Readers' Representative Journal

A conversation on newsroom ethics and standards

Category: Accuracy issues

Are they illegal immigrants or undocumented students? Both

California Dream Act rally Immigration is such a hot-button issue that even the words used to write about the topic get debated.

"Illegal" and "undocumented" are two of the terms that are often questioned. Reader R.J. Johnson of North Hollywood found them both in an Aug. 24 article about a rally in support of the California Dream Act, which would allow college students who are illegal immigrants to qualify for public financial aid.

"In the lead-in to Teresa Watanabe's article, the words used are 'the undocumented.' But in the actual article, Watanabe uses the phrase 'illegal immigrants,'" Johnson wrote.

"L.A. Times, which is it?"

Well, it doesn't have to be one or the other.

The Times' Style and Usage Guide advocates the use of "illegal immigrants" when referring to "citizens of foreign countries who have come to the country with no passport, visa or other document to show that they are entitled to visit, work or live in the United States."

It continues: "The term 'undocumented immigrant' is acceptable as a synonym for 'illegal immigrant' under certain conditions, such as when a form of the word 'illegal' already appears in a sentence."

And that's just how Watanabe used the terms in her opening paragraph:

Scores of students, teachers and other advocates for illegal immigrants are launching rallies, phone drives and petition campaigns this week for what they see as their best hope to win access to public financial aid for undocumented college students.

Other widely used stylebooks agree with the usage. The Associated Press stylebook, which is taught in journalism schools and used across the news industry, has a similar entry. The New York Times stylebook's ruling is more limited, advocating the use of "illegal immigrant" but calling "undocumented" a euphemism.

Reader Sue Martin thought both terms were wrong. She wrote: "Regarding correct English, you refer to these students as illegal 'immigrants.' The correct term is 'aliens.' Writers for the L.A. Times continuously make this mistake."

But the L.A. Times' stylebook doesn’t consider it a mistake. It advises against using the term "alien" unless it's in a direct quote.

The New York Times' stylebook is more explicit. It says that "alien," while technically correct, "often conveys overtones of menace or strangeness."

The L.A. Times' first stylebook, in 1979, did advocate the use of "illegal aliens," calling it "the simplest term." However, by 1995, the ruling had changed to "illegal immigrant."

Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, who leads the newsroom's style committee, said that "illegal immigrant" is "the preferred neutral, unbiased term that will work in almost all uses."

"We do think through these things at length," Fuhrmann said. "We tend to reflect what we're hearing from our sources and our readers."

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Students rally in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 23 in support of AB 131, the California Dream Act. Credit: Genero Molina / Los Angeles Times


Here we go again: Kadafi vs. Gadhafi vs. el-Qaddafi

Moammar Kadafi The leader of Libya is once again making front-page headlines. And there's nothing like large type to make people notice that The Times doesn't spell his name the way other news organizations do.

The man we call Moammar Kadafi is Muammer el-Qaddafi in the New York Times, Moammar Gaddafi in the Washington Post and Moammar Gadhafi in Associated Press articles.

It’s no wonder readers think the L.A. Times has a mistake. But all of the spellings are transliterations from Arabic, and so all are interpretations.

Many news organizations, including the L.A. Times, tackled the question in February. You can check out what Time magazine and the Christian Science Monitor had to say, too.

We began using Kadafi in 1969, when the rebel leader seized power, under guidance from our Middle East correspondent at the time. He advised that the sound that begins the leader’s name was best translated as a “k”. (That also explains our spelling of Koran vs. AP’s Quran.)

Some of the discussion on Twitter:

Continue reading »

More thoughts on Jerry Brown's grammatical gaffe

“Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?”  --Clarence Darrow

Gov. Jerry Brown This is a postscript to Saturday's “Postscript” column. A post-Postscript, if you will.

In the column, reader Gene Axelrod questioned whether Gov. Jerry Brown, describing his fear at seeing a child at the edge of a steep drop-off at Yosemite National Park, actually said: "If they slipped, they would have went right over."

And, Axelrod wondered, did The Times "forget to insert the signal [sic] after 'went' "?

The discussion led to some follow-up questions and comments from readers.

Tony Newhall of Valencia saw a missed opportunity to explain what was wrong with Brown's quote:

"Shouldn't you have added a short sentence saying Mr. Axelrod was bothered that the governor used the past tense 'went' when he should have used the past participle 'gone' (as in 'they would have gone right over.')?"

And two readers thought the discussion ignored a pronoun problem.

"What about he/they?" asked Walter Hall. "Wasn't it equally grammatically egregious for the governor to switch from third person singular (looking at him) to third person plural (If they slipped)?"

Brian Fodera of Los Angeles agreed. "So much thought and ink was devoted to whether the governor should have gone with 'gone'  instead of 'went' that the governor's twice referring to a young boy as 'they' managed to slip through without remark," he wrote.

They’re both good points. The quote was a mess, grammatically.

Fodera added: "Perhaps the governor's quote should have read: 'It made me shake just looking at him. It's dangerous. If they [sic] slipped, they [sic] would have went [sic] right over.' "

Speaking of "sic," Newhall also suggested that a definition would have been helpful. He's right.

From Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition: "used within brackets, [sic], to show that a quoted passage, esp. one containing some error or something questionable, is precisely reproduced."

However, as Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann noted in the column, The Times' style and usage guide advises against the use of "sic" unless it is part of the material being quoted, such as a transcript. "If it is necessary to note an error in quoted matter, it's best to simply point it out," the stylebook entry says.

"Our avoidance of the term is in keeping with our general approach of not altering quotes or interfering through the overuse of brackets," Fuhrmann said.

Giuseppe Mirelli of Los Angeles was concerned that The Times had downplayed the grammatical error.

"It is quite alarming that an editor of a national newspaper finds that the improper use of verb tenses to be inconsequential when indeed it is consequential and imperative for clarity in expository writing," he wrote. "Our language is not evolving, as many claim it to be the case when a malapropism is admonished. Our language is devolving at a rapid pace thanks to educated people who marginalize good grammar."


Letters to the Editor: Good grammar in the paper

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at his Los Angeles office in June. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times


In an ungrammatical quote, where's the [sic]?

Jerry BrownGene Axelrod of Huntington Beach was reading Tony Barboza's front page story Monday about dangers at Yosemite National Park when he reached this quote from Gov. Jerry Brown describing his reaction to a child standing near the edge of a steep drop-off in the park:

"It made me shake just looking at him. It's dangerous," Brown told the Associated Press. "If they slipped, they would have went right over."

The grammatical gaffe prompted Axelrod to write to The Times:

"Is our governor so uneducated and inarticulate that he actually said, 'If they slipped, they would have went right over'? Or did you forget to insert the signal [sic] after 'went'? ... Sorry, but the continuing degradation of our language annoys me."

The short answer, according to Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, is that The Times generally does not use "sic" in such circumstances.

The Times’ style and usage guide advises against the use of "sic" unless it is part of the material being quoted, such as in a transcript. "If it is necessary to note an error in quoted matter, it's best to simply point it out," the stylebook entry says.

Fuhrmann added, "Our avoidance of the term is in keeping with our general approach of not altering quotes or interfering through the overuse of brackets."

"From my reading, I would say it's rare to see 'sic' in an American newspaper."

Barboza noted that people don’t always speak in grammatically correct sentences. "Yet," he said, "a big part of our job as journalists is to report comments exactly how they are spoken. In this case I figured most people would read it and understand what he meant."

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the standard outside the newspaper industry, might support Axelrod’s advocacy of "sic." It advises: "The device should be used only where it is relevant to call attention to such matters (and especially where readers might otherwise assume the mistake is in the transcription rather than the original) or where paraphrase or silent correction is inappropriate."

But Fuhrmann said, "I'm not convinced that Brown's relatively minor grammatical error was so notable that it merited being singled out."


Usage: 'Latino' preferred over 'Hispanic'

Expletives: A big ... deal

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Gov. Jerry Brown and wife Anne Gust Brown at Yosemite in July. Credit: Anne Gust Brown via Twitter

Lassie or not? There's quite a dog's tale behind this correction


The devil is always in the details. But those details aren't always so much fun to find.

An article on Monday's Business page featured a small-business profile of Pet Haven Cemetery & Crematory in Gardena. The article was about pet owners opting for lower-cost services for deceased pets. Included in the layout was a small photo of a grave site.

The caption with the photo read: "Among those at Pet Haven are celebrities such as Skippy, who played Lassie."

Katherine Walker of Ventura knew that wasn’t right. "It's a grave site all right, but Skippy portrayed Asta in the '30s 'Thin Man' films with Myrna Loy and William Powell," she emailed. "He was a wire fox terrier. Lassie was played by generations of collies."

See? Details.

Walker is correct on two counts: A wire fox terrier named Skippy did appear in the "Thin Man" films and others. Also, the dog buried in this grave did not play Lassie. (A correction was published Tuesday.)

But as it turns out, this dog wasn’t an actor. He was a soldier.

A closer look at the headstone reveals these words: "Skippy / Our War Hero / From / Lassie"

It was the "From Lassie" that led to the confusion. That was misread by photographer Michael Robinson Chavez to mean that the dog was from the TV show "Lassie."

But a 50-year-old newspaper page, archived by the city of Torrance, explained everything.

Continue reading »

Can you name these military ranks? (Readers can)

CASE 1: Air Force

Betty Ford funeral

The caption: Air Force officers stand guard as former First Lady Betty Ford lies in repose after the funeral at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church.

The problem: "Those two personnel are not officers, they are both enlisted personnel," reader Greg Sirbu emailed. "As journalists you need to know the difference."

How can he tell? The insignia on the men's sleeves.

The answer: The Department of Defense helpfully charts enlisted and officer rank insignia for the military. A check of the enlisted insignia shows that the man on the left is a technical sergeant, and on the right is a senior airman.

A correction was published July 16.

CASE 2: Marines

Continue reading »

Tempest in a teapot: Afternoon tea vs. high tea

Empress-tea The royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton has inspired a trove of articles about Britain: tips for traveling to London; finding a bit of Britain closer to home; a look at some less-than-regal wedding souvenirs; even a commentary from a British expatriate.

Invariably, articles about British culture mention tea. Afternoon tea, that is. However, a couple of recent articles have referred to the snack with pastries and finger sandwiches as "high tea," which readers have quickly pointed out is another meal.

The confusion first popped up in a photo caption in the April 3 Travel section with an article about a special royal-wedding-themed event at the Fairmont Empress hotel in Victoria, Canada. The caption with a photo of a silver tea service said that "high tea" was a tradition at the Empress.

Reader Burton Karson of Corona del Mar wrote, "Your writer of captions and your copy editor should know that 'high tea' is a working man's supper that includes a hot dish, and that the elegant tea referred to here is 'afternoon tea.'"

It happened again Monday, in a headline on the front page of the Calendar section.

A commentary by Simon Reynolds, a British music critic and author living in South Pasadena, argued that Americans are more excited about the royal wedding than Brits because they’re enthralled with a fairy tale image of Britain: "A fantasy land of castles and cucumber sandwiches, trusty valets and well-spoken villains."

Another line of the article was pulled out into larger type: "More than any other institution, PBS is responsible for maintaining the illusion that Britain is a country where everybody takes afternoon tea."

But the headline read: "Kings, castles and high tea."

Andy Gilchrist of Manhattan Beach wrote that "it's a major faux pas to confuse 'afternoon tea' with 'high tea'! They are very different servings, but since 'high' sounds more uppity, the misunderstanding is common."

Calendar copy chief Steve Elders said the headline intended to set a mood for the piece; the subheadline read, "Americans love the illusion of a quaint, fairy tale Britain. Blame films and PBS." Unfortunately, however, "high tea" isn't synonymous with "afternoon tea."

As Gilchrist suggested, the name "high tea" does not refer to high class, but to how the meal is served. High tea is served at a high dinner table or counter, while afternoon or "low tea" is traditionally served on low tables in a sitting room.

After the fairy tale royal wedding, it's much more likely that Prince William and his bride, like guests at the Empress hotel, will enjoy afternoon tea.

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress, published April 3 in Travel. Credit: Empress Hotel


Eureka, Calif.: Feeling hot, hot, hot?

AA8-4.11 It's not 584 degrees in Eureka.

That's what Monday's weather page reported for Sunday's high temperature in the Northern California city. It's clearly a typo, but a couple of readers had some fun reporting the error.

"According to your California Cities weather reports, Eureka has been having a hot spell for the past week, with temperatures over 500 degrees," said Martin Zacks of Altadena in an email. "The forecast always is for a cooling trend into the 50s, but each previous day is listed around 580 degrees. If your figures are correct, Eureka has the highest temperature in California, the nation, and perhaps the planet."

And Lorraine Gayer of Huntington Beach wrote, "It is hard not to believe in global warming when, according to your weather section, Eureka's Sunday high temperature was 584 degrees. Yikes."

Yikes, indeed.

The error will be corrected in the For the Record section.

-- Deirdre Edgar



It's Kadafi -- at least according to the L.A. Times

A scroll through a newsy Twitter feed this morning as Libya’s leader addressed his country would’ve looked something like this:

Los Angeles Times:
LIBYA: German Chancellor Angela Merkel calls Kadafi speech 'frightening'

New York Times:
Qaddafi’s Grip Falters as His Forces Take On Protesters

Washington Post:
Gaddafi: Protesters were given "hallucination pills" by outside groups #Libya

Associated Press:
An interactive timeline of the Gadhafi regime: -ldh

Those are all about the same person.

The man whose name the Los Angeles Times spells as Moammar Kadafi is Muammer el-Qaddafi in the New York Times, Moammar Gaddafi in the Washington Post and Moammar Gadhafi in Associated Press articles.

It’s no wonder readers think the L.A. Times has a mistake.

Yure Kolaric sent a friendly e-mail on Sunday: "Hi! You have written Kadafi instead of Gadafi on the front page."

On Tuesday's article about Kadafi's speech, an online commenter called ScrewyWabbit was less forgiving: "Kadafi?? At least get the name correct! LOL Check out for the correct name. It's Muammar GADDAFI. Jeez!"

Just as there's more than one way to skin a wabbit –- er, rabbit -– there's more than one way to spell the Libyan leader's name. All of the spellings are transliterations from Arabic, and so all are interpretations.

The L.A. Times has used Kadafi since 1969, when the colonel seized power. The LAT's first comprehensive stylebook, printed in 1979, explained the reasoning:

Khadafi, Kadafy, Qadafi, Kadafi:

These varying transliterations of the name of the Libyan leader sum up many of The Times' problems with Arabic. They represent different, though similar, pronunciations.

For The Times' purposes, let us make it Kadafi, and let us apply the same principle to other Arab names:

a k rather than a kh or a q

an i rather than a y

(This also explains The Times' spelling of Koran, as opposed to AP's preferred spelling, Quran.)

Over on the Opinion L.A. blog, Paul Whitefield points out that The Times is in the minority in its spelling. The winner in Google hits? Wikipedia’s spelling: Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Maybe ScrewyWabbit was on to something. 

--Deirdre Edgar

[For the record, Feb. 23: An earlier version of this post misspelled the New York Times' spelling of el-Qaddafi as el-Quaddafi.]


L.A. Times stands by its teacher ratings

An article in last Monday’s Times has come under fire from critics who say it misrepresents the results of a review of the “value-added analysis” of L.A. Unified teachers that was published in print and online last August.

The review, conducted by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, looked at the LAUSD data that The Times used in its “Grading the Teachers” series. The Feb. 7 article by Jason Felch said the review “confirms the broad conclusions of a Times analysis of teacher effectiveness in the Los Angeles Unified School District while raising concerns about the precision of the ratings.”

The policy center issued a news release taking issue with the article, saying its researchers believed The Times’ teacher-effectiveness ratings were based on “unreliable and invalid research.” Therefore, the release continued, the study “confirms very few of The Times’ conclusions.”

Several readers e-mailed The Times, questioning the reporting.

The article “distorted the study's findings for self-serving purposes,” said one reader. 

“It smacks of either shock journalism or a deliberate attempt to mislead the public on behalf of big business and privatizers,” said another.

Readers raised two basic questions about the Colorado study and The Times’ handling of it: Did the  article accurately reflect the findings of the study? Does the study invalidate the “Grading the Teachers” series?

Continue reading »

A 1991 error becomes a 2011 error


A For the Record item in Wednesday’s print edition noted the publication of an incorrect photo with the obituary of Oscar-winning composer John Barry.

John-barry The photo, which ran on the cover of Tuesday's LATExtra section, was actually of film editor Neil Travis. A second photo -- this one correctly showing Barry -- ran on the obituary’s jump page.

Several readers who knew Barry or who were influenced by his work contacted The Times to point out the mistake.

"I'm stunned that in the film capital of the world, our own newspaper can't even get the photo of one of the most influential film composers of the past 40 years right," wrote Don Redfeld of Sherman Oaks, a composer and conductor.

How did this happen?

Cary Schneider, who oversees The Times' library, did some investigating.

The photo now known to be of Travis was first published in The Times on March 26, 1991, in a full page of photos from the Academy Awards; part of the page is shown above. The winners pictured were all associated with "Dances With Wolves," which had won seven Oscars. Travis won for film editing, and Barry won for composing the movie's score. A single caption accompanied the photos and identified the one of Travis as being of John Barry. (The next photo on the page is identified as being of Neil Travis, so it's possible that the two were reversed.)

"The individual hard copy print was then filed, and it has a typed label on the back identifying the photographer by name and the person in the photo as John Barry," Schneider said. "We even glued a copy of the actual printed photo caption to the back of the photo, with the misleading information, as well."

It's hard to imagine that no one at the time pointed out the error. However, no correction was ever published in The Times, which meant that the photo had sat in the file since 1991 with the wrong name attached to it.

Twenty years later, the photo was published again, unfortunately with  the incorrect name. But this time the error has been corrected.

"Just goes to prove, clearly, the importance of our 'For the Records,' " Schneider said.

That importance is not only in providing transparency for readers now but in ensuring accuracy in the future too.

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photos: Part of the Los Angeles Times page from March 26, 1991, with the photo incorrectly labeled John Barry at bottom center. Color photo of John Barry. Credit: Dave Hogan/Getty Images


For it's 1, 2, 3, 4 strikes you're out ...

Ryne-duren Reader Carol Simeos noticed something unusual in the obituary of former Angels pitcher Ryne Duren. 

Duren, who played for the Angels in 1961 and 1962, was described as "the first Angels pitcher to strike out four batters in an inning."

Simeos acknowledged that she wasn't a baseball expert, but she wondered, "How did he strike out four batters in one inning? My understanding of baseball is that when one team gets three men out in one inning, the other side comes up to bat."

That's certainly how the song goes.

Baseball Almanac explains:

A batter with two strikes on him takes a swing at strike three; however, the catcher does not field the ball cleanly, and instead of tagging the runner out, the runner reaches [first base]. The strikeout is recorded, but not the out.

The page lists the pitchers who have accomplished this feat. It's happened about 50 times since 1888. 

(A longer obituary for Duren was posted on Afterword, the news obituary staff's blog.)

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Ryne Duren in 1958, when he was with the New York Yankees. Credit: Associated Press


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