Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Another day in the sausage factory

A few items from last week's Big Story are worth a second look, mostly to underscore the sometimes random nature of the journalistic craft. Well, not exactly "random." Let's call it the "nonlinear" nature of journalism.

This isn't by any means an exhaustive discussion of the available phenomena. No comments on presidential word choice, for example, or explanations of why this hed in the Star would have been amazingly dumb even without the godawful paint-by-numbers redesign. But as a new semester of content analyses and batty conspiracy theories approaches, it's worth noting how much stuff in journalism comes about not by design but by routine, heuristic or accident.

Here's the Times, for example, getting out-edited by one of its customers:

“Born a Christian,” was the headline in The Sun, in its account of one of the suspects, Don Stewart-Whyte. He is the 19-year-old son of a late Tory politician who was said to have converted about six months ago.

Curse those relative clauses! This one pretty clearly points to "late Tory politician." Your brain can try to talk you out of it -- you know, Dad would have had to have died between six months ago and now -- but time you're spending on arguments about the grammar of a story is time you aren't spending with the story.

Here's the same graf in the Columbus Dispatch:

“Born a Christian,” was the headline in The Sun, in its account of one of the suspects, Don Stewart-Whyte, the 19-year-old son of a late Tory politician, said to have converted about six months ago.

With "the 19-year-old son" bit moved into loose apposition, the relative clause is a lot clearer.

Was the provincial paper just guessing? Probably not, given that it had several other sources close at hand. The AP, for example, makes clear that the younger Stewart-Whyte is the convert. (Does that mean the AP's better? Well, it did let an anonymous neighbor slag the kid thus: "He used to smoke weed and drink a lot, but he is completely different now." Thanks, AP!)

Here's an even stranger bit of editing. First, the Times, from another chunk of its Saturday coverage:

The suspect, identified as Rashid Rauf, was arrested Wednesday in the eastern city of Bahawalpur, the officials said, just hours before the authorities began a series of raids across Britain to break up the plot they say was rapidly unfolding here.

Here it is in the Dispatch:

The suspect, identified as Rashid Al Rauf, was arrested Wednesday in the eastern city of Bahawalpur, the officials said ...

Hmm. How did an Arabic article (or homographic noun) wind up in the middle of a Pakistani guy's name? The Central Ohio Bureau avers that "Al Rauf" is how the copy arrived from the NYT's news service. A non-exhaustive check suggests that no other agencies used it.

Here's a possible explanation, and comments or additions are welcome. Times style differs from AP on a number of points, so to make life easier for NYTNS subscribers, the Times runs its copy through an exchange program meant to iron out some or most of those differences before the stuff hits the wire. Without the human touch, of course, the program is likely to decide that "Windows ME" needs to be "Windows, Maine." I don't think there's a Times rule that calls for deleting the Arabic article (as the Post prefers to do), but I wonder if some kind of computer trickery might have been at play here.

Long and short of that? When you see that talismanic "New York Times" creditline, you might or might not be seeing what the Times ran. And that might or might not be a good thing.


Blogger melissa angle said...

There's a story, and I don't have any sources--like much of journalism lore, about a paper that used a program to change all references of black to African-American. Seemed like a good idea until the city budget was doing so well it was "in the African-American."

7:24 AM, August 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I might be able to shed some light here.

My girlfriend (who hails from your end of NC) interned at the NYT News Service last summer. She informs me that they no longer use the filter program for the most part; instead, copyeds at the News Service convert the copy from NYT style to AP style. This includes removing regionalisms and taking out courtesy titles (among many other things).

She says that, to the best of her knowledge, there is no rule about adding/deleting Arabic articles in names. However, she reminds me that just because it comes from the Times News Service doesn't mean it's right.

Hope that helps.


4:35 PM, August 16, 2006  
Blogger fev said...

Tnx for the update, Diego. And of course for the reminder that "that's what the Times says" isn't an answer to the question "Is it right?"

6:17 PM, August 16, 2006  

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