Tag Archives: sub-editing

Neutral News at Ten

24 Jan

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

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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:

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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.

Invisible mending

8 Nov

“Most writers I know have tales to tell of being mangled by editors,” writes the esteemed academic John Gross,*

“… and naturally it is the flagrant instances they choose to single out – absurdities, outright distortions of meaning, glaring errors. But most of the damage done is a good deal less spectacular. It consists of small changes (usually too boring to describe to anyone else) that flatten a writer’s style, slow down his argument, neutralise his irony; that ruin the rhythm of a sentence or the balance of paragraph; that deaden the tone that makes the music.”

Here at the Tribune, we are a “writer’s paper”: that is to say, we allow our senior writers – and especially our columnists – not just their own opinions, but their own style as well.  Of course, in theory we edit everything perfectly – we intervene whenever it is required, and keep clear whenever it is not – but to the extent there is an institutional bias, it is to be hands-off: not to flatten a style or ruin an argument for the sake of enforcing “good English”. So we are, one would hope, less likely than some of Gross’s targets to “pounce mercilessly on split infinitives … and all the other supposed offenses that are often no offense at all”.

But hands-off editing comes with its own set of hazards. Specifically, it can create a culture of under-intervention: we do basic editing, correcting spellings and checking dates, but perhaps decline to step in when a columnist has mixed a metaphor, or written a sentence so long that it provokes amusement on Twitter. In the worst cases, faced with something notably angry, funny, colloquial or emotional, we can become paralysed: confronted by a confessional tour de force or celebrity stream of consciousness, we freeze, run a spellcheck and send it through without doing the whole job.

So, bearing the countervailing risks in mind, where you would you step in, and where you would you step back, here?

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This is Laura Craik’s “Upfront” column in the Evening Standard’s ES magazine. She is a fashion and trends commentator who writes in a  chatty, informal style typical of that genre: even if you don’t know her, that much becomes immediately apparent when you read the copy. The tone and register are easy to grasp, and so are the editing parameters: you instinctively allow “mahoosive”, “yada yada”, the sentence fragments, or “Soz” in a way that you wouldn’t if they cropped up in a Telegraph editorial.

But I’m not so sure about “pontificating”. Given the context (“I say ‘rushed’, but really I’d been pontificating since May”),  I strongly suspect what’s meant is “prevaricating”. Even if the intended sense is something closer to “I’d been talking about it to everyone for months”, “pontificating” still isn’t quite right: it carries the sense of speaking (like a pontiff) from a sense of real or imagined authority, and the whole point of the piece is that the author didn’t know what to do. In a piece where nearly everything should be allowed to stand, this is something that needs to be changed: the one reason in 600 words not to step back and wave the copy through.

Intentional malapropisms are funny. Unintentional ones on the way to making a different kind of joke are just distracting. That’s where the kind of invisible mending that broadsheet subs do comes in. Tone is exclusively the province of the writer – there is a lot of truth in the columnist’s weary complaint that “it’s my column, not yours” – but sense and cogency are the business of the newspaper as a whole, and particularly the copydesk. Making a change like that doesn’t “flatten the writer’s style” but enhances it, by removing a distraction over which a literate reader might trip. Editors shouldn’t do too much, but we usually have to do something.

 

* Editing and Its Discontents“, in The State of the Language, edited by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels (University of California Press, 1990)

Sketch writing

5 Jul

You can tell when he’s finished by the sound of the hairdryer starting up. A couple of hours before deadline, looking up from his watercolour box and reference boards full of politicians’ faces, the Tribune’s cartoonist will put down his brushes and pick up the office dryer to blow-dry the paint on his cartoon before bringing it over. (No time to wait for it to dry, of course; this is a newspaper). Then, he’ll casually carry it across the office, colours glistening on the cartridge paper, and hand it to the production desk – a fragile, analogue piece of journalism in a digital world.

Before that moment, of course, ideas have been discussed, copy read in preview, and a detailed rough sketch has been presented. That’s when we on the subs’ desk swing in to action, checking captions, lettering, speech balloons and so on. Everything gets edited. No tiny detail escapes us. Especially not on the bewildering and unhappy subject of Britain’s departure from the EU, summed up by an ugly portmanteau word that now echoes, to our shame, around the world.

Here’s this week’s:

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Yep, that looks fine.

 

Where’s the splash?

29 Mar

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Back in New York last week, just in time to see spring: sunlight illuminating wide, peaceful Broadway on the Upper West Side, blossom bobbing in the cold wind outside 72nd Street station. Like any Manhattan visitor, I did the Manhattan things one does: walking the High Line, going to a Broadway show, spending five solid minutes looking at the map trying to work out which F trains stop at Second Avenue.* And, of course, I read the New York Times.

As a broadsheet journalist, I understand the value of restraint, of course. And nuance, and the plurality of agendas that need to be reflected on a mature front page. But as I read (and, annoyingly, mislaid) an edition last week that was laid out just like the one pictured above, I still found myself wondering: which story’s the splash?

Instinctively I look first to the top left of a front page, to the first column, where there is indeed a story: the Bloomberg one. Is that the lead? The famously distinctive typography offers few clues: but the headline for the four column pic story appears to be in almost exactly the same bold italic. Over on the right, though, in column 6, the headline is in semi-bold caps. Does that outrank bold ital? There’s a subhead and a standfirst too: on sheer weight of furniture, it’s probably Saudis that’s the splash, way over on the right. But it took a while to find it.

The similarity of headline styles above the fold is one of the most striking things about the NYT to British eyes. It’s not that they’re small; it’s that they seem almost all the same size. By comparison, the template for a big double-page spread at the Tribune envisages a fully 40-point gap between the main headline on the page (66pt bold serif display) and the second and subsequent ones (26pt sans regular).

In fact, if you look at another striking Times layout, with the lead story in column 6 and the second story in column 5,

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you can see that there is a difference in size between the caps and the bold italics, but it’s hard to detect if they’re not right next to each other. (Also, below the pic, there is a regular, unemphasised upper-and-lower headline that appears to be slightly larger than the bold italic headline next to it. Does that make it more or less important?)

Just add to the confusion, here’s another layout from January with two all-caps headlines, one on the right, one under the picture.

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Again, the extra trimmings suggest the column 6 story is the splash, but it’s hardly what you’d call over-displayed. In fact, in all three examples, the paper is in effect being led by the photograph – especially the second one, which grandly takes up the first four columns on the page, displacing every headline down or to the right.

Typography in British newspapers is designed around the mystique of the splash: the one big story, with one big headline, delivered per day, with a supporting cast of other items as decoration. It makes every front page lively: everything looks good in 72-point bold. But the headline type doesn’t get smaller on a slow news day, so ordinary stories can end up getting a fanfare they can’t quite live up to. British news typography works on a relative scale: forget yesterday or the moon landings – this is what’s big today.

By contrast, the standard Times layouts functions at their best on slow news days: days where there are two lead stories, or, frankly, none. The single-column headlines over single-column stories communicate a judicious calm – a longer view – and a certain sense of honesty about the day’s events: an impression that many things are happening, and many things are news. So if you’re looking at a copy of the Times and wondering what the big story is, you can often find yourself agreeing with the paper: perhaps there isn’t one today.

 

* My provisional conclusion: they all do. In fact, I think, stopping at Second Avenue may be one of the defining characteristics of the F train, distinguishing it from the constellation of alphabetic alternatives (B, D, M etc) that share the line on their way to two different termini in Brooklyn, two in Queen’s and one in the Bronx via six different routes through Manhattan. I think.

 

 

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:

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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.

 

Snap judgments

6 Jan

The web production editor writes:

A reader has pointed out that generally when a Greek place name begins with Skala eg Skala Kalloni on Lesbos, the skala part means “harbour” or “landing place for boats” and it is used to distinguish it from a nearby inland town of the same name (minus the “skala”) eg Kalloni on Lesbos.

As such, please avoid just using the name Skala to refer to a town because it is nonsensical (unless, of course, that is its only name).

The caption on the agency photo on page 6 today referred to refugees arriving at the village of Skala on Lesbos. This was all the information provided by the agency so if we can’t verify the full name of the village it is better to avoid using it altogether if we can. (Emphasis added)

Mistakes in photographers’ caption information are a problem. They bypass the experienced eyes of the writer of the article; even when a photographer accompanies a reporter on the job, the reporter rarely sees the pics and almost never the caption details. They also often bypass the commissioning desk: news editors will try to familiarise themselves with their picture options when briefing the page designer, but not in every case; no one consults the head of foreign news on every downpage cutout or mugshot. And at the Tribune, with the amount of news being edited and published online every day, sub-editors have direct access to the photo library to select their own pictures, so many photographs launched on to the web even bypass the picture desk.

The result is that photographs and their captions have a shorter route into publication than any other piece of content except the Sudoku puzzle. In a fact-checking process that runs from reporter to news desk to sub to revise sub to (if you’re lucky) proofreader, the caption skips the first two stages altogether and, on the web, gets published after the third one, to be revised later on.

That explains why newspaper captions can tend to echo the present-tense descriptive style peculiar to agency photo information (“a man is seen waving …”) and their all-too-familiar verb choices (“celebrates”, “gestures” etc); captions get less polishing than other parts of the body text. It also explains why so much classic corrections-column material arises from how photographs are treated in the production process.

But when the error originates with the agency, what little protection there is against error disappears. If, as in the uncomfortable case of this Guardian correction, a reputable photo agency sends out a picture of a private individual who has been thrust into the news, and it turns out to be the wrong person, it’s basically uncheckable:

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Just as a sub-editor can be the single point of failure on picture choice and caption-writing, the photo agency is the single point of failure on veracity. Very few people except those acquainted with the individual in the news will know it’s a mistake, and not many of them are likely to be in the newsroom, so the first person to hear about it will probably be the readers’ editor. In the Guardian case, there was also internal miscommunication over a recall from the photo agency, but in any situation where there is a significant delay between release and retraction, the picture will be all over the web, and in Google’s caches, long before remedial action can be taken.

Many things have to fall into line for a mistake in raw copy to get all the way through to print: a misapprehension by the reporter, a fumbled effort at clarification from the desk, a sub who lets through an ambiguous paragraph, a revise sub in a hurry on deadline. But a mistake over an online photograph can happen, as it were, in a flash.

Accents will happen

7 Dec

If you think putting all the accents on Société Générale is a bit of an effort, imagine picking up a story that combines Turkish with Middle-earth:

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For years, the software at the Tribune offered only the English alphabet plus the common western European diacritical marks (acute, grave, umlaut, tilde, etc) for editing purposes. But the latest upgrades now offer a splendid range of glyphs, allowing us to range typographically much further into the east and south of the continent. The only question now is: how much should we use them?

The Tribune’s policy for a while was simply not to put accents on any foreign word at all – a bald, if even-handed, approach that raised eyebrows with readers and caused anguish among the multilingual members of the subs’ desk. That policy was subsequently modified to a more common and pragmatic approach commendable for its humility:

accents Use them in French and German words that take italic. In foreign words that have become part of the English vocabulary – cafe, cliche, detente, denouement, debacle, protege etc – no accent is required …

Keep accents on proper names. Thus: ‘Arsène Wenger was on holiday in Bogotá with Gérard Houllier’ … In general, other marks such as Turkish should be avoided for fear of introducing errors as much as difficulty in checking

Now, however, with the full expert character set at our disposal, the policy is to go for it all: every unfamiliar word and name rendered as it should be in its native language. That, you would think, is the definitive, unarguable solution. But even this approach – assuming your font library can stand it – raises one or two questions.

The total-accuracy policy does not extend, of course, to languages with entirely non-Roman alphabets – Russian, Greek, Chinese, etc. English-language newspapers don’t expect their readers to be able to understand them. But several Turkic and Baltic languages have many characters that are not classically Latinate and are certainly unfamiliar in English. Turkish, for example, has a 29-letter alphabet, including six letters that don’t appear in English: ç, ğ, ı (a dotless “i”), ö, ş, ü. Their sound and function is a closed book to many general readers. Doesn’t that make them as much candidates for transliteration as π or Σ in Greek?

There are pros and cons for all three of these approaches, as set out below. On balance, I’m glad we’re going for (3), even though there’s obviously a risk we may end up with a broad-based version of (2).

And once I’ve checked all the Turkish, it’ll be time to tackle Hobbit nomenclature!

 

(1) Removing accents and foreign characters completely

Pros
• Impressively and genuinely consistent
• Avoids the slightly uneasy relativism of approach (2)
• Easy to remember and enforce

Cons
• Every multilingual reader will see, and frequently object to, what you’ve done
• Faint hint of insularity (don’t they speak any languages?)
• Theoretical risk of confusions over near-homonyms that differ only by a diacritical mark or character  (but, then again, only to readers who speak the language)

 

(2) Putting in accents and foreign characters for locally familiar languages only

Pros
• Relatively easy to remember and enforce
• Fits quite well with your audience’s likely linguistic knowledge
• Possibly as much as your technology can reliably achieve

Cons
• Which languages are actually “commonly spoken” in your area? Or are you just paying attention to the ones the chief sub speaks and ignoring the others?
• Can be unconsciously revelatory of the limits of your expertise, or at least your horizons
• Can look very awkward when words in a language you do put accents on appear in the same story as words in a language you don’t

 

(3) Putting in accents and foreign characters for all Latin-alphabet languages

Pros
• The gold standard for accuracy
• A genuine editing challenge
• Impressively authoritative and literate

Cons
• May be more than your software can manage
• Finer distinctions may be lost on, or intimidating for, readers
• Are you sure you’ll always recognise when there are characters or diacriticals missing? How’s your Lithuanian?*

 

*32 letters, 5 digraphs