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Who, what, why, when, wherever

7 Dec

For a second, I thought we’d done it – I thought we’d found the first anglosphere news story that gives you no clue whatsoever about where it happened.

Comedian Celeste Barber, nationality unspecified, has made fun of influencer Adelina Lazarova, nationality unspecified, in a parody video following a storm over Barber’s mocking of model Emily Ratajkowski, nationality unspecified. And where did all this happen? That remains unspecified.

Lazarova was being mocked for backflipping out of a convertible Lamborghini in high heels on social media, and Ratajkowski was being teased over a seductive bikini videoclip, so the real answer to the question “where did this happen” is, of course, “on the internet”. Nonetheless, we have a Russian-born, Emirates-based influencer doing gymnastics (in New York, as it happens) and a British-born American model famous for her globetrotting, and finally we seem to be floating free in the borderless kingdom of online news …

Except that there are still one or two clues to bring us back to earth. That “copping” in the headline: that’s redolent of a certain southern-hemisphere flavour of English. And further down, it is reported that Barber is about to tour Australia. Why would that be of interest to anyone except people living in … ah, yes. A closer squint at the byline, in Mail Online’s pale, self-effacing font, confirms it: “By Caleb Taylor for Daily Mail Australia”. The reason that Barber’s location isn’t stated in the piece is not because it doesn’t matter any more – “hey, a story’s a story!” – but because she doesn’t need to be identified to an Australian audience. This is a case of the Mail trying to sound Australian, not trying to sound stateless.

But still, with regard to the Five W’s of reporting, this is the first anglosphere news piece I’ve seen that doesn’t make any explicit effort to answer the question “where?”. Indeed, if there hadn’t been a passing reference to Lazarova’s showing-off taking place in the US, there wouldn’t have been a geographical locator anywhere in the text. And, you might argue, in cases like this there doesn’t need to be: if the news (OK, “news”) happens on Instagram, then it happens everywhere at once. The mainstream media is hesitantly becoming stateless, expanding into markets bounded only by language, but social media doesn’t even have that constraint: you can sign up to all three protagonists’ accounts in a home-country native version of the app wherever you are. The only thing that may hold you back after that is the captions to Lazarova’s selfies, which are frequently in Cyrillic.

Credible edibles

23 Nov

Regular reader Steve has spotted this in Charles County, Maryland, where a potentially alarming incident involving some schoolchildren seems to have lost something in translation on the website of WTOP-FM, Washington’s top news radio station.

If you’re as hardened and streetwise as, er, a sub-editor, you may know that “edibles” in this sense is starting to mean “way of consuming marijuana orally rather than by smoking”: it refers to the modern equivalent of cannabis brownies and so on. If not, you may be more than slightly puzzled as to what all the fuss is about.

That definition hasn’t made it into Collins, the Tribune’s house dictionary, yet, but it is now on Merriam-Webster Online. Even the dictionary, however, may not be able to help us with this paragraph:

You sense the first sentence may be missing some key words before “contained”. But I’m not sure what kind of garble has taken place in the second one. It’s positively alarmist: as Steve says, does this mean inedible candy is probably safer?

Thankfully, everyone seems to be all right:

(Hang, on I thought you said earlier they’d definitely eaten some?) But if the principal’s letter to parents went out with anything like that muddle over “edible candy” in it, who knows what the queues might now be like outside the county’s sweetshops.

Slightly missing links

26 Oct

The trouble with hyperlinks is that, even though they don’t mean to, they add emphasis. They are, after all, in a different colour to the rest of the text, and often underlined. They stand out. Which means you need a bit of an ear for the rhythms of a sentence when you put them in:

“Why at the end of it” stops a little short of the end, as it were, as does the link to the obscure … provision. And although “Dominic Cummings claimed” is fine, “said Johnson told” unfortunately avoids highlighting either of the two salient parts of the sentence: Ian Paisley Junior and the idea of the story.

These are just infelicities of emphasis rather than meaning – rather like the Express’s erstwhile habit of putting sudden capitals in the WRONG place. Occasionally, though, an off-target hyperlink can create more peculiar effects, like this:

Here, even though you’re supposed to overlook these links, it throws you. Semantically, the verb phrase that begins “bring prosecutions for killings” finishes at “to an end”. But the emphatic red text stops three words early and encourages you to think the phrase has come to an end as well. So for a moment you think the government is planning to start bringing Troubles prosecutions again, not stop them.

Of course, you work it out in the end. But we’re supposed to be saving readers as much work as possible, so, along with colliding English-language news agendas and launching without revising, this is another thing old print lags have to get used to. In the old days, we would never underline anything at all; now we do it by accident.

The limits of SEO

20 Jul

Do you remember Mohammed Emwazi? Maybe it doesn’t ring a bell. Do you remember “Jihadi John”, though? Emwazi, it seems, was much better known by his Isis sobriquet than his real name: a basic analysis on Google reveals 103,000 hits for the latter versus 403,000 for the former.

But we didn’t call him that at the Tribune. The foreign desk asked us not to. Perhaps a mention somewhere in the copy to clarify that Emwazi was indeed known by that nickname, but never in the headline or at the top of the story. The desk didn’t want to “trivialise a serious situation”, or add tabloid pizzazz to the torture and beheading of hostages. So we didn’t. We’d have got more clicks if we had, but we stopped.

The same applies to the “QAnon Shaman”, the “Yorkshire Ripper” and several others. “It means we sometimes take a hit on search,” the web production editor writes, “but we do it so as not to make light of the individuals and their motives/actions”.

A few weeks ago on Horny Handed Subs of Toil, a member revealed that his publication asks subs to allow “mens”, no apostrophe, in certain circumstances for search engine optimisation, because Google fails to return as many results if you type it correctly as “men’s”. There was consternation, as you might expect, and some doubt as to whether it was in fact necessary, but it illustrated the kind of discussion that we normally have about SEO. Who’s top of the search results? How can we get more traffic? Are we doing the right thing? It’s much rarer, but perhaps more revealing about your organisation, to consider the things you won’t say even when Google wants you to.

With us, the reasons vary. Our coverage of the subpostmasters and subpostmistresses scandal is probably being hampered by our disinclination to say “subpostmasters” or “subpostmistresses”; we won’t use one without the other for reasons of inclusivity, but using both makes headlines unfeasibly long. We are going with “post office operators”, which is probably not what people are typing into their search engines. We insist on “register office” – the correct term – not “registry office”, even though Google Ngrams suggests that the latter has almost always been more popular than the former (and produces significantly more hits in search). And we say Brexiter, not Brexiteer – despite a two-to-one swing against it on Google – simply out of a determination, as strong today as ever, “not to make them sound like jolly pirates”.

We the people

22 Jun

Apologies if you’re having lunch, but something has come up in the world of anglophone news. From the Mail’s UK homepage a couple of weeks ago:

The issue is not the shock value of this report from Daily Mail Australia, unpleasant though it is. Nor is it a lack of geographical specificity, something about which this blog has previously complained: the country of origin is clear. The issue comes at the end of the headline when the international mask slips and the sub-editor refers to “our” waterways.

At the Tribune, the audience team don’t like us saying “our” in the furniture. They have an eye to the global visibility of the website and want things to be accessible to all English-speakers. You can see their point: directly addressing a community to which some readers do not belong has an exclusionary effect. But at the same time, this kind of assumed familiarity becomes hard to avoid when one of your international newsrooms is writing a home news story for its home audience – all the more so when it is under instructions to cater to its home audience first, and not the mothership in London.

And the problem is not confined to accidentally identifying yourself as part of a community. Should you be making local jokes and allusions in headlines, like Guardian Australia does here?

Or do you take the International Herald Tribune approach and retreat from all signals of national identity? (For readers outside New South Wales, I should explain that the Big Banana here is not, as you might think, Russell Crowe: it refers to Coffs Harbour itself, which prospered in the banana trade and now has a large theme park of that name.)

And you’d need to be very local to New South Wales, I think, to grasp this headline first time:

The key is to know that the state police force has a squad known as the “fixated persons unit”, which investigates potentially violent lone-wolf offenders. Even with that information, you might find that a nine-word noun phrase is going it a bit for a headline: the verb-seeking reader does tend to fasten on “fixated” as a likely candidate and get confused.

Friendlyjordies itself is a YouTube channel that satirises Australian politics: not really a name to conjure with, then, across the anglosphere. But if you’re already in for “fixated persons unit”, you’re probably in for that too. And how else could you really put it? “Arrest of member of Australian satirical political YouTube channel by anti-terrorist New South Wales police unit… “? You solve the problem of alienating audiences, but then you run out of space. Localisms can be essential for compression and communication – but then, just as surely as if you’d said “we”, you’ve circumscribed the size of the audience you’re talking to.

Never wrong for … oh

8 Dec

It’s easy to forget things about people – that actor you liked, what year she died, what show she was in, what character she played. Or, as here in the Mail, what her name was.

That surname is given consistently throughout the text (although, interestingly, not in one caption). But the Mail’s readers were immediately on the case: it should be Chambers, not Chalmers.*

Previously, we have observed the Mail’s revise desk hastening to intervene after a faulty story has gone up, but they couldn’t save the day this time. Not that they didn’t stop by: the article was published at 16.08, then updated at 16.29, then again at 17.50, then again at 21.18. But each time the largest error went uncorrected, to the increasing dismay of the commenters below:

This is not to rejoice at the presence of an error in a rival publication. In fact, something similar happened to a newspaper very close to this blog years ago, when a notable media executive’s name was got wrong, with total consistency, all the way through a story about his career. But in the era of the internet, there is an extra pair of eyes scouring for this kind of error – the readership’s. And now they can let let you know when something’s amiss. Or they can if you’re listening to them.

At the Tribune, there is an industrious Office of the Readers’ Editor, charged with representing the newspaper’s audience back to it in matters of complaint and error. They discharge this duty with impressive assertiveness and what sometimes feels like, but surely cannot be, glee. The heart sinks as an email arrives beginning “CCing subs: I think the reader might have a point here …” above a brusque message skewering another howler that got through the newsdesk and two layers of editing.

The same is true of comments. As the tide of vituperation rolls on, we are less enthused about this kind of interaction than we used to be, but we still allow comments on many pieces, and when we do, they are moderated after posting. The Mail takes a different approach – according to its FAQs, comments are either premoderated (that is, checked before being allowed on the site), or, more frequently, not moderated at all.

Even unmoderated comments can be policed to some extent by other users by using the Mail’s “upvote/downvote” function. Unfortunately, the posts pointing out the Chalmers/Chambers error don’t appear in either the worst or the best top 10 as voted. Lost in the middle of 100-plus contributions, many readers may not see them – and, in this case at least, no one from the Mail is looking at all.

*Also, of course, the “late actress” did not play a “much loved actress”: Alice was a verger. You may also feel that there are some commas missing in that sentence, and perhaps one too few in the first part of the standfirst.

Don’t touch that tweet

27 Oct

Can you name the president who transmitted this communique (lightly edited for tone and redundancy)?

Never threaten the United States again, or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few have suffered. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious.

That’s right, of course: it was President Trump. Only he didn’t write it like that. He wrote it like this, on Twitter:

And the fact that he wrote it like that – shouting, emphatic, out of control – is as significant as the words themselves. If you were to intervene as above, by taking it out of caps (and tidying up the pleonasm), you would be editing back in a presidential register that the president either fails to understand or has chosen to abandon.

On social media, and on Twitter particularly, orthography tells a story and contains a subtext. It’s not just an anarchy in which the rules of formal English have lapsed: it’s that a different set of rules has partly supplanted them. That’s why – tempting though it is for older editors – you should never edit tweets.

Even we veterans can spot uppercase as signalling a register of speech: as Wired magazine says in an article about Trump’s tweet, it pre-dates the internet, and was one of the few typographical tools at hand in the earliest online chatgroups:

Philip Seargeant, a senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the Open University, says that the shouty all-caps convention really came into its own around the 80s and 90s, on early internet forums such as Usenet groups and bulletin boards. “The different ways of emphasising things were limited,” he explains. “Nowadays, we’ve got bold, italics, emoji, all sorts of things – in those days you had no opportunity for that.” You could put things in asterisks, space letters out to show you were being very deliberate in your speech, or use all-caps.

But what about its orthographical opposite – a tweet entirely in lowercase? In fact, that too carries a clear signal for the online-literate. On Twitter a couple of months ago, the videogames journalist Lucy O’Brien asked:

And the answers poured in, including this one from the Audible executive Maz Hamilton (citing mIRC, another internet chat system from the old days):

So the tone that’s being struck in all-lowercase is casual, often droll – the small voice at the back of the room – and not at all serious.

The millennial writer and humorist Joel Golby almost never uses capitals on Twitter, because almost all his tweets are ironic. For example, the absence of orthographical formality and the run-on sentence in this tweet

leads you to conclude – correctly – that he isn’t actually angry or ranting over the phone to the commissioning desk. But if you edit it into formal English, suddenly all the irony evaporates:

I went to the pub and it actually shut at 10pm. Column coming tomorrow: this is absolutely unacceptable.

Now it’s a notice of intent from a clarion of liberty at the Express.

Tweets look glaringly informal and unedited in formal, edited news writing. But that informality is often deliberate and coded, and created for a world in which formality is the exception, not the rule. (In fact, formality on social media can be so rare as to seem pointed: this is at the core of the neverending to-do about young people being offended by full stops). It may look awful (and that’s before we even consider the typos), but it was probably meant that way. Don’t edit it.

The Rebel effect

13 Oct

If you were, say, an ambitious anglophone news operation with sites in the UK, the US and Australia, and you wanted to test how well those operations were gelling, here’s one subject you could start with: Rebel Wilson.

Australian, US-domiciled, tabloid-friendly and popular everywhere, she regularly seems to present a test to the three-newsroom model. We have already seen the Mail and the Guardian stumble over the subject of her $4.5m libel win three years ago (Australian dollars? US dollars? Not sure!). Now she’s dieting furiously on Instagram, and inadvertently creating another weights and measures problem.

She announced* last week that she was only three kilos away from her goal, kilos being the measure that Australians commonly use for body weight.

In the article, even though it was produced by Daily Mail Australia, this is translated in the opening paragraph to 6.5 pounds, presumably with a northern-hemisphere audience in mind. On the UK homepage, the stories briefly appeared next to each other on Tuesday: one in the celebrity highlights box, the other in the Sidebar of Shame, one with the kilos measurement, one with the pounds.

At the end of the first paragraph of text, a British-friendly conversion into stones and pounds is added in brackets, for the full suite of anglosphere measures,

but further down, in a picture caption, a (presumably Australian?) sub-editor has fallen back into the system they know best (with the conversions given slightly different priorities).

Does it matter? These are just details: as we have discussed before, it doesn’t stop you understanding the heart of the story. Rebel’s diet is going well; Kylie is being generous; Big Lizzie has arrived in New York. But weights and measures are always redolently local and surprisingly resistant to change. And while small things like this remain so difficult to marshal for an international audience, readers are still being left with the subconscious impression that they’re reading a story meant for somebody else.

*Or, in Mail-speak, “flaunted”

Technical challenge

29 Sep

I was sure there’d be more and of my ground. And there is! Zeugma has returned to the Sidebar of Shame:

This one’s a bit trickier to parse because of the lure of low attachment, but the verb that all the phrases are hanging off, with positively Flanders-esque ambition, is “had”. (So she didn’t take LSD, an affair and a trip to an orgy etc). After you click on the link (and who’s not going to click on this?), it further emerges that what is meant by “Sex drugs…” is in fact “Sex, drugs …”, not a dangerous cocktail of Viagra and bicarbonate of soda.

The article headline has also attracted a slightly Gollum-esque double plural on “hallucinations”, but the most disappointing thing is that the really click-inducing part of the headline, “affair with her mum’s best friend’s husband”, is absolutely nowhere to be found in the text.

One might surmise that it was in there originally before, perhaps, a nervous lawyer asked for it to be removed? The article went live on 27 September, last Sunday, and reports being modified 24 hours later. If so, it’s slightly alarming that it was removed from the text while remaining in the headline. But, whatever the reason, it’s clear that Mail Online’s revise-desk repair crew hasn’t caught up with this one yet, and at this point, another day later, you wonder if they ever will. That, as we have said before, is the problem with a policy of publishing first and revising later. As colleague Ben in the office puts it, “never wrong for long” often ends up meaning “always wrong for ever”.

One ‘k’ in TikToker

17 Mar

More confirmation that that small cloud of dust on the horizon is actually the BuzzFeed style guide, racing away from the rest of us towards previously uncharted parts of the language. Some other style guides have a Twitter account, but not a Twitter account like this:

In case you, like me, are wondering what at least half of this means, let’s take it item by item. (I’ve looked things up in Urban Dictionary so that you don’t have to.)


Social video app originating in China in which (young) people lip-sync to short bursts of music or perform in other ways and share the results. Hugely popular; worries parents

The number of times you and a correspondent on the video-messaging app Snapchat have exchanged messages in quick succession (yes, they count such things)

Needs no explanation for Gen X-ers raised on The Dukes of Hazzard. Not quite sure why this is new – perhaps just to indicate that it’s closed up, not hyphenated

No, I had no idea either, but it’s short for Fake Instagram (account); a pseudonymous Instagram account that runs in parallel with one’s real Instagram (rinsta) but is made visible only to select friends (and not, one takes it, parents). Used to document unsayable thoughts, disastrous selfies and other unpolished content

Form of pop music sung in Cantonese and strongly associated with Hong Kong; also popular in many other parts of south-east Asia

We don’t have an entry for this in the Tribune style guide, which goes straight from “straitened circumstances” to “Strategic Rail Authority”

Quite surprised this was new for 2019 as well, as even we older types know what it means. To accidentally call somebody by sitting on your mobile phone and activating the screen (or in the old days, by pressing down on the keys)

Becoming widely embraced by baby boomers themselves, a phrase indicating weariness on a young person’s part with constant self-righteous nagging from their elders

An image, phrase, or piece of content likely or suitable to become an internet meme (the frog emoji, I am assuming, refers to the Pepe the Frog meme, in which a non-political cartoon character from an online comic was co-opted by white nationalists on social media and became a coded symbol indicating far-right sympathies)

A character in the latest Star Wars spinoff series The Mandalorian. Although of the same species as Yoda, the wise green sage from the original Star Wars films, it should be noted that the baby creature is not actually Yoda himself, and that the character’s official name is simply The Child

The people for whom this style guide will make the most sense. (To this day, I’m still unclear precisely what the sunglasses emoji is intended to signify)