Tom Rachman reviewingA World Without Whom : The essential guide to language in the BuzzFeedage by Emmy J. Favilla
As if to immunize herself against criticism, [Favilla] begins by announcing her paucity of qualifications; she is neither a lexicographer nor an expert in linguistics. Previously, she worked at Teen Vogue. “I am constantly looking up words for fear of using them incorrectly and everyone in my office and my life discovering that I am a fraud”, she says. But despite the tone of chirpy self-satire, what follows is a small revolution. “Today everyone is a writer – a bad, unedited, unapologetic writer”, she says. “There’s no hiding our collective incompetence anymore.” Unlike the language scolds of yore, Favilla embraces the new ways, punctuating her writing with emoji, inserting screen-grabs of instant messages, using texting shortcuts such as “amirite?” Hers is a rule book with fewer rules than orders to ignore them. Humans are gushing out words at such a pace, they can’t be expected to bother with grammar, she says. More important is to be entertaining, on trend, popular (neatly matching the corporate goals of BuzzFeed). “It’s often more personal and more plain-languagey, and so it resonates immediately and more widely.”
Rachman, a reporter turned novelist, wrote this for the TLS, which still has copy-editors (although it is a less pristine publication than it was when I first started reading it as a library worker 30 years ago). Favilla started as the copy editor for Buzz Feed (singular verb on purpose). They may now have a few more. Honestly, a bit hard to tell.
The review also covers Harold Evans latest book, Do I Make Myself Clear? Why writing well matters, one of many to shelve in the bookstore section labeled “grumpy state of the language jeremiads.” Evans, retired editor of The Times of London, is of course a grandee of old school journalism (imagine starting your career when writing for a newspaper meant manual typewriters, hot lead type, and Gregg shorthand for interviews). He is not sanguine about the state of the English language.
Rachman summarizing Evans’ case,
[Evans is] correct to diagnose trouble. Public opinion is frighteningly confused today, with many citizens opposing what they support. They’re for health care, but against the policy providing it. Bewilderment also warps discussion of gun control and Brexit and global warming, leaving those without scruples to spin, while earnest news sources mount their factual cases – and are snubbed. Manipulative language has been around as long as public debate. But today’s lies linger because the internet has scuttled credibility, placing heaps of alluring junk beside small piles of dry honesty.
I think he’s right, but I have a harder time believing it can change, or hasn’t always been latent in news biz. Freedom of the press, as William Randolph Hearst is rumored to have put it, belongs to those who have one. Now everybody does.
The East Coast is getting clobbered by a “bomb cyclone” and weather stories (rather than actual weather) are a guilty pleasure of mine. Probably one of the few things I could have managed as a straight news reporter. If clichés were traded on a linguistic S&P 500, now would be a great time to go long on weather ones, in particularly go out and buy some “hunker down” futures!
A nice instance comes from the end of the Times story on the storm,
“The birds that are wintering down there are going to have to hunker down and deal with the conditions,” he said. [He being Geoff LeBaron, the director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.]
This piqued my curiosity about “hunker down” and to learn more I dropped in at the OED to see what background they offered:
Etymology: Origin obscure: it has the form of an iterative from a stem hunk-. Compare Middle Dutch hucken, huken (Verwijs and Verdam), Middle Low German hûken, Dutch huiken (Franck), Old Norse húka, modern German hocken (Kluge) to sit on the hams or heels, to squat. These words point to an original ablaut series heuk-, hûk, huk- (hok-); from this hunk-er, might perhaps be a nasalized derivative. Old Norse hok-ra to crouch may be a parallel form; Dutch hunkeren to hanker, is not connected.
a. To squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels, and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet.”
b.transf. To cower or squat in a lowly manner.
c. [draft] fig. With down. To concentrate one’s resources, esp. in unfavourable circumstances; to dig in, buckle down; spec. (frequently in Mil. contexts) to shelter or take cover, lie low. orig. and chiefly U.S.
This leads to the interesting image of a bird, “squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent”
Of course it’s the figurative use that OED sniffs at with “draft” that everybody uses (I can’t recall a literal hunker in my reading or conversation). How did a squat cower turn in to settling in and riding out the storm?
In any case, hoping wherever you are you are warm, dry, and hunkered down safely.
Trying–yet again–to get the blog re-energized. For now just going to use it as a commonplace book, and this Sunday’s NYTimes was full of great stuff. Perhaps none better than this wedding story, which has the best lede I’ve read in a while:
“A man born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Toronto and schooled at a Yeshiva and a Japanese-American man raised on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, were married in the rare books section of the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village before a crowd of 200 people, against a backdrop of an arch of gold balloons that were connected to each other like intertwined units of a necklace chain or the link emoji, in a ceremony led by a Buddhist that included an operatic performance by one friend, the reading of an original poem based on the tweets of Yoko Ono by another, and a lip-synced rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” by a drag queen dressed in a white fringe jumper and a long veil.
The grooms met on the internet. But this isn’t a story about people who swiped right.”
1. The data exists.
2. The data is accessible.
3. The data is consistent.
4. The data is relevant.
5. The data is intuitively understandable.
6. The data can be processed.
7. Analyses can be easily re-executed.
8. Where we’re going we don’t need encryption.
9. Analytics outputs are easily shared and understood.
10. The answer you’re looking for is there in the first place.
He is writing about a business context–for instance where Google Analytics, and its attendant woes, are likely to play a big role in answering a client’s marketing strategy question. But what struck me about his fallacies is their aptness in worlds I hang in–journalism and education. Data journalism is, of course, the flavor of the week, month, and year, and no doubt it is of value–but it is sometimes seen like a magic toolbox that can be used without an hypothesis, without a real data set, and, most importantly, no clear idea of what would actually constitute a newsworthy answer to the query.
I know there are data journalism efforts that don’t fall pray to Brennan’s list, but I wonder how many. In particular, overcoming that last point in the affirmative is a high bar. Is the information really there for the finding? Reminds me of a quote from Confucius.
“The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat.”–Confucius
(As for education, I’ll save my gripes about use and misuse of data for another day.)
When you get a quarter you put it in the piggy bank. The piggy bank is on a shelf in your closet. Your mom knows this and she checks on it every once in a while, so she knows when you put more money in or spend it.
Now one day, you might decide “I don’t want mom to look at my money.” So you go over to Johnny’s house with an extra piggy bank that you’re going to keep in his room read full post
That secret tax-free piggy banks are popular among elected officials, who are paid, of course by taxes, is not surprising, but does seem particularly odious.
Big data has come to the newspaper biz in a big way. London’s Guardian has a data leaderboard in their newsroom with real time metrics for how stories are “performing” but the Financial Times, being the overachievers they are, have a whole integrated data enterprise that is embedded in their news operation.
Digiday has the story. In the excerpt below, the Betts in the quote is Tom Betts, the FT’s chief data officer.
“Tech companies don’t have chief data officers.”
Betts’ appointment also marks the publisher’s evolution to decentralize its analysts. Before last year, engineers and analysts were separate from the rest of the organization. Now, data analysts are embedded in marketing and editorial.
The audience engagement team sits in the newsroom so it can work directly with journalists. It includes data analysts, SEO experts, engagement strategists, social media managers and journalists. Its objectives are to get the FT journalism out to more people and evolve the newsroom with digital readers in mind.
“An analytically mature business is where the vast majority of analysts sit within the other teams,” Betts said. Tech organizations, he added, “don’t have chief data officers.”
It goes down so reasonably that you are almost lulled into forgetting to ask what SEO, engagement strategy, social and media actually have to do with journalism. One of these things is not like the other. Still, the FT manages to remain pretty newspapery, certainly compared to many other papers, which seem to be lame print versions of their lame websites.
Journalism (and much else for that matter) is mostly a question of platform now, you just may not have noticed it. By platform–a word, that like ‘risk’ means so many things it almost has withered to a semantic husk of itself–I’m thinking about the technological variety, generally a software system that facilitates, automates and otherwise organizes some human activity. Once upon a time it was the human bit that constituted the ends, with the platform as the means, now ends and means are mixed up, perhaps nowhere more than in journalism.
At least that’s the conclusion I draw from three bits of today’s reading, of passing interest to anybody who is watching the intersection between media and technology with fascination or dread.
First (and most interesting), New York Magazine’s Max Read asks “Can Medium Be Both a Tech Company and a Media Company?”
This is pegged to a story I didn’t know about (and am going to catch up on) in which a tech publication covering its own domain trips up on just what enterprise they are engaged in.
“Medium wants to straddle the divide between media and tech — to be both a platform (tech) and a publisher (media). This can place it in an awkward position: Institutionally, is it on the closed-ranks side of the “new class of industrialists” of the tech industry, to whom the question of Airbnb’s liability in the deaths of its guests is already settled? Or is it an editorially independent media company with a mandate to ask uncomfortable questions? So far, its defense against the differing interests of its two halves is transparency. This morning, Matter’s editor Mark Lotto weighed in on the entire set of comments: “I can’t think of another publication or platform where an editor and his boss would have this exchange in front of everybody.”
–As Read points out, it’s possible to find such transparency pretty easily (including going back to the pre-web days). Further, is ‘transparency’–another word of the moment, along with its sibling ‘disclosure’–enough? Is having a lively debate about the meta-ethics of a story the same as facing up to a potential conflict of interest? Platforms it seems to me are awfully conducive to this recursive hall of mirrors feel–they yield data about data about data (think the cascade of comments that never ends, even after it’s become very, very meta.) Not sure what it this is–and even if it’s bad per se–just doesn’t feel like journalism.
Exhibit 2 is a piece from BBC Social Media Editor Mark on the BBC Academy Blog, “#Paris: UGC expertise can no longer be a niche newsroom skill” that raises lots of interesting points. Underscores the reality that social media/user generated content sources are now not just part of the reporter’s job but often most of it, with challenges about verification, and just stomaching what you see in your feeds. (We’ve come a long way from checking the AP and UPI wires instead of writing your story.)
“But how much time and resource can we afford to spend on uncovering the truth? Are we as invested in the search and verification tools as we are in training our staff across newsrooms to appreciate and understand the risks of UGC fakery? And finally, perhaps most importantly, do we have enough safeguards in place to help those who work with UGC on a regular basis cope with the distressing and disturbing material they see?”
Finally, The NYTimes profiles its most prolific commenters.
“These frequent commenters have also become a community, one that has its own luminaries.
“But who are they? We decided to take a look at some of the most popular commenters on The Times site, which receives around 9,000 online comments a day.”
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Network scientists at Indiana University have developed a new computational method that can leverage any body of knowledge to aid in the complex human task of fact-checking.
As a former professional fact checker, I smiled a bit at their “complex human task” description. Sometimes, but many facts you check for publication in a daily newspaper, for instance, people’s names, titles, addresses, spelling, dates, quotations, are pretty straightforward and sources are fairly structured etc. If you think about the sources as in one part of the network, and the query in another, it’s basically a (geometric) math problem. So makes complete sense that an algorithmic approach could, in principle, do this work, and following paths to explore where the fact “lives,” and if it can be located in multiple sources, with different axes to grind, is what a resourceful fact checker will do–computer or human.
I wonder what is next for these researchers, and I hope it involves not just checking facts fed in but also finding a way to determine what facts (and biases) in a document need to be checked. Although there is often misinformation at the root of factual errors, more pernicious and harder to automate is smoking out persistent bias, a problem of sense-making, in which true facts are nonetheless marshaled to dubious or faulty ends, or less balefully, just not applicable to the question at hand. (Insert old pirates and global warming joke here.) If such tests were computerizable it might end, or at least put a dent in blog commenting as we know it. Not a bad outcome. Fact checking is also a notoriously unoptimized activity, at least when done by humans. The more obscure the fact, and honestly, the less relevant, the more heroic and inefficient the quest (microfilm anybody?). That works for sleuthing in the stacks for that telling citation, but on the web, bad facts spread like wildfire, and catching them fast and correcting them decisively would be a real service.
Complications abound with such “online community beats:” real names are rare, verifiable sources likewise, and the details can often only be checked against the comments of other people in the same world. But, in the case of the Nonetheless, in the case of the gay marriage canvassing story, the PoliSciRumors.com community did raise doubts about the data long before it unraveled more publicly. I suppose a modern day Woodward & Bernstein team wouldn’t be meeting in a parking garage, but in a chat room in TOR!
The next bite, “fact checking, are you doing it at all?” comes from the science journalist (and inventor of dance your PhD thesis!) John Bohannon, who explains that results from his fake study linking chocolate to weight loss was an all too easy sell to the media, who didn’t bother to sniff out that the results (and the publication they appeared in) were rubbish. From his lively explanation at io9:
Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result. Our study included 18 different measurements—weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, sleep quality, well-being, etc.—from 15 people. (One subject was dropped.) That study design is a recipe for false positives.
It was a perfect storm of problems: p-values, a very small n, and then to top it off a “pay to play” journal that published it two weeks after submission, without changing a word, and for the low low cost of 600 Euros.
The experiment was craptastic, but the news coverage was a dream. And are now his “results” are probably part of the corpus of facts that the IU researchers’ computers have to untangle. Maybe they will factor in the questions from commentators, who, unlike professional journalists raised questions.
And as a bonus, Priceonomics has a timely entry about scientific retractions, with the point that the increase in number is possibly due to better policing than to an epidemic of cheating (although that remains a possibility).
Q: Can you describe how the fact checking was conducted for this series? Did you use a checklist? A spreadsheet? A particular process?
A: We had a multi-pronged approach. We generated a list of every factual statement (not actual copy) from the main stories and sent it to state officials, who used investigators and PIOs to verify the information. This was critical since a portion of our reporting featured narratives rebuilt from disjointed case records. We also sampled a percentage of our hand-built database and determined an error rate, which was really low. We made those error fixes, and re-sampled another portion, which held up. For accuracy in [Borns’] writing, we extracted facts from her project’s main story and made a Google spreadsheet for the team, using it to log verification of each fact, the source, the person checking and a note when a change was made to the draft.
Q: In the fact checking of this series, were there any lessons learned that will be used at the News Leader in the future, or could be replicated at other news organizations?
A: I hope so. We tried two new ideas I liked: war room Fridays and a black hat review.
For the Friday sessions, we took over a conference room and brought in reporters not connected to the project. On one Friday, for example, our government reporter spent the day checking story drafts against state records.
For the “black hat” review, borrowed from the software development industry, we took turns playing a critic’s role, peppering ourselves in a hostile interview about process, sources and conclusions. It gave us actionable information to improve the content before it published.
There is so much yammer about computational journalism (much of it hype to my old-school ears), but this example of using both old-fashioned and computer approaches to fact check the work of journalism seems to me a lot more valid that trawling the data for “news” and then reporting it even if specious or trivial. I particularly like the image of “black hat” fact checkers. In cybersecurity, it seems you call (at least some of) these Pen Testers.
Over years of steady (if part-time) work as a music journalist and as program annotator, I’ve read a lot of résumés, bio-sketches, programs, web sites etc. for classical musicians. They are sometimes, even often, a bit of a mess, felled by typographical errors, out of date copy, fuzzy writing, and unusable visual or other resources.
They don’t do the job of presenting the artist in a clear, engaging way, and certainly don’t help the harried program note preparer or music critic find a needed fact and get on with it.
In the spirit of helping (with what is admittedly one of the world’s less pressing problems) here are some tips on improving editorial materials for classical artists (with singers in mind specifically).
1. Establish a set of consistent, and easily updated editorial materials and keep them fresh. Go for quality over quantity, both for your sake and those of your readers. I would recommend a résumé, and at most a bio in two flavors, short and long. Be strategic about the way the bio is written: build it out in modular sections that can be swapped out and supplemented when there are new things to add, rather than requiring a redo from scratch.
2. Keep track of versions of documents by clearly naming and dating them (in both the file name and inside the doc). A file naming convention is good, for instance Violetta_Valery_Bio_Short_11_14_14.docx. Note the filename, author of the doc and important details right in the document as well.
3. Make it as easy as possible for all involved to tell at a glance whether materials are up to date and what to do if they aren’t. Nothing wastes time (and annoys editors) like trying to determine which of 3 or 4 different versions of bios flying around as email attachments should be used for a program. One approach is to write something like “Violetta Valery’s s bio was last updated 11/17/14. Please check, http://www.allaboutvioletta.com for the latest version). Alternately, you can just say something like this, “This biography valid for the 2014-2015 season only, see the web site for more info” and make a point to do an annual update. Importantly, if you have doubts about your ability to keep the web site up, be realistic with yourself, and don’t set up expectations you can’t meet.
4. Avoid excessive revision. Good: an opera singer slightly reworking a bio to emphasize her achievements in song as she prepares to make her debut in a distinguished lieder series. Bad, completely rewriting a bio because you got cast as the cover Marullo for a big opera company. Also, while it’s reasonable to present the best possible take on your background, don’t lie and don’t inflate. Singing “Ines” in a volunteer performance of Trovatore at Una Volta Opera Company of West Pitchfork, Montana, is all well and good, but does not a major credit make. Arts editors and presenters are savvy readers and can generally read through pad and discern what credits actually mean for the career in question. Don’t oversell or undersell yourself.
5. Choose and abide by a consistent copy-editing style. This is simple to describe although not so simple to do. It means applying consistent rules for things like the capitalization of titles, names of composers, working with foreign terms, abbreviations, etc. Style guides also specify which choice should be made when several options are acceptable (form of titles, writing out numbers, certain spellings, use of the serial comma, the way sources should be cited etc.) Newspapers frequently use the Associated Press Style Book. Academe typically uses a style guide specific to the discipline or the big kahuna of style guides, The Chicago Manual of Style. None of these is targeted to the needs of practicing performing artists and presenters (as far as I know, there is not a resource tailored to this task). If that’s all too much for you, just make sensible rules for yourself and follow them. (Keep track somewhere of your decisions.)
6. Set reasonable expectations of yourself and enlist others to help. If writing and updating these materials is not a strength, don’t sweat it. There is probably an English major in your life who would be happy to help. I’ve flirted with the idea of starting a service to help with this–although in truth, I’m not much of a copyeditor. (Extra points to readers if they can spot all of the inconsistencies and other errors in this post!) Professional writers at all levels have editors, so it’s certainly no shame to ask for help on your materials.
6. Provide a range of photographs in usable formats. Print requires higher resolution photos (300 dpi or greater is preferable) and for a large photo, this may make it inconvenient for emailing. Provide a print and digital-friendly format of key photos (again, don’t go overboard) on your site for download (or in a cloud resource). Provide a caption and a photo credit, and explain any restrictions on use. Make other media (audio clips, video) as easy to use as possible (for instance, making sure it can be embedded).
7. Abide by copyright and other IP requirements. Don’t use materials without permission and don’t put your presenters in the position of inadvertently using copyrighted materials unlawfully. Just because it’s on the web and can be downloaded, doesn’t mean it’s okay to use in your press kit or materials you submit for a program. Also, “fair use,” is a complicated issue, in that it is a decision that is dependent on a number of relative factors, one of which being whether there is any commercial interest involved. Given that marketing and promotion are implicit in a singer’s biographical and other materials, there is a risk in assuming that material could be used on a fair use basis automatically.
7. Be on time and responsive. There are a lot of things to juggle for artists, god knows, but stay on top of this, and don’t let the line go dead on this topic. Many presenters and program editors pull their hair out waiting for long-requested materials, or holding a spot to accommodate a program change or bio update. Playbill–and most other publications–fine presenters for late material, and, of course, late changes breed opportunities for errors. Managing things in a timely fashion will be enormously appreciated, as will be being forthright when problems come up. A practical example: if you can’t get a program note you had hoped to write done in time, call and explain yourself. That will give enough time to consider a “plan B” (for instance, doing a Q&A on the program that can be pulled together in two days). Just hiding in a bunker and not answering email for two weeks risks making a minor glitch into a major hassle.
Your editorial materials are not the most important part of your tasks, certainly, but handle them professionally from the get go and they’ll add polish to your presentation, save everybody some time and headaches, and might even open some unexpected doors.