Readers' Representative Journal

A conversation on newsroom ethics and standards

Category: Postscript

What's in a name? Depends on whether you use the tilde

Pena-nieto
An article Sunday about recent missteps by a leading Mexican presidential candidate prompted a critical response from one reader.

But Jose Suarez of Los Angeles wasn’t upset by anecdotes about the candidate’s inability to name a book he’d read or to quote the price of tortillas. Suarez questioned The Times’ spelling of the candidate’s name: Enrique Pena Nieto.

“I noticed you keep calling him Pena Nieto even though his name is Peña Nieto,” Suarez wrote. “I cannot understand why a newspaper doesn't respect the spelling of a presidential candidate of a country.

“The ‘ñ’ is an official part of a major language, and word meaning changes if you don't use it. ‘Peña’ means a big rock or a place of reunion; ‘Pena’ means shame. When you report about the meteorological phenomenon of El Niño, you don’t call it El Nino. Spanish (Español) should be taken seriously.”

The reader is right. The article should have used a tilde in the spelling of Peña Nieto’s last name.

Editors had good intentions here. They were following one entry in The Times’ stylebook that says diacritical marks generally are not used in stories in the news sections -- with a couple of notable exceptions, including El Niño.

However, a separate style note states that the tilde should be used in “all proper nouns (generally, capitalized names of people and places) where it is known to be appropriate.”

Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, who heads The Times’ style committee, said, “The reader’s point is well taken. Our style guidelines are clear on use of the tilde, though in day-to-day practice we have tended to rely on having the subjects of our coverage tell us their preferences. Here, with a major political figure and potential future president of Mexico, it should have been easy to establish what’s appropriate. We’ll use ‘Peña’ henceforth.

“The style note makes a good further point about not making assumptions: ‘Be aware that not all Spanish-surnamed people, especially among Americans, use the tilde,’” Fuhrmann said. “With Enrique Peña Nieto, we didn’t have to assume anything.”

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Enrique Peña Nieto campaigns in Mexico City in November. Credit: Marco Ugarte / Associated Press


Afghanistan bombing photo: Graphic, yet important

Kabul-A1The attacks on Shiite Muslim gatherings in Afghanistan, which killed at least 59 people Tuesday, were shocking. So was the image of the aftermath, which ran on Wednesday's front page.

Several readers said they were disturbed by the photo of a blood-spattered young woman, screaming as she finds herself surrounded by bodies. Moments earlier she had been part of a procession to a Kabul shrine to mark the Shiite holy day of Ashura. Times reporters said a suicide bomber hid among the crowd of worshippers. Many of the victims were women and children.

"I can’t believe that you would put a photo like this in your paper, let alone on the front page," wrote Louis Cunningham of Ventura. "Yes, this goes on, and we know it. But we don't need it on the front page of a paper for all of the kids in the world to see."

Erlin France of Los Angeles wrote: "That's the way to go, L.A. Times: Put dead children on the front page. You are disgusting."

And Rolando Valdovinos of East Los Angeles said he found the image "extremely graphic." "Showing kids laying lifeless is uncalled for," he wrote. "Just take a couple of seconds to stare at that photograph yourself. Tell me the lifeless image of the toddler in yellow doesn’t sicken your stomach!"

The scene was difficult for AFP/Getty photographer Massoud Hossaini as well. He told the New York Times, which also ran the image on its front page, that he realized he was weeping as he took photos after the suicide bombing. He said he continued to cry as he drove to his office, as he transmitted the images and as he drove home. "I have never experienced that before," he told the New York Times' Lens blog.

Deputy Managing Editor Colin Crawford, who oversees the Los Angeles Times' photography staff,  responds:

We never run this type of image without discussions at the highest levels in the newsroom.

We understand that it is a tough image to look at, but we felt the news value of the photo made it worth publishing. We feel that we cannot hide important news from our readers, even when it is unpleasant.

The war in Afghanistan is an important and complicated story, and the violence seems to never end. In these attacks, the fact that it was sectarian violence adds yet another layer to the complexity of the situation.

The photo, while gut-wrenching, shows just how many innocents are being killed. The bodies of dead, maimed and wounded children breaks your heart but also lets you know how indiscriminate the killing has become.

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: A cropped version of Wednesday's front-page photo. Credit: Massoud Hossaini / AFP/Getty Images


Trash or treasure? Describing items left behind at Occupy L.A.

Tarp

Since the Occupy L.A. encampment first formed at City Hall on Oct. 1, readers have given us an inbox full of their opinions on Times coverage.

Views, as expected, were mixed: Several Occupy L.A. detractors said the paper threw in its lot with the protesters, while supporters accused the paper of harboring an anti-Occupy bias (some in the latter group created the Facebook group "Occupy the L.A. Times.")

Karen Pally of Santa Monica took issue with language used in the stories about the eviction of the protesters early Wednesday.

"Several stories refer to the 'debris' and 'garbage' strewn around Occupy L.A.'s campsite at City Hall," Pally said. "This language creates a distorted and negative image.

"Before the police stormed the site, most of the tents were used as spaces for sleep, conversation, work, learning, worship or storage, and the contents were personal possessions, bedding, clothing and supplies."

If one man's trash is another's treasure, then the opposite is probably true too. As Pally said, what city workers dubbed trash included items that were part of daily life at Occupy L.A.

An article in Thursday's Times by David Zahniser and Nicole Santa Cruz described some of the things left on City Hall grounds after protesters were removed: "There were sleeping bags, luggage, cutlery, a small red guitar with a broken neck, and a collection of Ernest Hemingway stories … mattresses and dining chairs, luggage and boom boxes, books and CDs, cellphones and electric razors."

However, there also clearly was garbage. "The city said it collected 30 tons of refuse, from vats of urine to old furniture to discarded food," Assistant City Editor Steve Marble said. "Some of the items that were left behind looked like they were actually personal items that people probably would have taken with them — had there been time. But the city was concerned enough about what was left behind that refuse workers were ordered to wear hazmat suits."

Times photos also showed tents, blue tarps, blankets and pillows. Whether police should have saved those for the city's homeless, as some critics have charged, is a separate debate.

Once the items were left behind for cleanup, they became debris.

"The lawn was certainly a mess after everyone was evicted," Marble said. "Whether it was the occupiers or the police created that mess, I can't really say for certain. But I do think what we saw in the broad daylight — by any logical definition — was a mess."

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Tarps and other items left behind at the site of Occupy L.A. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times

In Penn State case, are allegations 'sex,' 'rape' or 'assault'?

Sandusky-arrest

The charges against a former Penn State assistant football coach accused of sexually abusing boys have dominated news stories and shocked readers across the country.

The grand jury report that led to Jerry Sandusky’s indictment was made public a few days after Sandusky’s arrest. The testimony contained in the report is explicit, leaving no doubt as to the allegations against Sandusky. However, it poses some difficulty for a family newspaper to report.

Reader Amy Ramos of Santa Barbara thought The Times had been imprecise in descriptions of the case and wondered why.

“I have been puzzled by the use of what seems to be unnecessary euphemism in coverage of the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal,” Ramos wrote. “There is a reference to the suspect, former coach Jerry Sandusky, ‘having sex with a boy in the shower.’

“It seems to me that a grown man engaging in sex with a 10-year-old boy -- by its very definition non-consensual -- should be called ‘rape,’ not ‘having sex’ or even ‘being forced to have sex.’

“I see the word ‘rape’ used in other contexts in The Times, so I'm curious as to why it would not be used in coverage of this story, in which it seems entirely appropriate.”

Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann responds:

We agree with Amy Ramos that in some of our early stories we resorted to unnecessary euphemism. Whether this was out of squeamishness about the subject matter, an attempt to describe lurid allegations for a family newspaper, or more likely the result of our working quickly in following complex, rapidly evolving events, we should have been more precise. We should have said “sexually assaulting.”

In the Jerry Sandusky case, he is charged with “multiple counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, corruption of minors, endangering the welfare of a child, indecent assault and unlawful contact with a minor, as well as single counts of aggravated indecent assault and attempted indecent assault,” according to the Associated Press.

The charges do not include “rape”; however, the word does appear in the 23-page grand jury report.

This is not a new challenge for editors. We issued memos to the staff in 2003 and 2008 and again this month to remind editors that “sex case” is not an acceptable headline shorthand for describing instances of alleged sexual assault, molestation or rape. Victims of such assaults do not “have sex” with their attackers; that usage implies consent.

As is often the case, a major news event reminds us about our own guidelines and the need to watch for subtleties in language.

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Jerry Sandusky is put in a police car in Bellefonte, Pa., on Nov. 5. Credit: Associated Press.

Readers care about grammatical errors, typos

Those who write to The Times often are careful readers who have high expectations. And when they spot typographical or grammatical errors, readers don’t hesitate to let us know.

Here is a sampling of such emails received this week:

Regarding an article Thursday about humpback whales off Santa Cruz, Rebby Kern of Riverside noted: “There is a comma ending a paragraph on page AA4. Thank you.”

Stephany Yablow of North Hollywood found an editing error in the letters in Monday’s Health section: “You have an egregious typographical error. Even if the letter writer said ‘overall,’ you (who reserve editorial prerogative) should have changed it to ‘overhaul.’  The error detracted from the impact of the statement and made The Times look stupid.  This is a perfect example of why proofreaders (if you still have such people) cannot rely on ‘spell check.’ ”

And several readers pointed out a verb tense error (now fixed) in a headline on a blog post about Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries. Patricia Oats of Fairfield, Iowa, was one: “Headline: 'Kim Kardashian, Kris Humphries: What factors lead to divorce?' It should be ‘what factors led to divorce?’ (past tense). Granted, if one is reading about the Kardashians, one is probably none too bright, but still the L.A. Times should have some standards, we think.”

Research done for the American Copy Editors Society this spring confirmed what the Readers’ Rep inbox tells us.

Fred Vultee, a journalism professor at Wayne State University, studied a group of readers over a three-month period. His findings:

  • Readers who read more news tend to be more critical than people who read less.
  • Dedicated readers expect a higher level of quality than casual readers, particularly in terms of grammar and professionalism.
  • Readers notice grammar errors and find them troubling and distracting.
  • Readers notice writing that is garbled and confusing, and when words are misspelled or misused.
  • Most readers are less concerned about errors of style and story structure than they are about professionalism and grammar. “They really don’t care if you abbreviate ‘road,’ Vultee said. “They don’t care if you start a paragraph with a number.”

Readers who are concerned about such errors often ask — as one reader did above — whether stories are still edited or proofread. Yes, they are.

For online articles and blog posts, nearly all are edited before being published. An article may be published before editing if it is breaking news or a competitive story. In those cases, an editor will edit it after the fact, make any fixes, and republish.

All stories for the print edition are edited before publication.

As every editor knows, more errors are caught than not. However, despite the best intentions of reporters and editors, errors do sometimes slip through. And readers notice.

— Deirdre Edgar

 

'Mexico Under Siege': Sensational, or a stark truth?

Weapons

Since June 2008, The Times has been reporting on the drug-related violence on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The series is labeled “Mexico Under Siege” and has included more than 300 articles to date. The most recent article, on vigilantes targeting the drug cartels, was published Thursday. But reader John Fries of Long Beach finds the label misleading. He wrote:

Now yet another article under the headline or title ‘Mexico Under Siege.’ As a frequent traveler to Mexico, most recently three weeks driving in Yucatan, I object to the insinuation contained in this title.  Yes, there are some parts of Mexico I would not travel to, just as there are some parts of Los Angeles I don’t drive through on surface streets.

To imply that all of Mexico, and all tourists traveling in Mexico, face daily and constant danger is false, misleading and does a disservice both to Mexico and to our fellow citizens possibly interested in visiting our neighbor. It’s no wonder that recently I meet more Europeans than Americans when I travel. 

I urge The Times to reconsider the way it presents these articles. I am not asking for self-censorship, but rather honest reporting that does not sensationalize nor over-emphasize the actual risk of violence, especially to tourists, very few of whom are ever impacted. Lose the sensationalistic ‘Mexico Under Siege.’

Geoffrey Mohan, the editor who oversaw the project when it began, responds:

Our philosophy was to begin covering the killings down there as a real war, instead of publishing piecemeal, incremental crime stories. At the time, the statistics we gathered were staggering: several thousand deaths just in the year since President Felipe Calderon “declared war” on drug mafias.

At first, I questioned the central metaphor of a “siege.” I hesitated to isolate just “Mexico” as well. At the time, there were only a few places where a siege mentality prevailed –- governments paralyzed by threats from drug traffickers, police corps corrupted or cowed by the same.

So, we were careful to write stories about the U.S. responsibility, and even wrote out of Canada. We also were cautious in every story to isolate the areas where the violence was occurring, and took quite a few opportunities to write about how normal life was in other areas, Baja and the Yucatan among them.

But I have to say history absolves us, to quote Fidel Castro for a moment. Since the series was launched in June 2008, the violence has spread to areas that never had such a problem, and many more civilians are either being caught up in the violence or living under direct threat or control of traffickers.

All the placid tourist trips into back roads of Yucatan or Baja do little to dispel that truth. Those areas are exceptions solely because they no longer lie in the trade routes (the Caribbean and Pacific routes have shifted). But drug violence is no longer a “fringe” or “border” state problem in Mexico: Interior states that never experienced this level of violence before include much of central Mexico, from Michoacan up through Nuevo Leon. Violence has entrenched itself in Veracruz state, on the east coast. It’s no longer just Sinaloa/Durango/Chihuahua and border states. It’s pandemic.

Photo: Suspects and weapons are displayed by the Mexican navy on June 9. Credit: Jorge Lopez  / Reuters

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