Friday, 14 November 2008


I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but the BBC love their quotation marks in article titles on the website, and it still annoys me on a fairly regular basis. I may be wrong, but it seems to me like quotation marks around a word or phrase when used in a news article should be direct quotes, and should be relevant to the article. So these two recent examples annoyed me:

'Secret' Obama code name revealed. Given that the first line of the story describes the code names as "not-so-secret", and the only time the word secret is used in a direct quote in the article is when the secret service says of the code names that: "There's nothing top secret about them", why in the headline of the article is the word secret used in quotes. No one seems to be describing the codes as secret except for the journalist writing the article. While it could be argued that the article isn't a serious piece of news, and is more human interest than anything else, I worry that quotation marks are able to be used without source and in a way that opposes the information in the rest of the article.

Shannon accused 'is a bit creepy'. This article about the trial of those accused of the kidnap of Shannon Matthews is a little bit more worrying. In the first line of the article we have the line:

The niece of the man accused of kidnapping Shannon Matthews said her uncle was a fantasist and a "bit creepy".

But later in the article we have the actual courtroom exchange:

Ms Meehan was asked by Frances Oldham, QC for Ms Matthews, if she agreed with the description that her uncle was "a loner, a strange character, a bit creepy and a fantasist".

She replied: "Yes".

So, no only is the first line misleading, since the niece did not actually say the things that are being claimed, and merely agreed with them, but the quoted text in the headline is again not verifiable as a direct quote, since nowhere in the article does anybody use the phrase 'is a bit creepy'.

Again, maybe I'm nitpicking here, but I would expect news reports in general, and those from the BBC in particular to be a little more careful about the quotations they use. If a quote is used in a headline (which may be the only information seen by large numbers of readers), it seems as though that quote should be reliably sourced and reproduced within the article. There are many more examples of this, such as this article about Osama bin Ladin's whereabouts, in which the headline quote is not attributed or reproduced. Without knowing more about the rules that journalists are under, clearly I can't say much of substance, but to me this kind of quotation practice seems at best disingenuous and at worst outright misleading.


Hanspan said...

With the first example, I think you may have misunderstood the intention. I think they are writing "secret" in the way people say it and then do that gesture with their fingers that leads you to realise they mean the opposite of what they are saying. In short, I think the headline writer is using the quotes to try to convey the fact that these codenames are the very opposite of secret.

With the second article, no one uses the phrase "is a bit creepy" but they as good as do this, If you cut out the middle section of the quote, you get: "did she agree her uncle *was* a bit creepy?" Was is the past conjugation of is and though the reportage is in the past tense, the question in the courtroom could well have been in the present tense. But news is written in the past tense, as it's a report of things that have happened.

Whether someone agreeing with a statement is the same as them actively saying it is an argument you could have until the cows come home. But I think this flipping around of quotes is something a lot of journalists do because it makes it easier to convey the most interesting information. I would say it's to be avoided if possible because there is potential for ambiguity, but if she agrees with the opinion, the article is not flat out telling you that she holds an opinion she doesn't, even if she didn't articulate it herself.

As for the third one... I have no explanation for that at all. Unless that quote was included in the original piece and edited out.

It's also worth saying that it may well be that whoever writes the copy doesn't necessarily write the headlines. I certainly don't write *any* of the headlines for my pieces, but editorial process on the BBC website may well be different.

TheTelf said...

It crossed my mind that the "secret" might be in "air quotes", but it seems odd that it would be, given that it's not obvious (to me) and also that it doesn't seem like anyone is claiming they are secret. It'd be like greeting someone's death by having the headline: '"Immortal" man dead at 87', even if no one ever claimed he was immortal. It still seems odd and potentially misleading to me.

With the second article, you say "the article is not flat out telling you that she holds an opinion she doesn't", which may or may not be true (how could we ever know?), but it is surely quoting her incorrectly when it says:

The niece of the man accused of kidnapping Shannon Matthews said her uncle was a fantasist and a "bit creepy", Leeds Crown Court has heard.

She didn't say that. You can argue all you want about journalistic style and artistic license, but the fact is, she didn't say the words that are being quoted as hers (at least, as far as we can tell without a full transcript).

And if your conjugation explaination is correct, then again, I'd expect it to be quoted as: "[is]... a bit creepy". Again, I don't know what the quotation rules are, but that's the way I've always seen it presented when paraphrasing (even just conjugationally) and removing words. Perhaps there are not particular standards to follow, but, again, it seems odd to me that quotes can be changed at will like that.

And on your last point, it's always seemed bizarre to me that journalists don't necessarily have a say in what the headline over their writing is.

Hanspan said...

The air quotes was the first meaning I thought of... these things are subjective, it's possible it was just a joke that you didn't get. Not meaning that you're silly, just that people's minds work differently.

The article in its entirety doesn't claim that she made the statement. Yes, it does so in its opening paragraphs and headline, but if you read the whole thing, it makes the context clear. I doubt that satisfies you, but taken as a piece of work, I don't think it is as misleading as you say it is, though this view is of course reliant on people bothering to read the whole thing...

Reporters and subs don't always use [these brackets]. They are technically correct, but some people think they are visually obtrusive. The general rule of thumb seems to be that as long as you are not changing the meaning of what was said, they don't have to be used. And in this case, where you're only changing the tense of a verb to fit in with reported style, I don't think you could make a particularly strong case for keeping them in. However, they could always get round that problem by shifting the quote marks along one word...

It's because we don't have anything to do with layout. Headlines are written to fit a space. Most papers work to template for each page and headlines will generally be no longer than two lines, with a specific font of a set size. Sub editors, who work with layout all the time, will have a much clearer idea of what words will fill what space than reporters. And the demarcation of responsibility in this area is so entrenched it's considered something of an affront to suggest a headline to a sub-editor. You don't do it, not seriously anyway.