AP editors slander authors

« previous post | next post »

This Yahoo News headline shocked Bethany M.: “Women, girls rape victims in Haiti quake aftermath“, 3/16/2010.

Then she realized that the headline writer meant rape to be a noun rather than a verb, and she was even more upset.

Just in case someone wakes up and changes this classic crash blossom:

The same AP headline ran unchanged in the Washington Post and elsewhere:

Bethany may also be distressed to read that “Nurses to be offered training to help rape victims“.



49 Comments

  1. Jon Weinberg said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    I had a little difficulty when I got up this morning and read, on the front page of the (print) New York Times, that “Team Owners Hoping to Sell Face a New Opponent: Recession.” It took me three tries.

  2. anonymous coward said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 8:12 am

    “This is tragic because the criminal justice system has more power to help rape victims than any other institution.”

    “The centres provide independent help and advice to rape victims outside of legal jurisdiction…”

    “Now, playing a part in providing this medication to rape victims — that’s something you can feel peppy about.”

    Seems like a common enough problem outside of the headlines, too.

  3. Mark P said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    I know writing headlines can be hard, but this one has so many obvious alternatives (like, “Rapes increase in Haiti quake aftermath” or, how about “Women face new danger after Haiti quake”. I think these would fit.) It’s almost as if the headline writer went hunting for crash blossoms.

  4. a soulless automaton said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    On the subject of headline writers hunting for crash blossoms, I’m mildly embarrassed to note that not only did I make the (obvious, intended) misreading of this post’s title at first, but that it wasn’t until after reading the entire post and wondering how the title was relevant that I realized the ambiguity, finally triggering the “backtrack-and-reparse” step.

    I plead lack of morning coffee, but it also occurs to me that it would be an interesting exercise in the art of the crash blossom to see how far into the associated article a reader must go before being able to make sense of a carefully misconstructed headline.

  5. Sam said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    This sort of ambiguity common – and might I say even unavoidable – given how rape is generally covered in the media. It’s known as “Invisible Rapist Syndrome.” In the land of news coverage, rape is something that happens to someone, not something someone else does. “Rapists target women, girls in Haiti quake aftermath” is much more clear-cut, and yet would never appear as a headline.

  6. Faldone said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    I think this is a measure of how much the writers think that “rape victim” is a commonly understood expression. I had a little trouble misreading any of the heds.

  7. Ellen K. said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 10:12 am

    A distinct difference between the first headline quoted in the post and all the other headlines listed here, is that, in reference to the aftermath of the earthquate, “victims” as the object of “rape” makes sense. It’s easy to read it as victims of the quake being raped, with only the gender of the people mentioned that clues in that rape is not a verb. In the others, rape as a verb doesn’t work because then the word “victims” doesn’t fit. Not unless one assumes some unknown context where they are already victims of something before getting raped.

  8. Mr Punch said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    A well-known America university used to have (may still, for all I know) an officer with the title, “Coordinator of Sexual Violence.”

  9. Craig Russell said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    It took me several tries to get this one right (I wanted the “fix” to be a NP: girl rape victims).

    It occurs to me that a lot of these problems would be solved if we had the same orthographic convention as German, where freshly formed compound nouns were written as a single word (rapevictims). People always comment about how long German nouns can get, but it seems to me that English can jam together nouns just as well:

    “Do you remember the color of the back bedroom doorknob handle?”

    It’s just that we don’t write “backbedroomdoorknobhandle” like German does. Why not?

  10. Dan T. said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 11:11 am

    Making it a single word would, at least to common English sensibilities, carry an implication that “backbedroomdoorknobhandle” was a notable and significant category of things deserving of a special name of its own, not just a combination of identifying words a speaker came up with on the fly.

  11. Acilius said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    @Sam: I think you’ve got it exactly right.

  12. J Greely said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    Rape-related headlines are so easy to get wrong that they should always be reviewed by someone else before publication. One of my favorites, from the Ohio State University Lantern: “OSU Academy requires rape, cultural training”.

    -j

  13. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    I know writing headlines can be hard, but this one has so many obvious alternatives (like, “Rapes increase in Haiti quake aftermath” or, how about “Women face new danger after Haiti quake”. I think these would fit.) It’s almost as if the headline writer went hunting for crash blossoms.

    Personally I think it had less to do with the individual writer than with US headline writing idiom. This particular form of crash blossom would be much less likely to occur in UK papers, I believe. For a start, British headlines don’t tend to do the two-nouns-separated-by-a-comma thing, nor do they like to skip the verb “to be”, Russian style, as much as American papers do.

    I’d also agree with Sam’s point. As it stands, the headline has a weird (and of course desperately depressing) man bites dog feel to it. Of course women and girls are rape victims in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake. They’re almost always the targets of rapists.

  14. parse said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    Sam, a quick search of google news shows plenty of results for “rapist,” including headlines, and the first page of the results suggests that the formation “geographical-location rapist” is a common journalistic device. I see East Coast Rapist, Jax Beach Rapist and NoHo Rapist (along with “pantyhose rapist.” What suggests to you that such constructions would never appear in headlines?

    The story with the crash blossom is different in that, in this case, there is no single “rapist” who is the subject of the report.

  15. Mark P said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    I’m not sure about a US headline writing idiom. Way back when I went to J school, I took a class that included writing headlines. I think my instructor would have ridiculed this headline for its ambiguity as well as criticizing it for the lack of a verb (or the ambiguity that would allow “rape” to be seen as a verb). If he had been an actor, he would have been typecast as a grizzled newspaper editor. Although he conformed pretty well to the stereotype of a newspaperman, his style didn’t conform to an idiom that would encourage this type of crash blossom. Maybe he was the last one.

  16. Craig Russell said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    @Dan

    But that’s what I’m saying. In German, you can create brand new compound nouns on the fly (the equivalent of backbedroomdoorknobhandle) and they get written as single words, without necessarily being considered new lexical items worthy of being recorded in a dictionary. In English, we can also create compound nouns on the fly (back bedroom doorknob handle) but the convention is that we don’t write them as single words. But that’s just the orthographic norm English speakers have chosen to use to write down their language–it’s not a fact about the English language itself.

    We could just as easily use a German-style system and put these compound nouns together (or use hyphens, or do something else to represent that all the elements go together to make what is essentially being used as a single noun). And if we did so, we would have the advantage of not having this ambiguity in headlines (admittedly a small payoff for such a big change in global English writing conventions).

    But I guess my larger point is: it’s interesting that both English and German have ways of combining multiple nouns that are somewhat similar, and yet the two languages choose to represent these combinations very differently in the written version of each language.

  17. Bill Walderman said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

    Is it possible that some headline writers deliberately contrive crash blossoms that lead to humorous misinterpretations?

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

    @Sam: There’s also an “Invisible Killer Syndrome”. A Google search for “Juarez Consulate” returns these on the first page:

    Canada Issues Travel Advisory On Northern Mexico After Killing Of American Couple

    Americans Killed In Drive-By Shooting At Consulate In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Obama ‘Outraged’

    3 with ties to US consulate killed in Mexican city

    Mexico gunmen kill American consulate staff

    Three with links to U.S. Consulate in Juarez are slain

    Three slain in Juárez tied to U.S. consulate; Obama, Clinton condemn killings

    US Consulate Officials Killed In Juarez Shooting

    U.S. Consulate Employee Shot in Juarez

    Only one out of eight mentions those responsible. One might say that the murders mentioned are newsworthy in the U.S. only because of the nationality of the victims, but the author of the headline about Haiti also had a point to make about the the victims, namely that girls are victims as well as women. (In fact, the whole headline is pretty pointless, as men would have raped women and girls in Haiti in the last two months even if the earthquake hadn’t happened, if the usual rate is anything like that in the United States.)

    This is also the usual pattern for reports of beatings (“X Beaten”), as I recall. I suspect an important reason is that the story often has little or nothing to say about the unknown criminals.

  19. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    Craig Russell: How do German spellcheckers cope with this phenomenon? English ones have enough trouble with this, objecting to compound terms that are formed using well-established rules of composition (like ‘unfree’); if terms like ‘backbedroomdoorknobhandle’ could be formed freely, I can imagine almost every word in a sentence having a red line under it.

  20. The Mysterious Masked Linguist said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    The best one I’ve seen was: Detective makes promise to rape victim, tracks man for 10 years

    The first comment on Fark was “Well? Did he finally rape him or what?”

  21. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    I’m not sure about a US headline writing idiom. Way back when I went to J school, I took a class that included writing headlines. I think my instructor would have ridiculed this headline for its ambiguity as well as criticizing it for the lack of a verb (or the ambiguity that would allow “rape” to be seen as a verb).

    Oh, I’m sure this individual headline would be criticised. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fit with the idiom. There’s a massive difference between British and US headlines – it’s been discussed here before. And omitting “to be” from headlines is very common in the US (compared to the UK) – see this old LL post about a reader complaining when a US paper did use a form of “to be” in a headline.

  22. Mark P said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    Ginger Yellow, I couldn’t say how US practice differs from British, but I wouldn’t lump all US papers into the same group. Some US papers are more visible than others, but their styles are not necessarily representative of all, or even most US papers. Also, it seemed odd to me that a paper would print a headline from an AP story. We often printed AP stories, but I don’t remember ever using a headline that accompanied an AP story; we wrote our own.

  23. Brett said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    @Craig Russell: While the fact that German uses compounds this way and English does not is probably mostly just a quirk of circumstance, there is at least one reason why it would work less well in English. If long German word is unfamiliar, it can simply be read out and processed into its component pieces. For me at least (as a non-native German speaker) it is “pronouncing” the compound in my head that makes in intelligible; I do not easily see the component words on the page. This is possible because the rules of German pronunciation are relatively fixed.

    In English, the rules of pronunciation relative to spelling are extremely muddled. We know that a terminal “e” is usually not pronounced and instead usually affects how the previous vowel is pronounced. Whether an “e” in a compound word is terminal is not clear. And there are many more examples where the way something is pronounced depends on what word it appears in; only through familiarity with specific words can we know what “ough” sounds like. This makes it more difficult to read out a word and discern its components and its meaning from how it sounds.

    Although my five-year-old daughter knows the words “race” and “car” by sight, and she knows spoken word “racecar,” she has tremendous trouble reading it. “Boxcar” on the other hand, is no problem at all. As a deliberately hard example, try making sense of “bitrougharoundedgesman.”

  24. Alissa said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

    I think there is some connection between the “invisible rapist syndrome” and Ellen K’s observation that with ‘rape’ as a verb, ‘victims’ doesn’t fit unless they are victims of something else. A victim is not a victim until the crime occurs, and neither is a rapist a rapist until the rape occurs. Saying that rapists are targeting women and girls in Haiti would mean that they had all raped before (at least according to my judgments) and this is not necessarily true. There are still many clearer ways to write this headline, however.

  25. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    “Ginger Yellow, I couldn’t say how US practice differs from British, but I wouldn’t lump all US papers into the same group.”

    Sure. The same is true for the UK, of course. And the more tabloidy US papers are definitely more in line with the British idiom. But in general there are clearly discernable patterns of difference between headline styles. As a British raised reader (and journo), it’s just so striking when I read an American paper. Every journalistic bone in my body is screaming “That’s not how you write a headline!” Of course, not every headline fits the patterns, even for a given paper that hews closely to the idiom (again, see the linked LL post for numerous counterexamples).

  26. Craig Russell said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    @Brett

    That’s a fair point about the lack of one-to-one correspondence between spelling and pronunciation in English as opposed to German (and for the record, I’m not a native German speaker either, so any statements I make about the language are subject to review from higher authorities).

    But your example “bitrougharoundedgesman” (bit rough around edges man) doesn’t really illustrate the point I’m trying to make. I’m not suggesting that the actual English language should change to be able to create compounds we can’t now make. I’m saying that English ALREADY can make compounds by jamming nouns together (in my opinion at least, there would be nothing terribly unusual about being at the hardware store and saying to your wife, “Hey honey, do you remember what color the back bedroom doorknob handle is?”). This is a property that English has that other languages don’t (for example, I think in most of the Romance languages you would have to say the equivalent of “the handle of the doorknob of the bedroom in the back”).

    Your example “bit rough around edges man” is not really the same as this, because (in my idiolect at least) it’s not a phrase that I could imagine anyone naturally using. (Also, the combinations I am speaking of are made of nouns, where yours has an adjective and a preposition). But English abounds in phrases made up of nouns put together, some of which are so common as to be accepted as their own lexical items (trashcan, coat hanger, bookshelf) and some of them can be made up on the spot for the situation, but still readily understood by English speakers (bookshelf paint, trashcan color, coat hanger material).

    So what I’m speculating about is not an actual change to the language to make it more like German, but a change to the way we WRITE the language. Still, as I said before, your point about the difficulties that might be caused by the opaqueness of English spelling conventions is a fair one.

  27. Craig Russell said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    As for the question about German spellcheckers, I don’t know the answer to this, but I imagine that the spellcheckers might be programmed with the rules for how words are compounded so that it can recognize novel compounds and check their component words.

    I imagine English spellcheckers might have a similar feature: e.g. I wonder if spellcheckers’ dictionaries include four separate entries for every regular noun—with or without a plural -s ending or possessive -‘s or -s’ ending—or if the words are simply tagged as regular nouns and the spellchecker is taught the rules for how these endings can be added.

  28. Jonathan Badger said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

    That’s how many spellcheckers work, yes. They don’t literally have a entry for singular and plural forms (unless irregular). And in languages other than English where are more inflections, these rules are essential. Finnish has fifteen noun cases; it would be unreasonable for a Finnish spell checker to store fifteen versions of every noun.

  29. Bill Walderman said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    “If long German word is unfamiliar, it can simply be read out and processed into its component pieces. . . . This is possible because the rules of German pronunciation are relatively fixed.”

    Written Danish follows the same practice as German of linking strings of words together without spaces; yet Danish spelling doesn’t seem to reflect Danish pronunciation very closely.

  30. Army1987 said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    I think in most of the Romance languages you would have to say the equivalent of “the handle of the doorknob of the bedroom in the back”
    In Italian it’s “… of the room of bed (camera da letto) in the back”, actually.

  31. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

    backbe droom doork nobhandle

  32. Peter Taylor said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

    a soulless automaton wrote:

    I plead lack of morning coffee, but it also occurs to me that it would be an interesting exercise in the art of the crash blossom to see how far into the associated article a reader must go before being able to make sense of a carefully misconstructed headline.

    I’m sure I have once or twice read an entire (short) article multiple times before deciphering the headline. Unfortunately I didn’t take notes.

  33. uberVU - social comments said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by PhilosophyFeeds: Language Log: Yahoo editors slander authors http://goo.gl/fb/oheq

  34. Joshua said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

    I don’t understand how the title of this post corresponds to its content. If the AP editors defamed anyone, it was women and girls, by creating a headline that implied that they were raping victims. If you meant that the AP editors were defaming the author of the article by misrepresenting the content of her article, there was only one author involved so the plural “authors” would be inaccurate. This is besides the issue of the slander/libel distinction (since this is written content, it would be classified as libel rather than slander, if either applied to the situation).

    [(myl) It seem that you were led down the garden path and never returned.

    The idea was that the headline should be interpreted “(The) AP editors (are) slander-authors”, i.e. the authors of slander, just as their headline was meant to mean that “Haitian women (and) girls (are) rape-victims”, i.e. the victims of rape.]

  35. B. W. said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 1:03 am

    I’m a German native speaker. As far as I know, spellcheckers check the individual components of compound words. Regarding the pronunciation issue: I don’t think that it matters much whether the spelling matches the pronunciation; it’s mostly a matter of being used to compounds written like that. For example, I had no problems at all with “bitrougharoundedgesman”, although, as Craig Russell pointed out, it’s not even normal English. If English had more “space-less” compounds, no fluent reader would have problems with compounds like that. It’s different for learners, of course; for them the difficulty increases with each letter that’s added to a word. But that’s just part of learning to read, isn’t it? (And of course, you could just use hyphens to visually separate the words.)

    It works the other way too: For someone not used to compounds being written with spaces between the words, it can be difficult to read sentences with long compounds of three or more words. Then after a while you get used to it – sort of waiting for a few words during the reading process before assembling the meaning.

    I may be wrong, but wasn’t it more common in 17th/18th century English to write compounds with hyphens and not spaces? Texts from these periods often feel a bit more like German to me, in part also because sentences tend to be longer.

  36. Neal Goldfarb said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 1:39 am

    @B.W.” I had no problems at all with “bitrougharoundedgesman”, although, as Craig Russell pointed out, it’s not even normal English. If English had more “space-less” compounds, no fluent reader would have problems with compounds like that.

    For me, these are visual mondegreens.

    bitrougharoundedgesman
    bitro ugharo unded gesman

    Reminds me of a thing my father used to do:

    Him: “How do you pronounce the word that’s spelled like this:
    C-H-O……
    P-H-O……
    U-S-E?”

    Me (or whoever): “Chohfohyuse?”

    Him: “No”

    Me/whoever: “Chofoosie?”

    Him: “No”

    Whoever: ???

    Him: “Chop house”

  37. J. Goard said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 7:50 am

    @Ellen:

    Very interesting… consider these examples:

    (1) ?? Many men rape victims at parties.
    (2) Many men rape their victims at parties.

    Any thoughts on why the possessive construction can bring in the relational noun here?

  38. Ellen K. said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    I think when you add the possessive, then the noun describes what the person is within the relationship. Imagine “wives” instead of “victims” (with perhaps a more appropriate verb) in those sentences.

  39. delagar said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    Why would this headline not read, “Men Rape Women, Girls in Haiti Quake Aftermath”?

    Unless there’s some real possibility that the rapists raping the women & girls are women?

    That’s the bit that puzzles me, frankly. (No, not really. I’m just messing.)

  40. Eirik Hektoen said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    I am a native speaker of Norwegian, which also (like German) writes noun compounds of arbitrary length together as single words.

    In my understanding this is not just a writing convention, however. A Norwegian compound like “soveromdørhåndtak” has a single primary stress (on the first syllable in this case), whereas the English equivalent “bedroom door handle” has three.

    So, by this standard the Norwegian compound really is one word while the English one consists of three words.

    I don’t know if the same is true for German, Danish or other cases.

  41. Marion Crane said,

    March 18, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    Dutch also allows compounds to be written without spaces. They are treated as a single word, though often not included in disctionaries. A famous example is ‘hottentottententententoonstelling’, but mainly because it uses so many similar syllables that people find it amusing.

    I think what B.W. says is true, that it simply depends on what you were thought. To me, English compounds do give me a delayed reading time, but years of using both languages daily have blurred the edges, and I’m prone to writing Dutch compounds with spaces and English ones without.

    Oh, but I almost forget my point, which is that in Dutch, the ambiguity would not be gone by making ‘rape victims’ a compound. Because you can’t. ‘verkrachtingsslachtoffer’ makes a horrible Dutch noun and I can’t imagine headline writers ever using it. A quick search of the story yielded ‘Ramp Haïti treft vrouwen meest’ which does not mention the rape, ‘Golf verkrachtingen in tentenkampen op Haïti’ which says exactly what the problem is, ‘Gruwel in tentenkampen Haïti, tweejarige meisjes verkracht’ which uses the form I’d have used in this context, ‘verkracht’. So why could that English headline not simply say something like ‘Women and girls raped in Haitian quake aftermath’? I’ll even look aside if they still want to drop the ‘and’ though it feels not right.

  42. Murugaraj said,

    March 19, 2010 @ 2:47 am

    Why can’t we suggest “rape-victims”? Would that be a simpler edit to make the headline clear?

  43. Graeme said,

    March 19, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    ‘Women, girls raped in Haiti quake aftermath’

    Clearer and shorter.

    It’s almost PC to expect ‘victims’ to be added: but it’s tautologous. Who could read ‘rape’ as a verb and not imagine victims, criminals etc?

  44. Ellen said,

    March 19, 2010 @ 9:55 am

    It’s not just including the word “victims” or not. In order to not use the word “victims”, you have use “rape” as a verb, which is a bigger change than including a particular word or not. I’m inclined to think it’s better that way, but headline writers might think differently.

  45. Aviatrix said,

    March 19, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    If you’re going to misread the headline to make the women the rapists, then Women, girls raped in Haiti quake aftermath is parallels Men, boys looted in Haïti quake aftermath.

  46. Keith said,

    March 24, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    A new crash blossom from the BBC today: “Girl hostage-taker kills himself”, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/highlands_and_islands/8584589.stm

  47. David Walker said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    Oops, I posted this in the wrong thread…

    “Transfer cleared by pope, priest molested again”

    NY Times, March 26, 2010

  48. marie-lucie said,

    July 17, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

    What is a doorknob handle? I think that either knob or handle here is superfluous.

    There are too ways to open or close a traditional door without using a key: by turning a roundish, solid piece or by pushing up or down a more or less straight, thin piece roughly parallel to the door surface. Either of these pieces is linked to the door by a stem perpendicular to it, which is usually barely noticeable if at all, and not suitable as an object of decoration. So a door is equipped with either a doorknob or a door handle, either of which may be of a certain colour, but the doorknob does not “have” a handle any more than a door handle “has” a knob.

  49. John Doe said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 9:42 pm

    In reply to Bill Walderman’s question: “Is it possible that some headline writers deliberately contrive crash blossoms that lead to humorous misinterpretations?” the answer is “Certainly”.

    Writing hundreds, thousands of headlines, many of them on identical topics, is a mind-numbing task alleviated through self-amusement. An editor who worked at a shipping magazine once told me the only way they amused themselves was to try and get “reefer” (industry speak for a refrigerated shipping container) into as many headlines as possible…Newspapers headlines meant to be sensational, grab your attention, attract your eye, there’s no need for clarity. The “shock” of thinking that women AND girls are raping some anonymous victims (if anyone would jump to that conclusion first) is enough to justify the headline.

RSS feed for comments on this post