gesture, he’s just …

… but his arms are just folded…

… how can you even tell …

… oh , come on.

Ah the joys of websites (in this case the Bulgarian news agency BTA) where picture captions are piped straight through from the agency unedited. And photographers are usually so careful not to commit themselves to report things that can’t be seen.

Fair enough, those do look like gestures.

Chistmas cheer

23 Dec

The official card from everyone’s favourite liberal-left news source, circa 1980. Don’t worry, someone noticed: it never went out. (And even if it had, the night shift would have fixed it for second edition).

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Drop catch

7 Aug

Er … how’s that?

If you’re baffled by the headline, and perhaps reading “take drops” together, as I was, here’s some background. Earlier this summer, in the deciding match of the one-day cricket series between England and India, England captain Joe Root hit the winning runs, scoring a century as he did so, and then performed what appeared to be a rapper’s “mic drop” – the showy discarding of a microphone, with an air of finality, at the end of a show – with his bat.

Then, last week, in the first of the five-day Test matches between the two countries, Kohli ran out Root with a direct hit when Root was unwisely attempting a second run. Kohli then celebrated in a similar manner, only with an imaginary microphone, because he didn’t have a bat.

The TV cameras didn’t really pick it up, but more than one press photographer did, and the picture duly found its way onto several sports sections the next day, including the Guardian’s, with an “ooh, controversy!” angle to the copy, even though the players seemed very happy to play down the whole thing.

But if you’re going to make mic drops the back-page story, you need to be sure that your audience understand what they are. Readers of the culture section might well be familiar with a gesture that was popularised in rap battles and comedy clubs, but this is a headline for followers of the most traditional form of Britain’s most traditional game: the sport whose VIP spectators wait to be given permission to take their blazers off in 95-degree heat. If the first time they encounter a pop-culture term is broken up in the middle of a complicated headline, the learning (and comprehension) curve is going to be almost vertical.

If you do know what a mic drop is, it’s hard enough, because your eye jumps straight to “drops” after “mic” and ignores “take”; at first I thought they had left an entire rogue verb in the headline. It took me about 45 seconds to realise that (I think) you’re supposed to read “mic(k) take”, as in mickey-take. Of course, that would rely on you pronouncing “mic” phonetically and not as “mike”: but no one refers to them as “mick drops”. Moreover,  “drop” has become semantically detached from its noun phrase because it is now functioning both as the main verb of the sentence and as part of another idiom (to “drop <someone> in it”, ie to cause them trouble).

As a commentator might say about a big inswinger that misses all three stumps, this headline is “doing a bit too much”.  If “mic drop” needs quotes round it in your tweet, then it needs to be treated slightly more gently the first time it appears in print. (And let’s not even get into whether, for precisely this sort of reason, the abbreviation should be “mic” or “mike”).

 

Cut! Print!

24 Dec

The scene: Windsor Castle in the early 1960s, in the grip of a dramatised royal dispute about whether or not Prince Charles should go to chilly, remote Gordonstoun to toughen him up after primary school. At the height of the debate, the Duke of Edinburgh arrives at the castle in his elegant, powerful Lagonda (this isn’t just The Crown glamourising things for its Netflix audience: he really did have one).

Cut to: the aerodrome, where the Duke is going to use his own plane to fly Charles to Scotland (spoiler alert) for his first day at school. Father and son arrive to a media circus on the tarmac, flashbulbs popping, in the elegant, powerful Lagonda:

And then cut to: Gordonstoun, where the gates are swung open to welcome the Duke and Charles as they arrive in … er …  the elegant, powerful Lagonda, which would appear to have been either taken apart into very small pieces and loaded into the back of the plane, or have made the 550-mile journey from London to Scotland faster than the Duke of Edinburgh can fly. Never mind Santa’s sleigh: whichever royal aide caned it up the M1 at that speed needs to be given a job delivering presents.

I’ve always secretly fancied that, as a sub, I might be quite good at film continuity: keeping track of a timeline, checking for inconsistencies, remembering context, organising information: isn’t that what a copy desk does for a living? But in fact, I suspect, a continuity editor’s job is like editing an article by starting in the middle and being forced to read both forwards and backwards, only ever seeing one paragraph at a time, and relying only on your notes to remember which sentence comes after which. Makes deleting “’tis the season” and cutting down the Christmas gift guide to fit on half a page seem very easy by comparison.

So to editors of all types – from those rushing on set to remove a moustache from the male lead’s face to those with an excited political editor talking in one ear and an excited pre-press supervisor in the other – it’s time to say: happy Christmas, everyone. Here’s to another year of checking up on things.