Saturday, August 14, 2010

BBC Apostrophe 'A Cheap Cop-Out'

Hear ye, hear ye: Unto us a young hippo is born!

Verily, a Happy Little Hippo. Which goes some way towards explaining why we have not been posting, and also why this is going to be a short post.

The emergence of a next generation always tends to put all experiences into perspective. Also, in very real terms, we realize that this mudflat is doomed; thus, we are biased as to posting comments on the world in general and the world of security policy specifically that might be read, if not by anyone now, then possibly 25 years hence by a bright young lady in the throes of a struggle with her parents, in a world much worse than the present one.

Having framed the matter in terms of generations and eons to come, it seems frivolous now to comment on punctuation. Nevertheless, on this Friday night of our Lord 2010, I would like to say why I am bothered by quotation marks in headlines, especially RSS feeds. First, some examples, all culled from the BBC:

Writing headlines is a difficult and delicate matter, subject to the dictate of pithiness - accuracy and brevity. Not everybody can do it. Nevertheless, we would like to think that the legions of highly trained hacks at the Beeb would be the masters of this art. Not so.

There are basically three reasons for placing apostrophes in a news headline. The first is when the headline consists of a direct, highly relevant quote by somebody cited in the article (Defense Minister: Trident 'Not Needed'). The second is when the information cited in the headline is attributed to a source considered unreliable, and the authors wish to distance themselves from the claims stated therein (Iraq Had 'Flying Saucers', Said Curveball). The third is when the author chooses to highlight a specific phrase used by somebody in the article because the wording, rather than the substance, of the citation is highly unusual (British Economy 'Fucked', Says UK Treasury). Let us consider the examples cited above - all picked at random on a slow Friday news night in the midst of a summer slump on 13 August 2010. They account for eight out of 27 headlines tonight, just under 30% of the top RSS feeds on the BBC website.

The first, Germany in 'record' 2.2% growth, refers to the latest GDP figures in the German economy, based on official figures. Why the quotation marks? When we look at the article in question, we see that the stats are attributed "to the national statistics office, Destatis". Destatis is the Deutsches Statistisches Bundesamt, or the German Federal Office of Statistics, so the source is prima facie a credible authority. Is the author questioning the legitimacy of the source? If so, we are not told so, or why.

The second headline is Plea for 'blood diamonds' return. One might think that the author disagrees with the term "blood diamond" or wishes to make clear that this is a non-scientific term. Such a view would seem to be supported by the fact that the phrase is once again placed in quotation marks in the article itself:
The war crimes trial of Liberian ex-President Charles Taylor has heard claims he gave [supermodel Naomi Campbell] "blood diamonds" thought to originate in Sierra Leone.
But why use the quotation marks in the headline? The term itself has entered common parlance, and if anywhere, a condensed headline would be the appropriate place to use it without punctuation, while the body of the text could make clear that questions remain over the assertion that the diamonds were given to Campbell. The term blood diamonds per se is uncontested. Further complicating matters, the headline should have a possessive plural apostrophe (diamonds' return). Did a junior copy editor make a mistake here?

Headline number three is a simple cop-out: Israeli 'agent' freed in Germany. The BBC has so far not made up its mind, and failed to research, whether the person in question is an agent or not. Some say yes, others say no: how would the Beeb know? This would be fair enough if the story were breaking news and all other news outlets apart from the one that published the scoop were following up on the first report. But the Dubai assassination story has been public knowledge since January of this year. Should the BBC not at this point have determined whether or not there is any substance to the "agent" angle of this story? Also, if we are giving Israel the benefit of the doubt in this report, why not say 'Israeli agent' rather than Israeli 'agent'? It's a small, but essential difference.

The next headline is simply a lame attempt at humour, with "good show" being a direct quote attributed to the BAA...
John Mason from the British Astronomical Association (BAA) told BBC News: "Weather-permitting, we should be in for a very good show across the UK.
... as well as a common phrase suggesting gentlemen at the races at Ascot or at a pugilistic competition under the Marquess of Queensberry's rules. "Good show, old boy," indeed, but the implied bathos does not do the story, or the BBC, justice; that is, unless Pimm's and strawberries with cream be served during observation of the Perseid shower.

Iraq 'not ready' for US pull-out is a difficult one. On the one hand, this story is based on a specific accusation of coitus interruptus made by an Iraqi general, as the full headline (Iraqi general says planned US troop pull-out 'too soon') on the BBC website makes clear. However, the story again fails to take a stance on what is actually happening in Iraq. All three subheaders in the story also have quotation marks, seemingly absolving the unnamed reporter of the responsibility to establish the truth for the benefit of his/her readers:
Security 'void'
(according to Iraqi top army officer
Lt Gen Babaker Zebari)

'Significant improvements'
(according to US Gen Ray Odierno)

'Wrong signals'
(according to Faleh Abdul-Jabbar, the director of the Baghdad-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies).

Who is right? Well, the BBC won't tell you.

Even more ridiculous, misleading, and uninformative is the headline Iran stoning woman 'confesses'. Here, the quotation marks serve as a "wink, wink" to the reader, so that the BBC journalist can infer, without saying it in so many words, that the confession was obtained under duress. But apparently it is too much to ask for the journalist to stake out a position on whether or not the confession - sorry, 'confession' - was legitimate. Most laughable is this section:
The woman, whose face was pixelated, admitted her part in the 2005 killing, despite Ms Ashtiani having earlier told Western media that she had been acquitted of the charge.
The accompanying footage shows a pixelated person (woman?) wearing a chador, speaking in Azeri, dubbed into Persian, allegedly confessing complicity in her husband's killing. Also, the accused (who may or may not be the person in the video) has since reportedly denied any part in the murder; she now accuses her lawyer, who has fled to Norway, of releasing the video against her wishes; she now may be hanged, according to the report, which further calls into question the already outrageously stupid epithet Iran stoning woman. Thus, considering all the uncertainties involved here, a slightly less misleading headline might be 'Iranian' 'woman' 'retracts' 'confession'.

Did I say this was going to be a short post? Let's leave the other headlines for now and conclude that the quotation mark is grotesquely misused by the BBC and other news outlets (yes, I'm looking at you, Guardian: Gulf oil spill 'may be over' and Telegraph 'Dead girl' [i.e., not-dead girl] sparks panic after photographed lying down). First of all, journalists: Do your job and research what happened. Then tell us what really transpired, not what somebody may have said or thought they had seen. Is that too much to ask? Thanks.

UPDATE: While I was writing this, the BBC outdid itself with this cretinous headline: Obama backs 'Ground Zero mosque'. Referring to Obama's backing for religious freedom, in the case of the not-exactly-mosque, to be built on the hallowed ground of the former Burlington Coat Factory. Thanks for pointing that out, Beeb!

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