Wednesday, April 22, 2009

International news, indispensable or negligible?

To this day, I find the question “Is international news important?” that many Americans ask really difficult to answer.

As a Chinese, I want my country to be known better by other parts of the world, so I surely answer “yes.” As a person having some experience of journalism, I know being a foreign correspondent is fun, exciting, though possibly dangerous. But if I were an ordinary
American, would I care so much about international news? I don’t know.

I pay a lot of attention to international news. But Chinese are generally politics-minded. We have a saying, “each civilian needs to shoulder the responsibility of the world’s rise and fall.” Even though we cannot play a role in world politics, we like to understand it and talk about it.

However, many Americans are much less concerned about the rest of the world, if they are interested in it at all. One guest speaker at our Issue class offended some international students by her remarks “we don’t need international news to survive.” But we have to admit that
in many cases there is an element of truth in this statement. Even though hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar died in last year’s deadly cyclone, and protesters against G-20 summit beleaguered Royal Bank, people here live the same lives, not in the slightest affected by these pieces of news.

But in other cases, international news has more to do with people’s life than did before, as the world becomes smaller because of technological development and globalization. A suspicious rocket launch in as far away as North Korea might threaten Americans’ lives. Tainted Chinese-made pet food might find its way in an American home. We are no longer foot-bound in one place. The whole world is internally connected. You are better off if you are better informed.

The thing is, international reporting has the biggest budget yet the smallest number of readers, thus smallest revenue. At the time when traditional media are in crisis, it takes the biggest blame. Everything just has to go down to business and be calculated.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Lost in Translation-- foreign quotes and sources in journalism

Today the lecture talked about quotes in journalism. I don't really want to spend too much time discussing whether quotes should be kept verbatim despite grammatical mistakes and fragmented sentences. To me, there is no doubt about cleaning up quotes. Language fillers such as "you know" and "uh", and grammatical mistakes do not mean anything substantial. Fixing these does not alter the meaning of the quote at all. Unless they reflect the source's character that is essential to the story, they should be left out for the good of both readers and the source.

But this reminds me of one thing: when it comes to a foreign language speaker, do not take the quote at its face value. It might be altered during the process of translation with or without anyone's intention.

When I worked as an intern with L.A.Times' Beijing office, my job is more like that of a fixer--to help the reporters there, who does not know much Chinese language or the society undergoing changes, understand better. A big part of the job is to help them interview Chinese sources.

Once, the bureau chief was doing a story on Chinese government's newly enforced ban on plastic bags in supermarkets nationwide. Over the phone, the Chinese scholar on environmental protection wanted to say that the new ban on such a large scale is too rash and unrealistic. He used a Chinese idom which sounds similar to an English word that I've learned, "horseback", which means “made or given in a casual or speculative way; approximate or offhand”(Random House Dictionary). So when I translated this sentence, I said that this is a horseback decision. But perhaps the word is not widely used in this way. The bureau chief asked me, "what decision again?" "Horseback." "Does he mean that it is like jumping onto the bandwagon?"But back then, I did not know what this idiom means. Meantime the scholar was waiting at the other end of the line for me to finish translating this part so that he could go on. I did not have time to think twice, so I simply assumed this paraphrase was correct and said "yes." Later on, I realized that I actually changed the meaninng of the quote with no "actual malice," but that was after it came to print.

On another occasion, the bureau chief wanted to do a story about Taiwan's offering ridiculously big amounts of money to swing nations such as Honduras and El Salvador in order to establish diplomatic relations with them and win support in the United Nations. The Taiwanese scholar that we interviewed through telephone said this foreign policy is nicknamed "kaizi" diplomacy. Kaizi in Chinese means a man who constantly gives money in large amount to women that he is attracted, hoping to please them and get something in return, but gets duped. In that instant, the only simlar expression in English that I could come up with is "sugar daddy," which has the "giving money or gifts to women for favors in return" part, but does not have the "getting duped" part of meaning as "kaizi" does. The reporter used my translation "sugar daddy" anyway, since he doesn't understand Chinese and couldn't tell what was missing in the translation.

So next time when you come across a non-English speaker being quoted in a news story, you should be aware that maybe the quote is not exactly what he said. Maybe the degree of the emotion is exaggerated or understated; maybe the translator would miss something when taking notes; maybe the translator filters what is said by the source deliberately; maybe he would simply use expression mistakenly like I did. These happen quite often even though the reporter or the editor has no slightest intention to fix or alter quotes; they don't even know what is going on during the process of translation. And that is inevitable because of the translator's insufficient English skills, lack of a proofreader, or the untranslatable expression.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Headline writing for online

Before the two labs this week, I was barely bothered by the differences between the headlines in print and their online versions. I regarded online journalism as simply pulling what is to go in print onto the web ahead of press time. The layout is a bit different, as I have noticed, but I believe that is because news web sites allow much more space than the actual newspaper pages so that photojournalists and writers who are protective of their brain-children do not have to cut to fit the pages. I did notice the headlines online seldom match their print counterparts, but I thought the straightforward, less-of-a-wordplay web version is due to the rush, while editors can come up with an elaborate print version, often brimming with irony and pun, by press time.

Now I know writing headlines for online is no easy task. Even though editors are spared racking their brains for witty wording, they are expected to cram as many as key words into a headline nine words long to open up all sorts of search possibilities. As Professor Follis put it, writing online is "information science" rather than "poetry."

We had an in-class exercise today. We formed in groups of four or five and each of the group members wrote headlines for five stories that were considered top news of the day within consensus. I volunteered to be on the international news group. I considered international news my edge. But sadly, my English is not.

The maximum of nine words is not that much, even though word length did not matter in this drill. If you have both "Khmer Rough" and "Cambodia genocide", then you have to juggle the rest five words at most to both tell the main idea and make it sound good. I also had to reckon what search terms might interested audience use. Will they term what North Korea is going to launch "rocket" or "satellite?" Is it appropriate to use the term "missile" now that everything is in question before the actual launch? What also bothered me was that the primitive headlines that AP provided sound quite right for online. With a not-bad headline readily available, I felt like doing some minor change rather than coming up with a completely different one by myself.

See what I got in the end:
1, World leaders talk about economy at G-20, making little progress.
2, North Korea threatens to down U.S. spy planes if obstructed.
3, 17 killed in suicide bombing in Afghanistan by Taliban.
4, Khmer Rouge defendant in Cambodia genecide requests separate shelter.
5, French workers protesting job cuts free Caterpillar bosses.

Here is a list of the final version our team picked or collaborated on:
1, Obama talks world economy, nuclear arms at G-20.
2, North Korea threatens U.S., Japan over rocket.
3, 17 killed by Taliban in Afghan suicide bombing.
4, Former Khmer Rouge leader's genocide trial begins.
5, Facing layoffs, French Caterpillar workers release captive bosses.

I have a long way to go. The problem with my first one is not a matter of headline writing. There are simply more than one G-20 story in recent days and I wrote for the wrong one. But looking at the rest four, I can see my problems in each headline are:

Number 2 included not enough key words. The final version has "Japan" and "rocket," the root of the issue, even though I personally think "satellite" is better, as it is the official wording.

Number 3 has the problem of wordiness. I got two "in"s. "Afghan" is shorter and less repetitive than "in Afghanistan" to describe the location.

Number 4 shows my laziness. I simply made some change to the original AP headline "Khmer Rough defendant seeks change of detention" without even looking closely at the story, therefore I missed the key point, which is "trial begins."

Number 5 is might has some logical problem. Readers might wonder what "protesting job cuts" has to do with "free bosses," even though I wanted to tell the purpose of detaining the bosses this way. The final version is better since it shows both the fact that some bosses are apprehended, and the reason of setting them free, despite that readers have to look for inside the story what was the cause of the detention. Well, the apprenhension is old news while the release is the latest. I had better leave out the cause of apprehension in exchange for the cause of release than the other way around.

Practice! Practice! Practice!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Foul language in journalism

This week, the lecture part of JOUR 420 talked about use of language in journalism.

It was actually a very interesting lecture, as I learned so much more dirty words and expressions than ever. I did not know what "sloppy seconds" means; I did not know what the "C word for women" actually is, and I shied away from asking. Moreover, as a person who speaks English as the second language, I do not make as much cultural association as native speakers do. To me, “crap” is synonymous with "nonsense;" the "bodily penetration" part of the F-word's meaning seldom occurs to me when I curse with it to express my anger or cynicism, or simply for fun.

But of course, they are considered dirty or vulgar words after all. When putting them in print or on air, news writers and editors are concerned they might be setting a bad example and spreading its negative influences around, especially to children. Honestly, adults use the so-called dirty words all the time. Particularly in terms of the F word and the S word, Americans are really creative in using it. Expressions like "not give a s***" and "fan-f***ing-tastic" make people feel kind of cool to talk that way. Not many get offended by them unless the speaker is being personal and malicious.

But no one want their own children to overhear these words and pick them up, which jars with their supposedly innocent age. All journalists know dirty words in quotes show the human side of the interviewees and add more punch. Out of consideration for readers who expect good taste and who are under age, they have to sanitize the media.

Professor Jean McDonald mentioned two general ways to do it: 1, use asterisks or other symbols, similar to bleeping in broadcast, to wipe out most part or entirety of dirty words while still making room for them it, like "f***" and "s---"; 2, use ellipses or brackets and explanation in place of the original text to indicate the speaker has said something unprintable, like "He said something in anger to his girlfriend that is not suitable for print; 3, paraphrase the very dirty or unprintable words.

While I believe children and adults alike would be even more curious about what has been said, determined to find out the answer, and/or come up with even worse language, I cannot find a good alternative to it. Journalists feel heartbroken when they get a colorful and relevant quote but have to let it go without even slightly hinting at it.

However, Professor McDonald asked us what if we replace the controversial words with ones that are less problematic. I would say it is actually hypocritical of those who claim children should be taken into consideration. When you keep children from bad influences, it's not about the words they use to curse. It's about the conduct of being nasty to people. Saying things like "pig," "stupid," and "kiss the donkey's apperture of mine" that have no word directly related to profanity, obscenity or vulgarity is not harmless. It makes no sense if you champion the purity of children on one hand and use substitute words to express hateful meaning on the other. But if those substitutes are merely exclamatory words, such as "gosh," "gee," that is fine. They are not meant for hurting people. Nor do they disparage religion or deity.

If I were the writer or the editor, I would decide on a case-by-case basis. Whether it is relevant, who said it, what it is about...these factors matter in my decision-making process.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Translation of the press' viewpoints

The New York Times has recently published an article about a group of Chinese volunteers' efforts in translating almost the entirety of each issue of the Britain-based magazine The Economist into Chinese and publishing them online without authorization of either the Chinese government or the magazine.

Read the full text:

(I am still unfamiliar with the intellectual property law of the States. Is it legal to paste a link to an online article, say, a news story of The New York Times, that is copyrighted?)

Even though at a conservative estimate, one fifth of Chinese population, that is, 200 million people, have learned or are learning English, many of them have very basic and limited English skills. Reading English newspapers is beyond both the capability and patience of them. But it does not obstruct people's urge to learn more about English speaking countries and how they view the world, including China. They want an edition of foreign news publication with parallel text of both English and Chinese to improve their English, and Western perspectives conveyed by translation to improve their understanding. This group of voluenteers say they love the style of the magazine, according to The New York Times.

Another volunteering group in China is doing almost the same thing, but out of the opposite reason., established by a Chinese university student, gathers all kinds of Western journalism reports about China and translates them into Chinese, while analyzing how prejudiced the Western press is when it comes to coverage of China. The name comes from resentment an indignation ignited by a CNN report about Chinese suppression of riots in Tibet that is believed to use an elaborately cropped picture and mismatched captions to "vilify China," according to the Web site. It is determined to find solid evidence of the Western bias, not only that of CNN.

What I try to say is not whether any press is biased or not, but editorial decisions as small as cropping of a picture can even affect the viewpoints of one nation towards the other. Don't forget that many foreign language learners use journalism as a tool to familiarize themselves with the language and the culture.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Photo Standards


Below are four photographs that were taken of the Jan. 22, 1987, suicide of Pennsylvania treasurer R. Budd Dwyer. The photos were taken at a press conference Dwyer had called the day before he was to be sentenced for receiving a kickback of $300,000. Would you run any of these photos in your newspaper? If so, which one(s) would you choose and why?

If I were the editor of a newspaper, I would run a select few photos of Mr. Dwyer rather than running none. Photos complement text. Photos illustrate stories. Photos convey emotions. If it is a newsy photo, run it unless there is a compelling reason not to. What is more, the grisly suicide in public was a Page One story that day. Almost everyone heard about the news by the end of the day and even watched it live. For those who watched the footage, no photo could be possibly worse; for those who missed it, they naturally expected to see something visual rather than simply a story that had already been told by word-of-mouth.

However, of the four photos, I would only run 1a and 2a. The facial expressions help the reader imagine how he felt in the last a few seconds. The background shows the ambiance. The postures relate to the news. Moreover, these two are not visually disturbing or suggestive.

By contrast, 3a and 4a are inappropriate for print. Looking solely at the third one, one might even mistakenly think Mr. Dwyer is being playful, until they know the whole story. If children see the photo, they might think it is funny, and would be inclined to mimic or imitate the example, which is very dangerous or even fatal. The fourth story is quite offensive. Readers can easily have a gory picture in their mind on seeing the picture. Moreover, since the look of the suicide is not decent, running it is disrespectful to the dead.


Below are several photographs that may or may not have been published in the past. In your blog, please discuss these pictures. Which of these photos, if any, would you publish? Why or why not? What criteria do you use to make a decision? Under what circumstances would you run the photos? Consider whether the event happened locally. Does where or how you play the photo have any bearing on your decision? Specify one photo that made you wrestle with your decision the most and talk about the many issues you wrestled with the most on making that decision.
1. A boy grieves for his dog, which was killed by a car.

2. A rescue worker tries to console a family who has just lost a son in a drowning accident.

3. A disgruntled employee of a newspaper’s printing plant walked in with an AK-47 assault rifle and in a half an hour killed seven, wounded 13 and then killed himself. The man in the photo is one of the victims.

4. This boy was playing on a spike fence when he fell. Rescue workers had to cut a section of the fence to free him. He was OK.

5. This photo was taken from a fire escape looking down on a riot during a Fat Tuesday celebration in Seattle. The photographer saw the woman, who in typical Mardi Gras fashion, was asked to raise her top. When she refused, the men around her began to reach at her at tear her clothes. Her face has been obscured to protect her identity.

With regard to the second batch of photos at issue, I will run the first one without much hesitation. Even though a juvenile is involved and identified in the photo, running it does not bring him into public contempt, disgrace or ridicule in the slightest, as grief can be felt by the reader. The concern for disrespect for the dead is not as strong either, since the dog is not in terrible shape.

As for the rest four photos, I do have varying degrees of difficulty making the decision.

The first consideration is for the juveniles. In the second photo, several juveniles are identified, especially including the young victim. The published photo would cast much longer a shadow over the juveniles on their road to their adulthood than on those over age. They are yet to be psychologically mature. Exposing them to the publicity, especially negatively, is beyond what they can possibly withstand and can at worst pervert their characters.

The second consideration is for the victims. Most victims involve here are in bad shape and do not look decent or dignified in the photos. Showing their images under these circumstances is the sign of lack of respect for them. No one wants to look horrible, terrifying or pathetic at any time, let alone at the moment of being afflicted. For those who survive after the photos are taken, they have to face public opinion, or even ridicule.

The third consideration is for the family or those who lost their loved ones. While they are going through great pangs of pain brought by the death of their beloved, seeing the photos in print cause further harm to them. As in the case of the second photo, it was a very personal moment. The fact that the family was taken a picture of in a public place after a high-profile news event does not mean they are willing to be seen afterwards in print.

The fourth consideration is for the reader. Like I said in analyzing the case of Mr. Dwyer, it is important to take into account whether the photos are disturbing, offensive, suggestive or indecent, what impact will it have on the reader. It is not hard to picture a reader frowning and uttering "Ouch!" on seeing Picture 4. Nor is it improbable that some teenagers would grin wickedly at Picture 5.

But on the other hand, we also need to weigh the fundamental journalistic principle: to seek truth and report it. Picture 2, 3 and 5 are all concerning the community that the reader lives in. They alert or alarm people. Publishing Picture 3 and 5 even has a potential to help the communities involved. There is too much violence, and people are in danger of become numbed. Showing the photos can in a way give people an opportunity of introspection and soul-searching, and hopefully, changing their behavior and averting tragedies.

In conclusion, I would run Picture 1, and run Picture 2 if my newspaper does not serve the local community where the drowning took place (so that the juveniles cannot be recognized by most of my readers). I would not run Picture 3, 4, or 5.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Why does Phelps apologize to Chinese specially?

Here is a transcript of a 52-second video apology from Phelps to Chinese posted on most major Chinese news portal sites:

  To my Chinese friends,
  As many of you know, I recently engaged in behavior which was regrettable and not what people have come to expect from me.
  The past few days have been tough for me, but I've received support and encouragement online from so many Chinese friends.
  I will learn from these mistakes, train hard, and make you proud again.
  To the young people of China, please learn a lesson from this. Be positive in life, and do the right things.
  I've had so many great experiences in China over the past few years, and have enjoyed learning about your culture and your history.
  But it's the warmth and forgiveness in the messages I've received from China that has really lifted me up over the past few days.
  Thanks again for your support and encouragement. I look forward to returning to China soon.  

The headline of the Chinese news entry translates to "Phelps apologizes to Chinese fans." The content is simply the translation or paraphrase of his statement, saying that he feels deeply remorseful that he failed to be a good model for Chinese youth.

Quite a number of Chinese web users who read this article on the portal sites felt flattered and glad that Phelps respected China and Chinese fans so much. They posted comments on the discussion boards, like "He apologized to Chinese specially because China is the land on which he realized his dream. He has special feelings for her;" "We accept your apology!"

But is it a wishing thinking that Phelps directed his apology at Chinese out of his respect for China? Some liberal Chinese online media raised a question in their headlines: "Why does Phelps apologize to Chinese specially" after issuing a public apology already? Inside the stories, these media pointed out that Phelps had become a hot cake after he took home so many golds from the Games. He had been tagged because of the potential commercial success he could bring. Many Chinese companies or subsidiaries of international companies in China contacted him hoping for his appearance in their commercials or advertisements. This "marijuana" thing hurt his image and might indirectly affect the business of the companies he spoke for. "Half of what motivated him to apologize to China might be the pressure he felt from sponsors while the other half is his sincerity," according to the website of Beijing Communications Radio.

But The New York Times website's headline "Mazda Has Michael Phelps Apologize to China" definitely says something different. Two impressions naturally rose:1) A profit-making company engaged in; 2) Phelps was forced to kowtow to China. Inside the story (, no one from the automaker was interviewed. Not any one was sourced except for Phelps himself and a statement from the automaker that says nothing about the correlation between the apology and the company. The story says, "Mazda apparently decided an apology to the Chinese would suffice. " Is it really so apparent that Phelps was coerced into the apology? Journalists often say "If your mother says she loves you, check it." Therefore, if you think Phelps was manipulated by his sponsor, prove it. Taking it for granted and making the reader do the same is not fair to either the automaker, Phelps, or the reader.

We do not know whether Phelps' apology is wholehearted or halfhearted. We just know we want a fully reported instead of a half-reported story.