Tag Archives: reader’s editors

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.

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Due to a cartooning error …

21 Jul

Some corrections make one hang one’s head in shame:

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Others, however, not so much:

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Every four years, thanks to the generous human resources policies at the Tribune, the chief sub gets a sabbatical of between four and eight weeks and it falls to me, as his normally carefree deputy, to actually earn my salary and take the reins of the business section while he’s away.

When you’re the chief sub, no matter how big the paper or the pages you produce, you feel personally responsible for all of it. In fact, the Tribune’s weekly biz section is small enough that you can lay out all the pages, pick all the photos and revise all the articles yourself, if they’re filed in good time. But that means the pain is all the sharper when you discover something that passed before your eyes popping up in the corrections column.

The first mistake was just infuriating, especially when one prides oneself on one’s punctiliousness in compound hyphenation; but it is an embarrassing classic of the genre, especially as it inadvertently touches so closely on a real issue of ethnicity and opportunities.

The second one, though … I’m not entirely sure there can even be a mistake in a cartoon. An apology for a lapse of taste, certainly: but a factual correction?

Presumably, this isn’t a serious undertaking to observe strict realism in all visual jokes – because once you start correcting metaphors, where do you stop? The cartoon also shows Jean-Claude Juncker at the wheel of a vehicle bearing the livery of the “EU Euro Police”: to clarify, perhaps we should make clear that there is no such organisation. Nor, to the paper’s knowledge, has Alexis Tsipras ever been the victim of a rear-end collision near the offramp to “Grexit” while driving an overloaded hatchback painted in the colours of the Greek flag.

In newspapers that never publish corrections unless forced to, there is never any need for a clarification to be other than brief and to the point. The existence of a regular corrections column in every issue of the paper, by contrast, is possibly the single most significant indicator of editorial probity a paper can make. But it does mean that the column can suffer from the same problem that afflicts the rest of the paper: that it has to be filled, no matter how much or little material there is that day.

Many readers’ editors have bylined weekly slots for longer discussions about grey areas or lighter matters, but the corrections column itself  – 200 or so words, five or six days a week, rain or shine –  is a 1,200-word job that has to be delivered no matter how few readers have complained.

So one thing that’s tending to happen is that the ambit of the column is starting to widen. The Guardian has taken to occasionally correcting instances where house style has not been followed, even though the word that was used instead is not incorrect, such as this example involving ‘wrack’ and ‘rack’:

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(“Rack” is greatly to be preferred in this case, of course, and I would always delete the “w” myself. But both spellings for that definition appear in Collins, which means that it’s not a homophone but a variant, and arguably not a “mistake” at all – more an internal point of interest for staff.)

And, because the never-ending roll of errors can be depressing to recount, the other thing that’s tending to happen is that levity and tonal variation are being introduced: here, for example, the Guardian introduces some tennis-themed kickers to its Wimbledon corrections:

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It’s all harmless fun, I suppose – and I’ve never yet seen anyone be foolish enough to make a joke over an actual apology or retraction. But it does indicate that something is starting to change – that the Fleet Street corrections column is moving from being an innovation to being an institution: part of the show, almost.

In a newspaper culture whose traditional response to mistakes was silence and defiance, that might be something to celebrate. But for an appointed outsider like an ombudsman, whose independence, even from the editor-in-chief, is supposedly total, it might be something to be wary of too.