Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The term 'Stuff-up' has taken on a whole new meaning

Newspaper readers are confronted daily by depressing proof that we now have a generation of journalists with only a limited command of their most vital tool, the English language.

Here’s a small example from Stuff today, in a story about the group of bird watchers who died tragically when their boat capsized off Kaikoura.

“Arriving in Kaikōura on Friday night,” the reporter wrote, “11 people got together at the local dive lodge, a two-storey, inauspicious building, ready for an exciting day on the ocean.

Hang on a minute. An inauspicious building? My New Zealand Oxford Dictionary defines inauspicious as ill-omened, unpropitious or unlucky. “Unfavourable” or “not conducive to success” are other synonyms.

I’ve never seen the word applied to a building before. Inauspicious circumstances, an inauspicious event or an inauspicious start, yes. But unless it was draped with ominous warning signs, I don’t think a building could be described as inauspicious. 

I suspect the reporter meant “inconspicuous”. I googled “Kaikoura dive lodge” and the building that immediately popped up on my screen could probably be described accurately using that word.

I see clangers like this every day. They are one more reason why media credibility is steadily being eroded, especially in the eyes of people who value the correct use of English. People may say I’m nitpicking, but the English language is a precision tool and the job of journalists is to convey information succinctly and accurately. They shouldn’t leave their readers scratching their heads and wondering what they mean.

That’s why newspapers used to have sub-editors – typically older, more knowledgeable hands who intercepted and corrected solecisms before they got into print. (A sub once saved me, as a young reporter, from describing a man's extravagant sideburns as verdant - which means green - when I really meant luxuriant.) But sub-editors, along with proof-readers (another line of defence against error), were discarded in the bizarre belief that reporters could check and correct their own copy. How they're supposed to correct their mistakes when they don’t realise they’ve made them has never been explained.

And here’s another obvious question: why do they become journalists in the first place if they don’t value and understand words? (One likely explanation is that many see themselves as being on an ideological mission. Words, grammar and syntax are of incidental importance.)

The puzzling thing is that Stuff, even after years of hollowing out, still employs a surprisingly large cohort of experienced editorial executives. You wouldn’t guess this from looking at the company’s papers or website, which are routinely riddled with errors. Whatever these executives are paid to do, their duties obviously don’t include correcting what might be termed Stuff-ups by their bright-eyed but ignorant reporters. Either that or they’ve simply given up caring.

It’s notable that Stuff journalists take great care to be correct in the usage of Maori words, right down to the placement of the appropriate macrons. That’s as it should be. But English is still the language by which we communicate and convey important information. Generations of newspapers took pride in doing this properly and it’s a symptom of Stuff’s profound decline that it no longer bothers.

Footnote: On an atrocity scale of one to 10, Stuff’s misuse of the English language probably rates a 3 at most. But The Dominion Post’s flagrant and wilful manipulation of “news” to promote favoured politicians, as documented here by David Farrar, is a 7 at least.





David McLoughlin said...

They've "decimated" the language Karl, to use another of their favourite expressions (the other day they "decimated" a building that was actually demolished).

R Singers said...

Going by Sean Plunket's interview with Aly Cook the "large cohort of experienced editorial executives" are there to ensure the correct messaging goes out even if it involves changing the interviewees words.

Don Franks said...

At least that makes a change from calling it the "humble building".

The Redbaiter said...

Some who would perceive themselves as "Libertarians" argue that given Stuff is a private company, it can print what it likes and submit itself to the free market. Which should then decide if it lives or dies.

This is (IMHO) a flawed perception because once Stuff takes money from govt, or even prints what govt instructs it to, it has become an agent of govt and can therefore no longer be seen as a free market entity.

Stuff is not alone of course. Payments under the Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF) mean almost every legacy media outlet in New Zealand acts not as free market media, but as bought and paid for agents of govt.

Functioning as an arm of govt should legally put them in conflict with the Bill of Rights, especially when they deliberately suppress counter opinions or views that conflict with their own. (as in Fire and Fury).

Who cares though about that stuffy old Bill of Rights thing?

Most journalists today are "progressives" and probably regard a document that guarantees the rights of citizens to refuse medical treatment and/ or to "hold opinions without interference" to be a quaint and unrealistic anachronism.

Most politicians would appear to agree with this view. Its why many of us despise them just as much as we despise their craven media comrades.

pdm said...

Karl in Stuffs quick quiz a few days ago they again shifted Masterton into the Wellington region. This is the second time they have done that in the last 2 or 3 years..

For the 70 years I have been aware (I am 76) Masterton has always been in the Wairarapa. I even played rugby in Masterton once in 1964 for Hawkes Bay Juniors v Wairarapa Juniors and I am pretty sure there were no Wellington players in the Wairarapa team.

hughvane said...

You won't change them Karl, they may be mistaken but they're never wrong.

Egos the size of a battleship (upgraded from 'house'), their first intention being to impress their colleagues, followed by their superiors, with the misuse of exaggerated - and erroneous - language.

We the reading public, or Great Unwashed, are somewhere down near the bottom rung.

Karl du Fresne said...

Some journalists are abysmally ignorant of their own country's geography. What's more, they assume other people are too, which explains headlines such "House fire in Porirua, north of Wellington" - just in case readers don't know where Porirua is.

Eamon Sloan said...

Stuff is certainly manipulating the news. The Wellington Mayoral contest has nine candidates listed – see Wellington City Council site. Stuff for reasons best known to itself has whittled things down to three (manipulated?) and has made a meal out of the “dispute” between Paul Eagle and Andy Foster. As our American friends say “I don’t have a dog in this race”. I don’t vote in Wellington city but I think I know enough about Eagle and Foster to say neither would take my vote.

The third name is Tory Whanau who seems to be a political protégé out of the Green party - see Wikipedia. The Wikipedia page has obviously been constructed to coincide with her candidacy announcement. All of the references are dated July 2022. The Wellington City Council site photo and Wikipedia photo are identical.

For me, not being a Greens supporter ever, Tory Whanau rules herself out also. If I was a Wellington voter depending on media reports only I would be voting blind almost.

David Farrar will find that complaints to the Media Council, if he takes the complaint that far, are rarely upheld. But, his points are totally valid and deserve much wider coverage.

dtk said...

I'm glad you've written about this Karl. I have a theory that it is because off fools in the media, who are blissfully unaware of correct language and grammar use, we have a "living" language. The first comment writer (not a criticism) uses the word decimate - the original meaning of this is to reduce by ten percent (Latin, relates to a practice in the Roman armies). Enormity once meant wickedness, now everyone uses it to refer to the size of something when perhaps they really mean "immensity". The examples are countless and where did it all start ?

David Lupton said...

Replying to dtk, I think they are decimating the language - as in replacing every tenth English word with a Maori word.

Eamon Sloan said...

Dtk asked where did it all start. More than likely it started with the advances set up by the first printing presses. While we might not know exactly where it started we do know there is no end in sight. I support all of the efforts to rein in the worst of the offenders, but there are more each day.

We are going downhill now that the pronouns war has begun. A recent case in Ireland saw a teacher suspended for refusing to use a student’s “preferred pronouns”. It seems language fascists can effectively make LAW based simply on whatever is fashionable on the day, and we all have to go along with it no matter what. The reverse has occurred in the US where a teacher contesting a pronouns case won a job reinstatement ruling from a State Supreme Court. How far away is New Zealand from being subjected to similar legal cases?

Our dear friends at Stuff make a point of using “they” and “person” whenever possible. Would Stuff care to make public their latest style book? Faint hope. If it is good enough for The Economist to publish a style book so also should Stuff.