The Toronto Star is a serial distorter

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A couple of days ago, the Toronto Star completely screwed up its explanation of the IELTS English proficiency test, by presenting as "an example of Part 1 of the writing test" some badly-designed material from a training booklet not even published by the test designers, asking questions of a kind that are apparently never found on the test.

Arnold Zwicky reminds me that the same newspaper did essentially the same thing a little more than two years ago, as Arnold documented in "Do you speak Canadian?", 6/4/2008.

It's shocking how badly some major newspapers sometimes misrepresent basic matters of fact — and how little attempt the editors apparently make to correct these errors and to prevent the same thing from happening all over again a short time later.

[Update 8/1/2010 — Brett R offers the following amelioration:

Although the claim about the Star being a serial distorter is likely right, it doesn't apply in this case. The graphic in question is from the 2008 story, not the new one. I don't see anything in the July 20, 2010 story which is a distortion except perhaps that it links to the uncorrected 2008 story.

This is a fair comment. I got the link to the Star's .pdf from another commenter, and didn't notice that it dated from 2008 (when there was also another misleading explanation of the test, discussed at the time by Arnold Zwicky) rather than from 2010.

So I owe the Star an apology for the "serial" part — especially because (at least as of this morning) the 2010 story doesn't actually link to the misleading 2008 description.]


  1. Mark P said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    I think I have commented that reporters as a class are the least well educated of all professionals (I use that word loosely), and as a former newspaper reporter I think I can make that claim legitimately. But I can't figure out what's going on with the Star. Do they consider these pieces so fluffy that accuracy is not important? Have they laid off so much of their staff that they no longer have competent reporters or editors? Are they careless? Lazy? Ignorant?

    I tried to Google the Star to see if they had a reputation and I found this:

    My search terms were "Toronto Star reputation idiots".

  2. Nicholas Waller said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    "a little more than a year ago"

    Jolly Nit – June 2008 is a little more than two years ago. I know, time flies when you're having fun. (I can lose a whole decade sometimes, eg idly thinking 1985 is fifteen years ago).

    [(myl) Wow, I wonder how many more silly mistakes I can make in a five-minute three-sentence post? But at least I can rely on commenters to set me straight (and I pay enough attention to correct the more egregious mistakes fairly promptly). What puzzles me most is why the analogous process doesn't work for, say, the Toronto Star, Canada's largest-circulation newspaper.]

  3. Tomasz M said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    Although I don't dispute the Star's shoddy journalism, I would like to point out that Language Log picked up the story rather credulously. You have a duty to your readers, too!

    [(myl) Are you referring to my 7/29/2010 9:10 a.m. post, which quoted the Star's report on the establishment of the language requirement, and asked whether the featured corporate lawyer really needed to sweat it? As far as I can see now, everything asserted there was true, and everything questioned was questionable.

    Or are you referring to my 7/29/2010 8:10 p.m. post, which led with a hope that the preposterous "sample test" on the Star's web site was "an epic example of journalistic misunderstanding" rather than a genuine sample from the IELTS? Indeed, the sample test turned out to be a piece of botched reporting on the part of the Toronto Star.

    Or could you be referring to Arnold Zwicky's 6/4/2008 post, which observed that the sample question in the Star's story (on an earlier attempt to impose a language proficiency requirement) was (1) grammatically nuts, and (2) of a type not to be found anywhere in the IELTS exams, but was apparently taken from some third-party test preparation material, in a process described as "reportorial mischief".

    Since all of these posts were about as skeptical as it's possible to be about information published in Canada's widest-circulation newspaper, without starting from the assumption that it's managed by malicious psychopaths, I conclude that either your reading comprehension needs work, or you didn't actually read the posts in question, or you have a strange idea about what "credulous" means.]

  4. Nick Lamb said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

    Mark, what Bill Gates says in this interview is largely true, and probably applies well to newspapers and to the news media in general. People don't like it, but there it is.

    “There are no significant bugs in our released software that any significant number of users want fixed.” —

    The numerous errors in newspaper articles are bugs. You will buy a new paper tomorrow because it has new stories. If someone published the same newspaper every day, but with errors from yesterday fixed, you wouldn't buy it. Bill's just being unusually honest.

    [(myl) I agree that bad reporting and editing rarely seem to have negative consequences for newspapers. Still, I find it surprising when reporters and editors don't bother to try to put forward the truth, when (as in this case) the effort required to get it is minimal, and it's no less interesting than the nonsense that they actually print.]

  5. unekdoud said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    I may need to start keeping news out of my facts.

  6. Mark P said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    @Nick Lamb – the correction process is supposed to work before the paper goes to press. That's what editors are for. For truly egregious errors of fact, a correction should be printed as soon as possible.

  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    On Slate in 2006, I wrote up another journalistic lapse by the Toronto Star: the false story of "body bags" being renamed "transfer tubes" by the Pentagon.

  8. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    @myl "Wow, I wonder how many more silly mistakes I can make in a five-minute three-sentence post?":

    Well, if we want to be pedantic, we can question the verb agreement in "asking questions of a kind that are apparently never found on the test". Syntactically the subject of "are" is a relative pronoun "that" whose antecedent is the singular "kind", so it should arguably be "asking questions of a kind that is apparently never found on the test". But the actual meaning here is "questions of a certain kind having the property that questions of that kind are never found on the test", so maybe this is a perfectly grammatical use of notional agreement?

  9. army1987 said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

    "idly thinking 1985 is fifteen years ago"
    Happens to me all the time, too.

  10. Zubon said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

    On the one hand: "One linguistic mistake every two years? Not too bad."

    [(myl) Neither of these was a "linguistic mistake". In each case, the Star claimed to be helping its readers understand the nature of a test required for would-be permanent residents in Canada, by showing them what purported to be a sample from the test. In each cases, the sample that they offered was (a) incoherent or otherwise unanswerable, (b) not from the test, and (c) of a type not ever found in the test.

    You'd think that after they screwed this up once, there'd be some institutional memory to prevent it from happening again in exactly the same way.]

    On the other hand: "…that we noticed, and how common is it across other subjects?"

  11. Xmun said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    1985 was only yesterday.

  12. Clayton Burns said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    Is there any defense for our Toronto Star? Perhaps not. Is there any excuse for The New York Times for having failed in its language columns to distinguish between IELTS, TOEIC, and TOEFL, as against the best products of the corpus revolution in linguistics: COBUILD grammars and the new Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, along with its CD?

    The person I respect most in linguistics is John Sinclair. He was disappointed in American adaptation to COBUILD. In Canada, I have never become aware of a college or university where the most basic integration of corpus tools with literature is being undertaken. If we were to look up the listed reference nouns in chapter 9 in the COBUILD English Grammar (cohesion) in the LDOCE and then examine texts–philosophy is a good subject for abstraction–we would make headway.
    The set "attribution," "ascription," and "imputation" is a fascinating one.

    If we were determined, and if we did not have all these odd prejudices about what students can learn. IELTS is the incarnation of prejudice against "foreigners." You can tell by the dumbing down. And the intellectual fakery that masks as research. How did NYT fail to notice the weird–even eccentric–scoring practices in the New York schools that are now coming into the bright light of the truth?

    Put it to the ESL people in America–you will find a number of them listed in the new Barron's IELTS–"How exactly do you teach and test counterfactuals of the form: 'If I had realized how vicious the lion would turn out to be, I would have read Language Log all day, instead of going to the zoo?'" Study. Study. In the best chapter in the COBUILD English Grammar, 8. Then work over counterfactuals obsessively in "Great Expectations." By Dickens, Charles. Count them. More than 150. Such density.

    Then elicit them in tests: "What would you have done if our Toronto Star had tried to get that IELTS story past you? Would you have blamed the reporter, or yourself?"

    Practise recursion instead of dopplerizing everything. Mark and Ben (and Ben and Mark): You two have–to a degree–created the news systems you are complaining about.

    Ben, especially, why not pick up an IELTS manual–the new Barron's would give you a good chance to do some interviewing, perhaps, and explain the nature of this IELTS animal to us. Try not to leave us high and dry again. Fodder for the lion.

    [(myl) "Practise recursion instead of dopplerizing everything"? "Fodder for the lion?"

    If I understood what you're saying, I might be able to help.]

  13. Clayton Burns said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    (myl): I really do not know what to say, except that I had no intention of offending you. Your remarks (in red) do not encourage dialogue. But of course, the blog is yours, so you can do what you want with it. I am not going to explain anything right now. But I will later on. Thanks.

    [(amz) Mark said he didn't understand what you were getting on about in the things he quoted. I didn't either, nor did I understand several other things in the last two paragraphs, in particular the charge that Mark and Ben in part created the news systems they were complaining about and the exhortation, "Try not to leave us high and dry again". Mark wasn't offended, he was baffled — as am I. But your remarks do not encourage dialogue, so it's probably pointless to specify what we're puzzled about.]

  14. Benjamin Lukoff said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 1:06 am

    This doesn't surprise me. It is simply what happens when you push "do more with less" further than is reasonable for a given task. I wouldn't fault the copyeditors, if indeed there are any left on staff. The reporters, well, they should have done a more careful job. But I would guess they weren't given much time to put this together.

    I'm looking at the publishers here, as well as at the public who don't think good content is worth paying for. Of course, more stories like this and it becomes harder and harder to convince them.

    [(myl) I'm sympathetic to the plight of journalists operating with shrinking resources. But I don't think that the blame goes to diminished resources in this case. It's dead easy go to the IELTS site and find their test sample — I just did it in less than 15 seconds elapsed time from typing "IELTS" into Google. The Star's reporter or editor could simply have sent interested readers to that page — or if they wanted to spend more time on the problem, they could have tried to give a higher-level description of the various segments, and an illustrative summary of each one — maybe an hour's work at most?

    In contrast, the "sample test" that the Star presented apparently came from p. 68 of a book Insight into IELTS by Vanessa Jakeman and Claire McDowell, published by Cambridge University Press. The Star's people then had to read through the book to find (what they considered to be) an illustrative example, and either make up their own answer key, or get it from an instructor's copy, or something. Then they had to get their graphics department to lay the whole thing out in the display that they put on their web page. Whatever happened, this process must have taken them a lot longer than the 15 seconds it should have taken them to find a link to genuine IELTS sample questions on line, and probably a lot longer than the hour they might have spent summarizing the test accurately based on information trivially accessible on the IELTS web site.]

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    @Clayton Burns
    I use dopplerize in that context to refer to the tendency of an idea that is approaching you rapidly to seem brighter than it actually is. The physics of the phenomenon is obscure, but we certainly need a dedicated word for the concept.

  16. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    @ Zubon, FWIW, the sample the Toronto Star gave for the IELTS is similar to a query on operating front-end loaders or model trains as an example of a question on an automobile drivers license test. This is not a driving skills error but a reporting competency fault.

  17. Clayton Burns said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    I suggest that The Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania see if members would be interested in reading Andrew M. Colman's "Oxford Dictionary of Psychology," third edition, in the month or so left of the summer.

    The most important terms I thought to be missing from this deep and valuable reference book would have to include "information recursion" and "information dopplerization."

    Dan Lufkin's idea is something I am going to consider. It should be part of the definition of information dopplerization. The Toronto Star coverage of IELTS is a good example: the writers just cannot complete this story. In journalism, it is a reflex to grab at the surface of a story and then left it drift away. In the same way that sound recedes in the Doppler effect. For academics trying to follow the news, this is frustrating. But it is built into the system. That is how journalism schools operate. I know. I attended one.

    However, there is a far better current example of dopplerization than The Star's coverage of IELTS. It is the bizarre news articles on "voodoo death" as that term is being used (abused) by Dr. Martin Samuels. The Vancouver Sun recently carried a story on it, but the paper has failed to follow up. Colman has a forceful entry on "voodoo death" (and "zombie"). Samuels wants to employ this culturally bound term as a catch-all for death under excitement, as when you are overcome by emotion while watching a golfer whack a white ball. This is a barbaric use of "voodoo death."

    Even though I have posted this information at The Harvard Crimson (see Dr. Martin Samuels in relation to Harvard Medical School), there has been no response. The information has been dopplerized. It has to stay dead now. The repression is uncanny.

    What I said about Mark and Ben (amz) was not a charge. We all have a duty to comment on the way our information systems need to be changed. That means that I have the duty, and amz too. It is not an allegation of bad faith. "[L]eave us high and dry" is not meant to be an allegation. It is just a reference to how we still do not have the analyses of how IELTS is a dopplerization tool, as opposed to the COBUILD English Grammar, which is not.

    It is easy to see the pathologies of information that are clearly being aggravated year by year. What is needed is a better way. Systematically, we should be practising information recursion. What is the most powerful way to do it in the schools? I recommend that students in grades 7-9 study "Macbeth," "Othello," "Hamlet," and "King Lear" in the Oxford and Cambridge school editions. In grades 10-12, they should study the very same plays in the new Ardens and the Oxford World's Classics. (The Arden "Hamlet" is brilliant if erratic, and the Oxford World's Classics "Othello" is one of the best texts of Shakespeare ever). Going beyond teaching that way, we need to instill the ideology of recursion. We don't grab at a text and then dump it off. We meditate on it and come back to it.

    Mark's question about "Fodder for the lion" is a fair one. It relates back to the lion in the zoo in my sample sentence. It is just a simple symbol for being subject to the irrational, as is the beast in Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle" such a symbol, in a more elaborate way.

  18. CBK said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

    The Toronto Star acquired a new editor-in-chief in March 2009, and cut editing jobs and outsourced its copyeditors in November 2009, thus is likely to have lost some institutional memory.

    In 2010, the Toronto Star received the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Excellence in Journalism Award. According to a Toronto Star article:

    The Star’s “commitment to accuracy, social responsibility, accountability and overall excellence more than met our criteria,” said Michael Benedict, chair of the CJF’s Excellence Award jury.

    Italics in quote are as in the online version.

  19. Brett R said,

    August 1, 2010 @ 7:53 am

    Although the claim about the Star being a serial distorter is likely right, it doesn't apply in this case. The graphic in question is from the 2008 story, not the new one. I don't see anything in the July 20, 2010 story which is a distortion except perhaps that it links to the uncorrected 2008 story.

  20. Zubon said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    Pardons, my itent was not that their mistake was linguistic but that it was in reporting about linguistics. Would "linguistics mistake" have been a fair way to abbreviate that? If they reported the number of touchdowns per inning in a soccer game, I would understand "sports mistake" in that context, even if that should expand to "mistake in reporting about sports." Crashes blossom everywhere.

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