Wednesday, March 7, 2012

As with so many things, a question of balance

It’s one of those debates among journalists that are never satisfactorily resolved. How much should you assume your readers know?

In sport, the assumption seems to be that readers know lots, otherwise they wouldn’t be reading the sports section. Hence no effort is made to explain why an overcast sky can make a difference in a cricket test, or what a mankad is.

Lately I've read several references to the influence cloud can have on the outcome of a cricket match - the latest example occurring in yesterday’s Dominion Post preview of the first test against South Africa - but I’m no closer to understanding why. Sports journalists clearly don’t feel any need to explain. It’s assumed that anyone reading these stories has been initiated into the ineffable mysteries of cricket and would probably be irritated if they were spelled out.

And don’t even get me started on the vagaries of pitches, which are routinely referred to in language that’s as impenetrable to me as Urdu. Fairfax sports reporter Mark Geenty managed to squeeze two cryptic references (by which I mean cryptic to anyone who isn’t a cricket geek) into one sentence yesterday when he wrote that cloud cover and swing bowling were likely to have a bigger say on the outcome of the first test than a pitch with the living daylights rolled out of it. Then he made things worse by quoting Daniel Vettori: “Overhead conditions dictate what it’s going to be like. You talk to the Otago guys and they say it’s a completely different wicket depending on the overhead conditions.”

A little elaboration would have been appreciated. Surely I’m not the only person reading the sports pages who scratches his head when he comes across statements like these?

Similarly, only a few weeks ago in the Dom Post sports pages I read a reference to something called a mankad. What could this be, I wondered – some sort of grotesque garment, perhaps, like the mankini made famous in the movie Borat?

Well, no. It turns out that it’s a controversial run-out in cricket, one that’s regarded as poor form and not in the traditions of the game. The name comes from its original perpetrator, Indian cricketer Vinoo Mankad, who pulled the stunt in 1947 and whose name, as a result, lives in cricketing infamy. Should your average reader be expected to know this? Is it reasonable to expect them to go to their computer keyboard and google the word to satisfy their curiosity?

There’s no simple answer to this. I would argue that in the case of the mankad, it would have been a simple matter – and a courtesy to readers – to slip in a sentence enlightening the ignorant. But such matters are not always straightforward.

Years ago there was spirited debate in newspaper newsrooms about whether it was necessary to explain what Maori words such as hui, iwi and whanau meant. At what point do we accept that such terms have entered common usage and no longer need their meaning spelled out? There’s no sharp, clear line to help journalists make these decisions. It’s probably safe to assume, after all this time, that such common Maori words are well understood; yet even now there are probably people in New Zealand who mutter resentfully whenever they encounter them.

Certainly it can be exasperating to encounter a word or phrase whose meaning isn’t clear. My late colleague Frank Haden used to rage against the use of foreign expressions in newspaper stories, partly because journalists more often than not got them wrong ("Wankers!" Frank would thunder), but more because he regarded it as a form of one-upmanship over readers and therefore bound to get their backs up. I know what he meant, because I subscribe to The Spectator and often stumble over Latin or French words and phrases written by people who have doubtless received a classical education at Oxford or Cambridge and probably assume all Spectator readers have done likewise.

Yet there is a powerful counter-argument that I would deploy in debate with Frank. A newspaper or magazine can just as easily insult its readers’ intelligence by treating them as if they have the reading level of 10-year-olds as offend them by going over their heads with high-falutin’ language. The line between the two isn’t sharply defined and a good paper will constantly cross from one side to the other. Apart from anything else, how can people’s vocabularies expand if not by being exposed to new words? If the reader is occasionally provoked into picking up a dictionary to check a meaning, as I am, then surely that’s no bad thing.

Where newspapers can avoid antagonising readers is by shunning exclusive jargon. This is most commonly encountered in sections such as sport and business, where journalists can safely assume they are writing for an audience with a higher degree of specialist knowledge than those reading the general news pages. Here the line becomes even fuzzier, and it’s all too easy for journalists to fall into the trap of using “in” jargon to demonstrate their familiarity with the subject. This may signal to the cognoscenti who read those pages that the journalist is up with the play, as it were, but it breaches the basic principle that the purpose of journalism is to communicate to the widest audience possible – not to a narrow clique of insiders.

Some business stories are damned near incomprehensible, but here we encounter another problem: spelling everything out in words that anyone can understand, particularly where the subject is complex (as is often the case with business stories), is not only cumbersome but consumes precious space.

As with so many things, it’s a question of balance. And at the moment, I don’t think the journalists who write for sports and business pages always get the balance right.


Bill Forster said...

Karl I think you've said many times you have little interest in sport. Given that, there would be something seriously wrong if you didn't find much of the sports reporting incomprehensible. Neophytes should get their education elsewhere. Newspaper reports should be pitched at an appropriate level for those who have done the hard yards and earned their spurs.

Try reading some of the excellent sports writers from North America reporting on American sports. It's an interesting exercise, inevitably there is much that's completely incomprehensible, but it's rewarding to persist long enough to find things starting to make sense.

As for your specific issues, there was a recent article devoted to Mankad in the NZ press (from memory), after some controversy in a recent India v Sri Lanka game. The man achieved sporting immortality in a most unusual way.

I remember as a boy coming across the term any number of times without knowing what it meant. Eventually, inevitably, some commentator told the full story while I happened to be listening. Another step in my sporting education, achieved in the traditional, organic, strictly for the patient manner. You kids today want everything delivered on a plate! And of course Google will solve any mystery like this in an instant if you are really curious.

As for overhead conditions, well conventional wisdom has it that the cricket ball swings much better if the sky is overcast. I've never heard anyone attempt an explanation as to why this should be so. And I recall reading that some scientific enquiry had failed to actually confirm it as even true. But still, anecdotally, simply watching cricket on TV, the ball does seem to hoop about when the sun isn't shining.

Karl du Fresne said...

Are you sure you're not taking this line because you're proud to be part of the brotherhood that understands all these terms? It's true that I'm not a typical sports buff; but I do read the sports pages every day, and I shouldn't need a glossary at my elbow to decode the jargon.

JC said...

hmm. I sense the need for a new Govt dept that explains the need for explaining sporting terms.. and then explains them.

In fact, I suspect this is a basic human right.


Bill Forster said...

Karl, yes that's probably the reason :- )

I don't understand though, you read the sports pages every day but you aren't really into sport ?

I would expect that reading the sports pages every day correlates with being very interested in sport, and quick absorption of elementary concepts like the influence of the pitch and atmospheric conditions in cricket. You do have a point with "Mankading", that's an obscure detail. But I'd be surprised if obscure unexplained details like that arise sufficiently frequently to really adversely affect comprehesibility and enjoyment.

But I could be wrong! And I am sure nobody would dispute your main point that setting the right balance is very important.

The other day at a second hand bookshop I picked up a collection of pieces by the doyen of NZ sportswriters, T.P. McLean. He is an old-schooler like yourself, the ultimate old-schooler actually. I will be sure to make a conscious assessment of how the great man handled this issue when I dip into the book. I will endeavour to report back here.

(Very off-topic: As I wrote all that I realised I was slipping back and forth between sports (US English) and sport. A topic for another day perhaps. Personally, I am something of a yank-o-phile and I find the frothing of the mouth reactions from curmudgeonly types to incursions of American English to be over the top and unseemly. Not sure where your curmudgeonly self sits on this one.)

Karl du Fresne said...

I was careful to say I'm not a typical sports buff, which is not the same as saying as I'm not interested in sport. As a journalist I'm interested in most things and try to read every part of the paper, even the racing pages.
As for the debate over US versus "English" English, I generally prefer the latter. So yes, I suppose I am a conservative on that point. (I should add that this isn't due to any anti-American sentiment on my part; I have an American daughter-in-law, an American grandson and a son who has taken out US citizenship.)