Journalism

Link of the Week: A Pronouncing Vocabulary

Time now for another resource on pronunciation, the news announcer’s abiding obsession.

For this one, you have to set your wayback machine to 1857, the publication date of Elias Longley’s Pronouncing Vocabulary of Geographical and Personal Names, available (in the public domain) through Google Books. As the name suggests, this 205 page work contains extensive lists of pronunciations for place names, then personal names, then a shorter catalog of scriptural names. Because of its long-ago publication date, the book–especially the personal names part–is useful mainly for names of note at or prior to the mid-nineteenth century. It also uses an obsolete typographic phonography system (lots of funny Greek-looking characters) that is a little hard to decipher at first, but that is well-explained in the introduction and in a summary table immediately following.

For all its limitations, I find Longley’s Pronouncing Vocabulary a handy resource for names and places that often appear without pronunciations in dictionaries and encyclopedias, or without authority in many of the online sources I’ll be mentioning in future entries.

Link of the Week: Google Translate

One of Google’s many boons to foreign reporting has been its Google Translate service. There are several ways to access it. Google searches, for example, include a “Translate” link for any website that’s detected as being in a foreign language. And if you use Google Toolbar in your browser, it will put a ‘Translate’ control bar at the top of any page you visit that’s detected as being in a foreign language (including some that aren’t really foreign).

If neither of those cases apply to you, you can just go to the Google Translate page and type the URL of the foreign language website into the text box. Pick the source language (or let Google figure it out automagically) and your language, and POW, you have what’s usually a pretty good machine translation of the material. You can also type free-form text into the box (‘Where is the bathroom?’) and Google will translate that (‘Waar is de badkamer?’), adding a handy ‘Listen’ button so you can hear the pronunciation.

All this convenience and power comes with one big red-flag caution: It’s still a machine translation, which means it works well on simple, straightforward phrases, but is terrible at translating slang, idiom, and cultural context.

In the journalistic context, that means you can use Google Translate (or other machine translators) to get the gist of a foreign-language article and decide whether to pursue it further. But if you want to use any facts or quotes, machine translation isn’t good enough. For that, you’ll still (as of this writing) need to find a real, live fluent speaker of the language to translate it for you.

My first post on writing numbers for broadcast

How numbers are written out is one of the quickest ways to determine at a glance whether copy is intended for print/online or for broadcast. Numbers in broadcast scripts, in most cases, look nothing like those you’re used to reading on the page/screen, for the simple reason that the broadcast writer tries to relieve the news announcer of as much mental effort as possible, so she can concentrate on diction and performance. In short, you want to remove all the speed bumps that inhibit the anchor’s comprehension.

Also, spelling out numbers helps to get a more accurate time calculation from computerized word- or character-counting systems.

There are a few differences of opinion among broadcasters, but here’s my handy guide to spelling out numbers. They apply only to American-style broadcast writing.

In a nutshell, you are trying to transcribe the way the figure would be spoken aloud–within these parameters.

  • Spell out ‘one’ through ‘twenty.’
  • Use digits from ’21’ through ‘999,’ except…
  • Spell out round numbers from ‘twenty’ through ‘ninety.’
  • Use the words ‘thousand,’ ‘million,’ ‘billion,’ etc. where they would be spoken: “four-million;” “21-thousand-450.”
  • For a conversational style–between 1,100 and 10,000–use the word ‘hundred’ where it would be spoken, especially for round numbers: “45-hundred;” “62-hundred-and-50.”
  • Don’t use a dollar sign ($), cent sign (¢), or percent sign (%). Spell them out as they would be spoken: “six-million dollars;” “87 cents;” “sixty-percent.”
  • Don’t use a decimal point (.). Spell it out as it would be spoken: “62-point-five million.”
  • None of the above applies to years. Write them with Arabic numerals, as usual.
  • For ordinals (“first,” “53rd”) all the same rules apply, except of course you use the ordinal abbreviations (“st,” “nd,” “rd,” “th”) where they mix with Arabic numerals.

I’ll discuss the question of precision (i.e. how accurately to represent a lengthy number) in a future post.

Thoughts on writing the lede

Thousands, no, tens of thousands of words have been written about how to write a news lede (or lead, or leed). Whole forests have been felled. So rather than recap a lot of that same information, let me suggest you get the basics by visiting some of the sites linked to in the lede sentence of this post, and instead I will just offer a few supplemental thoughts of my own.

  • If you haven’t already, go read my previous post on the use of tense in ledes.
  • Likewise, my post on names in ledes.
  • Now, in addition: A lede should always feature the ‘grabbiest’ element of the story. Usually, that means featuring the conflict (if any) expressed or implied in the narrative. Other times, it means featuring the ‘twist’ element, or the celebrity name, or some other ‘sexy’ aspect.
  • Ledes, more so than any other part of a broadcast news script, must be in the active voice, if at all possible. (This differs a bit from print, where the important thing is to have the newsmaker as the subject of the sentence, which sometimes forces you into the passive voice.)
  • Ledes should orient the audience, not disorient it. This means different things depending on the audience. In the case of OutQ News, we run a service heard nationwide, so every lede must locate the story in a state or major city. For a local broadcast news operation that does breaking news around the clock, it might instead mean always including a reference to the time the news event occurred.
  • For spot news, such as we do here, only a straight lede is suitable. Creative-type ledes, such as the delayed lede which pushes the ‘nut’ (i.e. point) of the story down several paragraphs, are a no-go.

I’ll include more thoughts on ledes in future entries on related topics–or just as ideas come to me. That’s the great thing about a blog.

Questions? Feel free to add a comment below or [encode_email email=”” display=”email me”].

Link of the Week: FOIA requests as easy as Pop-Tarts™

I’ve never had to actually file a Freedom of Information request. But I’ve come close enough in the past that I had to research how to do it. Behold, the Federal Open Government Guide, published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It includes a very detailed but easy-to-read guide on what FOIA is, how it works, and how to formulate and file a request. To make it truly easy as pie (or PopTarts™), you’ll find on this page a link to a tick-the-boxes automated request letter generator for federal and state FOIA requests.

If I ever do need to file a FOIA request, this is where I’m starting.

Says versus said

We’ve already taken some time to talk about tense (especially as it relates to the lede), but I wanted to spend an additional minute on the special case of the verb “to say.”

In general, the preferred tense for verbs of expression (say, claim, note, etc.) in broadcast newswriting is the straight present.

20-year-old Tim Spriggs says, “We need a gay-straight alliance at St. John’s for the same reason that there are organizations for other minorities.”

This works most of the time, because most often we’re describing a recent statement that reflects the speaker’s current views (as above), or the current state of affairs.

But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes a quote or paraphrase is part of a narrative that you’ve already explicitly set in the past, using the past tense. In that case, it breaks the narrative thread for you to suddenly switch into the present tense for a quote or paraphrase.

In the actual OutQ News story from which the quote above was drawn, the two preceding sentences were this:

Some twenty students sat on the St. John’s University Great Lawn making rainbow gay rights posters. They told the New York Daily News they’ve been pushing for a campus GSA for years.

We’ve already set up an event from the preceding Friday, and any quotes or paraphrases emerge from within that narrative. Thus, we’re sort of stuck with putting everything (everything within the narrative, that is) in the past tense.

But further down in the same story, we escape the little narrative about the protest on the lawn to get a quote from a university spokesman. He spoke recently, and what he said reflects the school’s current view.

But a university spokesman says St. John’s has gone as far as it can to support gay students, considering its Catholic mission and values.

So in a nutshell: Use the present (says, notes, claims) unless they’re part of a story you’ve set in the past. In that case, stick with the tense of that story.

So-called ‘writers’ misuse ‘so-called’

Because it actually has two quite different meanings, one of them loaded, the phrase ‘so-called’ is particularly tricky to use in news copy, where we’re supposed to be neutral.

Most people know without thinking about it that ‘so-called’ has two meanings. Both are a spoken way to signal quotation marks. But the first signals jargon the listener may not be familiar with, or sometimes an imposed nickname, as in this example.

Republican Stacey Campfield is the sponsor of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill–it’s the same measure he unsuccessfully pushed for six years as a member of the state House.

The second meaning is the one that jumps to mind whenever the phrase is used without context.

The so-called ‘healing centers’ are really nothing more than a con game, preying on the desperate.

Of course, it’s this usage–loaded with sarcasm–that should be avoided in straight news copy.

But because it’s the same phrase, and the context doesn’t always make it crystal clear which meaning is intended (see my first example), it’s generally better to avoid its use altogether. Luckily, there are a few good alternatives for the neutral, jargon-introducing version.

Republican Stacey Campfield is the sponsor of what some are calling the “Don’t Say Gay” bill–it’s the same measure he unsuccessfully pushed for six years as a member of the state House.

Other alternatives that can be used (depending on the context) include “…what’s known as…” and “self-described.”

Add a comment if you think of any others.

what some are calling

Link of the Week: U.S. House Floor Proceedings

One thing we do fairly often at Sirius XM OutQ News is watch (and record) floor video from the U.S. House of Representatives. Because that’s being done while we write, edit, take bathroom breaks, etc., it often happens that we’ll miss some detail. Even if you’re watching closely, action moves so quickly in the House that it’s common for something to fly by too fast to note.

This page on the U.S. House website is the handy fix for that. It includes one week’s worth of every single official action of the House (votes, introductions of bills and amendments, referrals to committee, and so on), logged in near-real time. It can be a real life-saver if you need to know the yeas and nays on some bill or amendment, including the roll call.

There’s no contest between nolo contendere and an Alford Plea

If you write enough crime stories, you’ll eventually encounter a variety of different references to a kind of plea that stands in the no-man’s-land between guilty and not guilty (note: there is no such thing as a plea of “innocent”).

They go by various names: “no contest,” “nolo contendere,” and the “Alford Plea.” The first and second in this list mean exactly the same thing (nolo contendere is legal Latin). There are some minor technical differences between the first and last, but they are basically the same thing.

In a nutshell, these pleas do not admit guilt, but do admit that the state has enough evidence to convict. Defendants generally accept such a plea as part of a plea bargain, admitting to a lesser charge that will let them avoid the harsher punishment of the original charge.

No contest and Alford pleas differ from ordinary guilty pleas in that they are thought to offer some protection from a civil suit arising out of the crime.

In newswriting, I almost always go with “no contest,” which doesn’t involve Latin or the name of some guy nobody’s ever heard of. However, there are plenty of newsrooms where “Alford plea” is the preferred usage, so it may just be a regional thing.

Link of the Week: Measuring Worth

I now unveil one of my all-time favorite sites. It’s something I only use occasionally in my current deadline news job. But I used to use it all the time when I made historical documentaries. And you could get lost for hours just playing with numbers on the site.

So with that buildup, what is it?

Measuring Worth is the latest incarnation of an online calculator run by two University of Illinois economics professors. The site lets you put in a currency amount from any year back to 1774, and convert that to the value in any other year. Most commonly, you’d use it to figure out, for example, what $30 in 1910 is worth today. The answer, of course, isn’t as simple as $710. That’s just the figure calculated using the Consumer Price Index. But the authors’ basic calculator gives you five other measures (GDP deflator, comparative payment for unskilled labor, etc.) which generate a figure as high as $13,200 (for relative share of GDP). It can also handle various foreign currencies and various other ways of calculating relative value.

So, unfortunately, while Measuring Worth a great tool, there’s a learning curve (handy essays included) to figuring out what all the numbers mean and which is appropriate for your purpose. But if you need to calculate the historical Value of a Dollar (the site’s original name), this is the tool for the job.

Names in ledes: Famous, or not so much?

Editing stories from wire services and other outside sources often means ‘translating’ the item from the audience it was written for (Cleveland general audience, members of the military, Italians, etc.) to our particular niche audience, the LGBT community.

I’ve already mentioned a few cases where I had to learn about other systems of government, or phraseology, or currency. Another translation issue that frequently crops up writing ledes is ‘to proper noun, or not to proper noun.’

In general, you should only include the name of someone or something in the lede if it is a household name to your audience. Otherwise, it’s usually best to substitute some kind of generic descriptor and come back to the proper name in the second or third sentence.

That means, for example, that you can always use “President Obama” in the lede without further ado. But you probably wouldn’t want to use “the Human Rights Campaign” in your lede. In that case, you’d say “A gay rights group is lobbying the White House blah blah blah” in the lede, and use the group’s name in the second sentence.

I say you wouldn’t put HRC’s name in your lede. But we probably would, because virtually everyone in our LGBT audience has heard of it. On the other hand, when we’re adapting a story from the local paper in Columbia, South Carolina and it puts “State Rep. Todd Rutherford” in its lede, we’d probably ‘translate’ that by saying “a South Carolina lawmaker” in our lede, and using his proper name further down.

In some cases, a generic descriptor is too generic to put in the lede. Consider this wire service lede:

(Boston, MA) — Members of the Governor’s Council are criticizing Governor Deval Patrick’s latest selection for the Supreme Judicial Court.

Fine for a Massachusetts audience, which hears about the ‘Governor’s Council’ all the time. The Council is an elected advisory body–but that seemed too vague to put in the lede. On the other hand, ‘Massachusetts Governor’s Council’ isn’t so big a puzzler that it’s what we call a ‘show-stopper’ (causing the audience to loose the thread of the story), so I put that in the lede, and used ‘elected advisory board’ as the subject of the second sentence.

Then there’s the middle ground: a name that’s kinda-sorta familiar to your audience, is to use the name in the lede, but add a descriptor before it. So: not just “Silvio Berlusconi” as the AFP dispatch from Rome might have it, but “Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.” Likewise, “California Governor Jerry Brown,” “New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” “Apple C-E-O Steve Jobs,” and so on.

How my little blog entry kicked up a s**t storm on Fleet Street

Last September, outraged by a tabloid lie that I was uniquely positioned to debunk, I wrote a blog entry criticizing Britain’s Daily Star. I noted that they had simply fabricated two American gay rights groups that  were purportedly criticizing the U.S. version of the sketch comedy show “Little Britain” for running “homophobic” skits. Other UK newspapers and web sites picked up the Star story, and it went semi-viral.

Cut to last month. To my astonishment, my little cyber-shout had actually created consequences in the real world. The Daily Star has paid damages and apologized to Little Britain’s stars for lying. Here are more details from the Press Gazette and BBC News.

Not only that, but a more-respectably daily, The Independent had to apologize — for quoting me! I had speculated that the Star story was really a publicist’s plant intended to drum up attention for the U.S. debut of the show. I didn’t name any names, of course, because if it was a plant, it could have been planted by a lot of different people. But that didn’t stop The Independent from passing along my clearly-labeled speculation. Oops. Under Britain’s rather onerous, plaintiff-friendly defamation law, they wound up having to apologize to Little Britain’s publicist for implying that the firm did a bad thing.

There’s a lesson in all of this, though I’m not completely sure what it is. Maybe just that I should have thought twice about setting off a shit-storm in the first place. None of the shit that hit the Star and The Independent landed on me, but that’s just because I got lucky.

UPDATE: Apparently, London’s The Times had to apologize as well.

Link of the Week: Defamation Law

This page on the ExpertLaw website provides a handy overview of U.S. law on defamation, libel and slander. It includes short sections defining defamation, describing the legal defenses available (including most especially the ‘actual malice’ defense relating to public figures), and an explanation of why it’s not always a good idea to file a defamation suit. The material is brief, not thorough, but accurate so far as I know.

Who said that?

We’ve already discussed a few of the ways in which direct quotes are used differently in broadcast scripts from the way they’re handled in print. We’ve talked about dangling attributions, signifying the start of a direct quote and paraphrasing.

Another important difference is the necessity to restate — frequently — who’s being quoted. This is very simply because listeners have no quotation marks to tell them when a quote begins and ends. As I mentioned before, the best way to signal the start of a quote is with a slight pause, or with a phrase like “in his words.” Don’t use the word “quote.” Likewise, we don’t use “unquote” to end a quotation — that’s even hokier than using “quote” at the beginning.

Instead, we rely on the modern audience’s default assumption that direct quotes in broadcast news stories are short — one or two sentences at most. This means that for quotes longer than one long sentence or two short sentences, you must re-identify the speaker.

WRONG: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

Using long quotes works even better if you reduce the number of times you use the word “says.” For example, because the first sentence is fairly short and pithy, you can replace one attribution with the word “adding”.

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community,” adding, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

(Of course, in this example, the second sentence is on the long side, which makes the “adding” formulation less than ideal.)

Another way to prune back the use of “says” is to use the paraphrase that’s really a direct quote.

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe calls this “a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

Don’t use the quote-ees name every time, nor a pronoun (e.g. “he”) every time. Instead, ping-pong back and forth between the last name and a pronoun.

The last point I should make is that it’s best not to overuse direct quotes in broadcast copy. Again, broadcast isn’t print. Ideally, you should have actuality (i.e. “sound bites”). If you don’t limit your direct quotes to only the pithiest stuff, and paraphrase the rest.

BEST: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe calls this “a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says he’s proud of the out candidates who are “stepping up to run for office,” and of his group’s role in backing them.

Link of the Week: AP Broadcast Handbook

This is a first for Link of the Week: a link to the dead-tree version of a book you should buy. About one-third of the Associated Press Broadcast Handbook is an extremely concise and well-written guide to broadcast newswriting (kind of like this blog–ahem–but organized into a logical sequence instead of blasted all over the map in no particular order). The second part is a wide ranging style guide similar to the AP Stylebook for print. It contains hundreds of dictionary-style entries that prescribe the right way to refer to well-known companies and groups on second reference, what to call minority and handicapped people, and lots of other writing style questions. Many newsrooms rely on the handbook as the authority on “house style” questions that have not already been settled internally.