September 2008

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.

Group names on second reference

One question frequently asked by my interns and trainees is how to refer to organizations ‘for short’ once their full names have been established (“on second reference,” in Associated Press parlance). Given the nature of the news we handle — gay-related — a lot of organization names come up, with varying degrees of familiarity to our audience and to a general audience.

There’s often a temptation to use a group’s initials on second reference: The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force would, for example, become “NGLTF” once its full name is established. But I think this is generally bad practice in broadcast writing unless and only unless the initials are already familiar to your listeners. So, for instance, I think it’s okay to call the National Association for the Advance of Colored People the “N-double-A-C-P” (note how ‘double’ is spelled out here) on second reference. In fact, the initials are so familiar you could probably get away with “N-double-A-C-P” on first reference. Likewise, the United Nations can be called the “UN” even on first reference. And for our audience, the letters “HRC” are synonymous with the Human Rights Campaign (less so than with Hillary Rodham Clinton), so we always refer to them by their initials on second reference.

But usually the best practice is to refer to a less-familiar group by the part of its name that denotes it as a group. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists would be “the association” on second ref. In my earlier example, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is called “the Task Force” after the first reference.

There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule of thumb. Unfortunately for us, there are many groups in the gay community whose names don’t include that group-denoting word: Empire State Pride Agenda, Basic Rights Oregon, National Stonewall Democrats, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and Lambda Legal, to name a few. The answer in these cases is a mixed bag. For the first two, we generally use the groups’ full names on each and every reference — a particular pain in the case of the long-named Empire State Pride Agenda. National Stonewall Democrats is called just “Stonewall Democrats” on second reference. Gay Men’s Health Crisis is called “GMHC” on second reference; its initials are familiar enough to our audience. And Lambda Legal is known by its nickname for short: “Lambda.”

There are also cases where the name makes a tidy acronym (initials which can be pronounced as a word — only!) In these cases, it’s okay to use that acronym on second reference (as long as it’s not too much of a puzzler). So, for example, both the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders are referred to as “GLAD” (or “GLAAD,” pronounced the same) on second reference.

To sum up: For unfamiliar group names, use the group-denoting part of the name on second reference. For familiar names, it’s more of a mixed bag. Use whatever nickname is most familiar to your audience, or at least the nickname the group uses for itself.

Link of the Week: FiveThirtyEight.com

In the home stretch to Election Day, here’s my new favorite-favorite-favorite poll analysis web site: FiveThirtyEight.com. There are many such sites now, like Electoral-Vote.com, Pollster.com and CNN’s Electoral Map page.

But FiveThirtyEight.com (a reference to the total membership of the Electoral College) is amazing. It’s the work of a professional baseball statistician (quite famous in that world) named Nate Silver. Silver doesn’t just compile all the state-by-state presidential polls, counting each state as red, blue or tied — as most of the other sites do in one form or another. Instead, he runs all the polls through an incredibly sophisticated spreadsheet that weighs the reliability and recency of the poll, demographic cross-tabs, regional voting patterns, and many other factors, to create a big probability matrix that spits out both the likely electoral vote if the election were held today, and the likely outcome on November 4th. Details are on the site’s FAQ.

The intricacy of his system is mind-blowing, and more than a little intimidating. But Silver’s work has a stellar reputation for reliability and perspicacity in the baseball statistics industry, which he has revolutionized more-or-less single-handedly. And although he is an Obama supporter, Silver’s observations about polling, statistical massage and campaign strategy are extremely interesting, useful (for journalists) and trenchant. A highly, highly recommended site.

Beware the Tabs

Some of the most entertaining news items come from the tabloid press. Unfortunately, they’re also very often the most fictitious. Take for example a story that appeared today in the UK tabloid The Daily Star, “GAY AND FATTY JOKES UPSET YANKS,” claiming that gay activists are upset at the new American version of the hit British comedy Little Britain. If true, this would be an interesting little show biz item. And a couple of other online sources have picked the story up from The Star. But after working in this job for six years, I’ve developed a pretty good sense of smell for fabricated tabloid (or blog) stories, and boy, is this one of them.

Firstly, the quote from an FCC spokesman at the end uses the word ‘remit,’ meaning ‘area of responsibility.’ Americans never use that word in this sense, so unless the supposed spokesman just happens to be Brit-bred, I’m not buying.

Second, and more obviously, are the two quotes from gay activist groups which form the heart of the story. The organization behind the New York City gay pride parade is called “Heritage of Pride,” not “New York Gay Pride.” And the “West Hollywood Gay and Lesbian Alliance” simply does not exist at all. Furthermore, with 25 years (on and off) in the gay media business, I’ve never heard of either of the two supposed spokespersons, Gina Gallo and Irwin Blair (nor has Google, for that matter). I know the spokespeople for every prominent gay group in America (many of them personally), and either Gallo and Blair don’t exist, or they beamed in from Mars in the last two weeks.

In other words, I’m convinced–at least for my own editorial purposes–that this story is total fiction, most likely planted by somebody’s publicist to generate attention in Britain that would cross over to the US via blogs to help the HBO show.

I know, a tabloid paper printing publicist fiction: Who’d have imagined? But in this competitive, blog-addled, short-attention media world, there’s a lot of pressure to fluff up newscasts with show biz gossip. Here’s a reminder not to fall for it, if you value your credibility at all.

Oh, and if anybody at The Star would like to put me in touch with your sources for this story, I’d be much obliged. I’m waiting by the phone. Really.

UPDATE #1: Heritage of Pride’s actual spokesman, Dennis Spafford, confirmed to me that “Gina Gallo” is not a spokesperson for his organization — nor has he ever heard of her.

UPDATE #2: This entry is making its own way around the blogosphere. It’s been picked up as a separate news item by several popular blogs.

UPDATE #3: Now this story has been picked up by the UK newspaper The Independent. It’s the lead item in Henry Deede’s “Pandora” column. I’m not sure whether it appeared in print, or just on the Independent’s web site.

UPDATE #4 (30 Sept.): Curious. I revisited the Pandora column noted in Update #3, only to discover the lead item — about this blog entry — has been vaporized. The headline for the column has been changed to refer to the replacement item, and the URL has been changed to reflect the new headline (which means there must be a referrer from the old URL). I wonder why they did that. Legal department concerns that they were accusing The Daily Star of lying? I know libel is much easier to prove in UK courts. But it’s hard to see under what circumstances the Star might have sued. I suppose this will have to remain one of life’s little mysteries.

UPDATE #5 (How long can this go on?): Hmm. The original Daily Star item has been removed from their website as well. Perhaps that’s why The Independent removed it’s item. Curiouser and curiouser.

Link of the Week: VOA Pronunciation Guide

The Voice of America maintains a fairly extensive pronunciation guide for foreign names, places and terms. It’s far from totally comprehensive, but it’s an excellent place to start… not least because it includes audio files demonstrating the correct pronunciation, and not just written approximations.

Pronunciation: Always worth checking

Pronunciation is the news announcer’s lurking nemesis.

It’s not always the foreign words or names that trip you up. Those, at least you know to try hunt down the pronunciation for. It’s the familiar-seeming ones that will get you, especially American place names. For example, Quincy in Massachusetts is pronounced KWIN-zee, not KWIN-see. And Cairo, Illinois, is pronounced KARE-oh, not KIE-roh, as in the capital of Egypt.

The lesson here: when in doubt, check. And when not in doubt, think twice.

Tips and links on how to find pronunciations coming in future posts.

Link of the Week: British Isles-Common Confusions

England, British Isles, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, Scotland… what is what, over there, off the coast of France, anyway?

Americans like me sometimes have a hard time sorting out what proper name applies to which geographical entity. This brief web page explains it all clearly and concisely, with maps.

Incidentally, those five names at the start of this entry all refer to distinct, but in some cases overlapping, entities.

Attribution, attribution, attribution

An essential part of journalism is saying how or from whom we know what we know — in other words, attribution. This means that the source for every fact or assertion must be clear to the audience. This doesn’t mean reporters have to tell “who says” in every sentence. But it’s vital to establish the source for a set of facts in a way that is clear and unambiguous.

WRONG: This week, Darryl Hopkins told the story from his point of view. Clark Rockefeller told him the person hanging on to the vehicle was a “gay friend” that he wanted to lose.

RIGHT: This week, Darryl Hopkins told WBZ-TV the story from his point of view. He said Clark Rockefeller told him the person hanging on to the vehicle was a “gay friend” that he wanted to lose.

The differences between the versions of this (randomly selected) paragraph seem minor at first glance — just a few words. But they convey very important information that gives credit where it’s due (to WBZ, in this case) and more importantly, helps the audience judge the credibility of the assertions. How do we know what Clark Rockefeller allegedly told Darryl Hopkins? Because Hopkins said so. The audience can then judge the claim on the basis of whether it thinks Hopkins is credible, a publicity hound, a guy trying save his own neck, or whatever.

So when in doubt, attribute, attribute, attribute. There should be at least one source attribution per story (more if you used more), and one for each controversial assertion in the story (i.e. every statement in the script that someone might quarrel with). Generally speaking, the place to put your source attribution is early on in the script, connected to a controversial assertion, or at least with some newsy, up-to-date fact that you got from the source.