Thursday, 29 August 2019

Poor writing by the media

This post deals mainly with examples of things like poor written expression, incorrect use of punctuation, and bad grammar by the media in Australia on social media and on websites. Sampling started on 29 July and ran until 28 August, in other words this survey went for a calendar month. These are just the ones that I caught myself. Others will have seen different errors in their social media feeds and on the web pages of their favourite media outlets. I limited my sample to the media because I think that different standards should apply to them. Errors visible in remarks made online by people in the broader community are, of course, far more common.

I think that what follows can serve as a comment on the decline in the news workplace of the subeditor; you don’t see the same problem on web pages published by bigger, better-funded outlets like the NY Times or the New Yorker. In such places, to ensure a consistent and high-quality product, there are enough people checking the copy as it is produced. Subs were among the first to go when revenues of news organisations started to take a dive about 15 years ago. What you see here is the result of a major change in economic circumstances for the news. In the end what was remarkable for me, however, was the fact that I didn’t find more problems.

In some cases the very meaning of the article you are reading is so badly distorted by the errors that are present in the text that, when reading, you can’t really understand what the journalist was trying to say. This type of error is in the minority – most of the errors aren't as egregious as this – but it still happens from time to time.

There are 25 individual errors in this post and I have categorised them for the convenience of readers, starting with the most serious offences and continuing down to the least serious. In the most serious categories (the first three categories listed) there are eight errors, with the rest of the errors I caught being relatively minor in nature. The categories are:
  • Errors of fact
  • Incorrect word choice
  • Missing word
  • Wrong preposition
  • Spelling errors
  • Errors in punctuation
  • Lack of agreement
Errors of fact

On 30 July in the evening a headline appeared on the front page of the SMH website saying, “Paintings ‘seemed to disappear’ within months of artist John Olsen’s death.” In actual fact it had been the wife of John Olsen who had died, not the artist himself. I tweeted to the SMH Twitter account, “John Olsen hasn't died ...” and the headline on the website changed to, “Paintings ‘seemed to disappear’ within months of John Olsen wife’s death.” It seems as though close enough is good enough in many cases.

Incorrect word choice

On 8 August the Age published a story headlined, “Massive warehouses filled with recyclable materials that no one wants,” that contained the following: “’One of them is twice the size of this shed,’ says Whitington, standing in the 14,500 square metre warehouse, in front of massive bails of recyclable material, with scores of flies buzzing around her.” It’s “bales”, not “bails” (which are the things that go on top of the stumps at cricket matches).

On 26 August at 7.04am an account I follow with almost 20,000 followers tweeted a link to a story from the New Daily, a Sydney-based online media outlet. It read, “Worst night of violence as Hong Kong police draw guns and water cannon.” This puzzled me as it wasn’t clear to me how you would go about drawing a water cannon from a holster on your belt. It might have been better if the tweet has said, “draw guns and use water cannon.”

On 26 August at 6.44pm the Guardian’s Lisa Martin tweeted, “Qantas to face renewed pressure at its next annual general meeting over forced deportations of asylum seekers. A US investment firm is throwing its wait behind call for human rights risk review.” It should be “weight”. I saw the tweet two days later because it had been retweeted.

Missing word

On 24 August at 5.45pm the Independent, a UK newspaper, tweeted, “Man accused of raping, murdering and eating parts of ex-girlfriend's body ends granted mistrial.” The text should have read, “Trial of man accused accused of raping, murdering and eating parts of ex-girlfriend ends, with him granted a mistrial”.

On 25 August a New York Times story titled ‘ Trump Allies Target Journalists Over Coverage Deemed Hostile to White House’ appeared on the company’s website. It contained the following paragraph: “’They are seeking to harass and embarrass anyone affiliated with the leading news organizations that are asking tough questions and bringing uncomfortable truths to light,’ [A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the newspaper,] said. ‘The goal of this campaign is clearly to intimidate journalists from doing their job, which includes serving as a check on power and exposing wrongdoing when it occurs. The Times will not be intimidated or silenced.’” The correct expression would have been to say, “to intimidate journalists and stop them from doing their job.” Admittedly this was an instance in spoken language, and so was not, strictly, in written form until it was transcribed to use in the story. I include it anyway as Sulzberger is the owner of the paper and certainly should know better than to make this kind of rookie error.

On 26 August the Sydney Morning Herald put up a story about the Parramatta light rail line that contained the following paragraph: “The party's transport spokesman, Chris Minns, said the government had been ‘ducking and weaving’ on its commitment to build the second stage because it did want to admit that it was not funded.” The second “not” was omitted from the sentence, making the meaning all but opaque to a reader who was not paying close attention.

On 27 August at 5.44am, the ABC News account tweeted, “Centrelink seizes tax return of robodebt recipient in what may breach policy.” They probably meant to say, “in way that may breach policy,” but it wasn’t clear.

Wrong preposition

On 5 August at 6.50am Al Jazeera’s English language account tweeted, “India imposes lockdown in Kashmir, suspends mobile internet and puts leaders on house arrest.” They meant to say “under arrest”.

On 6 August at 9am the Sydney Morning Herald Twitter account tweeted, “NBA basketballer Ben Simmons appears to have suggested he was racially profiled when he was denied entry from Melbourne's Crown casino last night.” They meant to say “to” but made a mistake.

On 7 August at 5.55pm I saw a headline on the Sydney Morning Herald home page saying, “CBA puts $100m down payment in Afterpay rival.” They meant to use the conjunction “on”. The story was about an investment that the country’s biggest bank had made in a lay-by (“buy now, pay later”) firm named Klarna. The Swedish firm has a number of other investors as well.

On 10 August on the SMH website an article kicker read, “Australia Post and Qantas have signed a new deal to keep up with Australia's love for online shopping.” It should, of course, be “love of” not “for”.

On 15 August Michael Scherer, the Washington Post national political reporter, tweeted at 10.17am, “In 1939, 20,000 Americans rallied in New York's Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism -- an event largely forgotten from U.S. history.” The correct preposition was “in” as in “largely forgotten in US history”.

On 16 August a story on the SMH web page about the tunnels being made under Sydney’s CBD for the new Metro train lines included this paragraph, “Named Nancy, it is one of five giant boring machines churning away to form twin 15.5-kilometre rail tunnels stretching from Chatswood in the north, under Sydney Harbour to Pitt Street station and three others in the CBD, and onto Sydenham in the south.” It should, of course, read “and on to Sydenham in the south”.

On 27 August at 7.28am Carla Marinucci, a journalist with the California news outlet Politico, tweeted, “California Supreme Court backs greater access to police misconduct cases.” The correct conjunction was “in”, not “to”.

On 27 August at 7.30am the Age’s Twitter account said, “Racism remains widespread in Australia's primary and secondary schools, with discrimination coming from both students and teachers, ANU researchers find.” Better expression in this case would have had: “… with discrimination by both students and teachers.”

Spelling errors

On 4 August in the late afternoon a headline appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald website: “Hatred of migrants, support for Christchurch: Hate-filled manifesto linked to Texax [sic] massacre.”

On 16 August at 8.25am Neil McMahon, who writes the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Q and A’ rundowns for publication on Tuesday mornings, tweeted, “The first breakfast TV show host in history to quote Nabakov in her farewell? This is lovely.” He misspelled the Russian-American writer’s name (it’s “Nabokov”) and I sent him a comment to this effect but he didn’t respond.

On 20 August a story in the Sydney Morning Herald written by two doctors had the following sentence: “There are so many myths about birth order, so much that the decision whether or not to have a second (or third, or fourth) child can be a vexxed one.” “Vexxed”? I thought to myself. Is this a word like “doxxing” that belongs to the Millennial generation? Admittedly the story wasn’t written by a journalist, but the Herald’s subeditors should have picked up the error.

On 27 August at 2.33pm Yahoo Finance Australia’s account tweeted, “@HonJulieBishop taken aim at Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Boris Johnson over their self-interested style of leadership.” The meaning would have been properly conveyed with the word “taking”.

On 27 August the Sydney Morning Herald put up a story on its website about vlogger PewDiePie that contained this sentence, “By then, his figures had experienced a wild boost – he'd actually racked up more subscribers in the last months of 2018 then he did through all of 2017.” It should be “than”, not “then”.

Errors in punctuation

At 5.14pm on 29 July a journalist with the Guardian in Sydney tweeted, “Text ya friends, see whose keen.” The tweet was in relation to an announcement that he book, a novel, would be released in the UK in the near future. The correct word to use of course is “who’s”, not “whose”.

At 5.28pm on 29 July Business Insider Australia tweeted from its account, “Australians are flocking to Victoria and its got the best economy in the country as a result – here’s how the other states stack up.” The correct expression of course is not “its got the best” but “it’s got the best”. In this case, “it’s” means “it has”.

On 12 August the kicker for a story on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald read, “Financial comfort among working Australians dropped the sharpest with full and part-time workers all registering sizeable declines, new figures show.” It should, have read, of course, “Full- and part-time.” This is a relatively tough one for a proofreader to produce but it seems completely logical tome.

Lack of agreement

Later on 12 August the Guardian’s Dave Earley tweeted, “All departure from #HongKong airport have been cancelled.” He meant to write, “All departures … have been cancelled.”

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