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!