Tag Archives: newspaper style

New Day, old echoes

15 Mar

Regular reader Jeff writes:

Literally the first sentence of the first article in issue 01 of The New Day begins “The controversial Bedroom Tax will be under the spotlight…” – the benefit charge/penalty nickname unqualified, unquoted and capitalised. The paper says it has “no political bias” but this style decision would seem to indicate otherwise…

He’s got a point. The New Day, the breezy – and, remarkably for these days, print-only – tabloid launched in Britain this month makes a point, as its editor writes, of impartiality: “Welcome to the New Day. Here you’ll find no political bias. In fact, we’ll give you both sides of the argument and let you make up your own mind.” But, as Jeff points out, that can be a difficult promise to stick to. Not because it doesn’t provide both points of view – the New Day does that diligently, with a for and against opinion piece on either side of a fact-box briefing – but because, as we’ve discussed before, there are attitudes and biases buried deep in your choices of phrase, deep in your style guide, that betray what you really think.

The “bedroom tax”, of course, is only called that by its opponents. If you’re in favour of the partial reclamation of housing benefit from those deemed to have more space in social housing than they need, then it’s the “spare room subsidy”, as government ministers repeatedly attest on television. As a leftie Tribune journalist, I’m very much in favour of calling it the former; but even I’m aware that neither of them are anything like neutral terms. In fact, there is no neutral term for it at the moment: so the New Day has no choice but to pick sides in its headline.

And it doesn’t end there. In a subsequent edition we find this:


Once again, there’s  meticulously balanced pro- and anti- opinion piece on the same page, but it’s rather a moot point given that the standfirst has already made up its mind. The “snoopers’ charter” – or, as its supporters prefer, the Communications Data Bill – is another of those subjects where the term for the initiative is itself in dispute, and presents a trap for the unwary.

It happens in the smaller type too. Refugees are “refugees”, not “migrants”: again, another ruling that chimes with Ten Minutes Past Deadline’s outlook, but one with which surely not all readers will agree. Also, the phrase “avoided jail” has made an appearance in an early edition; as the Tribune’s production editor notes:

This can sometimes read as if we think they should have been jailed … It would be better to say what punishment was actually given to them rather than take it on ourselves to imply that they should have been given a different one.

It’s not an easy problem to solve. In fact, the New Day might well argue, what are you supposed to call the snoopers’ charter in the furniture – especially in a three-word headline and a 16-word standfirst? You’ve got two or three words to signal to the reader what’s going on. There just isn’t space to give an impartial summing-up of the rhetorical differences. And the commitment to impartiality is genuine: the face-to-face shootouts between commentators signal it clearly. It’s just that even where the spirit is willing, the language can’t always follow.



Secrets of style

16 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Style is substance

27 Sep

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And they say style doesn’t matter:

The Guardian has been until now one of a dwindling number of newspapers and broadcasters using the term Burma rather than Myanmar, the regime’s official name for the country. What has divided the media on this issue is that the name Burma is associated with the democratic movement there, while the name Myanmar is associated with the army-dominated government which decreed its use in 1989, a year after troops had shot down thousands of demonstrators.

The choice of name was thus a way of indicating, or at least of hinting at, approval or disapproval.

Style can help with a lot of things. It can give a sense of authority and competence to prose by providing consistency and tidiness. With new or foreign names or places, it can rule out the genuine confusion that variant spellings and transliterations can cause. But, as the Guardian suggests, it can do much more than that: style can encourage you to think in a completely different way.

We will from today be using the name Myanmar, partly because it has become almost universal and partly because colonial names should be part of the past, along with the empires that gave rise to them.

This is a complex decision: one in which a leftwing paper’s nervousness over the legacy of colonialism is matched with an equal concern over modern-day totalitarianism – and the conclusion, in effect, becomes an entire editorial about a change to the house style guide. For sure, some style decisions are simple coin-tosses over which spelling to stick to for consistency; but not this one.

And three days earlier, with the Syrian crisis reaching its peak and fear of “migrants” growing, the Guardian’s production editor, David Marsh, was making an even bolder decision about style.

“The language we hear in what passes for a national conversation on migration has become as debased as most of the arguments, until the very word ‘migrants’ is toxic,” he writes. “Journalists, like politicians, prefer to keep a story simple, assuming readers and voters have a short attention span. Labels such as ‘migrants’, however, deny people their humanity, and somewhere in this sorry saga we are losing sight of the fact they are people.”  Therefore:

You will still see the word “migrants” or “migration” in the Guardian as a general expression to cover people who for whatever reason have moved, or are moving, from the country of which they are nationals to another. But “refugees”, “displaced people” and “asylum seekers”, all of which have clear definitions, are more useful and accurate terms than a catch-all label like “migrants”, and we should use them wherever possible.

This is not a right/wrong decision about a word being used incorrectly: as he says, the strict definition of a migrant covers everyone from the persecuted to the ambitious. This change is essentially a tone and judgment decision, a rhetorical decision – and therefore, in fact, a style decision.

You may agree or disagree with it as a choice, but it’s hard to disagree with the principle on which it was made. Words can quickly develop colours, meanings and overtones that outstrip the lexicographer’s ability to chronicle them. Nuances can change in between editions of Collins or Webster. Editors have to be alert to the changes as they happen. And that’s where style comes in: style guides begin where the dictionary ends.

And that’s why style is important. If a newspaper without sub-editors is not too bothered about how many ‘s’s there are in “focused”, then maybe it’s also not sufficiently curious about whether Yorgas Houliarakis and Giorgos Chouliarakis are the same person. And, if so, then maybe it finds itself incapable of keeping abreast of the debate when a national political controversy builds up over whether a migrant is actually a refugee. Style may start with the small stuff, but it doesn’t stay there.

The surnames flowchart

30 Apr

For years, I didn’t know this about Burmese names:

Burmese people do not have first names or last names in the western sense (although in informal speech many people use shortened nicknames). Thus when referring to Burmese people … you should always use the full form of the person’s name. For example, Mi Mi Khaing should never be referred to as just “Khaing” or “Daw Khaing”.

It’s not in our style guide, but it is in Wikipedia’s. And not only is there no forename/last name, but the name itself may contain honorifics that disappear or change over the course of a person’s life.

Foreign names in copy are a constant trap for the unwary. For example, it might be unwise to truncate the noms de guerre of jihadists or other fighters in the Middle East: “Abu Qatada” means “Father of Qatada”, so shortening it to “Qatada” can, it may be argued, suggest the writer is talking about the son, not the father. Then there is the question of Spanish names, with their patronymics and matronymics (Gabriel Garcia Lorca) – do you mention the matronymic at all, or once at first mention, or use both throughout (or, as occasionally happens, use the matronymic alone)? Transliteration of mainland Chinese names (generally two words) differs from transliteration of Taiwanese and Korean names (generally three). And any rule for any country can be overridden by an individual’s own preference for spelling or form of address.

But before you get to the problems that foreign names present, or even the special rules for kings and queens*, you have to think about something even more complex and nuanced: domestic names.

Other cultures’ naming customs may be less familiar, but the style-guide rules for them are shorter and more definitive. With English names, familiarity itself is the problem: we are all too aware of the shades of courtesy or offence potentially contained in the use of honorifics, diminutives, first names or surnames.

So, when editing, you have to be aware that style of address can be different for different ages and circumstances; for real and assumed names; for before and after criminal convictions; and even for different sections of the newspaper. And so the question of how to refer to someone in a news article isn’t easy to sum up in a sentence or two: rules of thumb aren’t enough. For this, you really need a flowchart.

This is the decision tree for English names as it stands at the Tribune. To use it, start at the top and go down, and if the answer to any of the questions is “yes”, turn right and follow the appropriate path. We are a paper that generally omits honorifics except in leading articles: further wrinkles of complexity would be added at a paper in which honorifics are generally used but with exceptions (e.g. for criminals), or at a paper that drops honorifics for commoners at second mention but retains them for peers (which was the Tribune’s former policy).

Click on the flowchart to open it, then click to magnify. See you at one of the endpoints.



* Brief title and forename in full at first mention (“Queen Elizabeth II”); never Her Royal Highness or HRH; forename only thereafter.