« previous post | next post »

Yet Another Self-Referential Rhetorical Critique: Martin Robbins, "This is a news website article about a scientific paper", The Guardian, 9/27/2010.

In the standfirst I will make a fairly obvious pun about the subject matter before posing an inane question I have no intention of really answering: is this an important scientific finding?

I've learned something already: standfirst is an alternative jargon term for kickerdek (or "deck"), sub-hed (or "sub-head"), etc.  Or perhaps these are all subtly different technical terms rather than dialectal variants…

Anyhow, standfirst is not in the OED, though it can be found in Grant Barrett's Double-Tongued Dictionary.

Moving onward with Robbins' self-referential article:

In this paragraph I will state the main claim that the research makes, making appropriate use of "scare quotes" to ensure that it's clear that I have no opinion about this research whatsoever.

In this paragraph I will briefly (because no paragraph should be more than one line) state which existing scientific ideas this new research "challenges".

And so on.  I have to say that Robbins is describing a relatively high-quality piece of science journalism. He faults it  for lack of insight and courage:

This paragraph elaborates on the claim, adding weasel-words like "the scientists say" to shift responsibility for establishing the likely truth or accuracy of the research findings on to absolutely anybody else but me, the journalist.

But in my experience, all too many such articles are blindly credulous or even extravagantly hallucinatory.

This kind of rhetorical-critique-by-self-describing-template is getting to be common. For some others, see "The rhetorical structure of a cable news story", 3/10/2010; "Pragmatics as comedy", 1/28/2010; and the many links in those posts and (especially) their comments.

[Hat tip to Andrew Jones.]

[Update — Courtesy of sep332 in the comments below, here's a similar exercise from Stephen Colbert: "Stephen wins an Emmy", 8/23/2010:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Stephen Wins an Emmy
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News

Speaking of which, who's going to join me at the March to Keep Fear Alive ("Never forget — 'Reason' is just one letter away from 'Treason.'") in Washington on Oct. 30? ]


  1. Commenter said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

    This comment has been optimised by SEO experts to appeal to your key target demographics .

  2. Name (required) said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

    A comment, left by me.

    (Mock-bashful apology, asserting that the comment's author "couldn't resist", when anyone who knows the author would know that he could indeed resist, but chose not to as usual.)

  3. sep332 said,

    September 27, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

    Don't forget Stephen Colbert's empty madlibs: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/351552/august-23-2010/stephen-wins-an-emmy

  4. Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 12:29 am

    This comment notes that the joke has been made before, while realising that this is semi-ironically implicit in the original article. This commenter is somewhat surprised that no-one has pointed this out yet here, but presumes that someone has on another blog.

    This… oh, what the hell, disappears down it’s own navel befo…

  5. maidhc said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:12 am

    Generic Uptempo Folk Song

  6. Richard Sabey said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:15 am

    An earlier example (the earliest?) is David Moser's "This Is the Title of This Story, Which Is Also Found Several Times in the Story Itself": http://www.whoopis.com/~mbates/selfref.html

  7. Garrett Wollman said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 3:24 am

    "Is this an important scientific finding?" is not always an inane question (although one certainly shouldn't expect a serious answer from a newspaper article). In my lab, one faculty member is well-known for heckling in just this style; this greatly increases the entertainment value of seminars and thesis defenses as the speaker is forced to articulate why the problem he just spent five years of his life on has any practical relevance.

  8. Peter Harvey said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 5:52 am

    Having read your post I went to the Guardian's article and uploaded it to Facebook. The text that FB quoted substitutes 'trail' for 'standfirst' though the display of the article is unchanged..

  9. Barney said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 7:31 am

    Peter: That appears to be because the page on guardian.co.uk uses 'standfirst' in the text to be displayed, but then repeats the same text in the meta description tag but using 'trail' instead. Facebook must be picking up this description.

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    ML: I have to say that Robbins is describing a relatively high-quality piece of science journalism

    Maybe. Context helps, I guess; it's a very specific dig at the format of BBC website reports on scientific papers. Very often they're as poor-quality as "blindly credulous or even extravagantly hallucinatory" ones, but in a more insidious way, by putting a gloss of neutrality and balance on stories that aren't neutral or balanced.

    He missed one wrinkle, the use of inverted commas in the heading so that it gets the best of both worlds: the overall impact of a bold unambiguous statement about something curing or causing something, along with the qualification that it's only a provisional assertion.

    City life 'boosts bug resistance'

  11. Chris said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    For what it's worth, I will be at the Oct 30th march (since I can walk to The Mall, it seems silly not to go).

  12. Dan T. said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    There was the theme song to It's Garry Shandling's Show, which began "This is the theme to Gary's show" and continued with more self-reference.

  13. Dan T. said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    In the linked article, there should also be, in the section about why they're not linking to the actual journal article, "d) The journal put it behind a paywall, so it's not accessible to mere mortals unwilling to spend $bignum to read it."

    Also, somewhere in the middle of the article there should be "This is where the article is arbitrarily broken into a second page requiring you to follow a 'Next' link, in order to inflate the ad-banner hit count."

  14. peterv said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 5:10 pm

    And let's not forget that Scottish TV comedy series of a few years ago, entitled, in answer to a question:

    "No, This is this. Goodbye is goodbye."

  15. Rod Johnson said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

    Robert Wyatt, 1972: "This is the first verse…" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uH-AhFpPG4Y

  16. Dan T. said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

    Weird Al Yankovic: "This Song's Just Six Words Long" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sppRrbtxVD0

  17. Cathy said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 2:41 am

    Hi there
    A comment from a long, long way away, in a town far, far, from the bright centre of the universe.
    Here in Australia, we commonly use the phrase 'standfirst' to describe a short introductory 'teaser' sentence run before the main article.
    Perhaps the colonial influence?

  18. Qhapaqinka said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 7:47 am

    And Trailer for Every Oscar-Winning Movie Ever:

  19. Alen Mathewson said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    The term standfirst is farily common in British magazine journalism (where appearance is perhaps more carefully considered compared to newspaper journalism, for example); and in the same context 'deck' refers to a line of headline (so a headline that spreads over two lines is two deck) and a sub-head is a secondary headline. Standfirst has a sister term in 'standpart' or 'standapart' which is a short 'key' phrase or sentence that is taken out of the article text and used in a semi-decorative manner. The term 'casting off' will be familiar to knitters, but is also used in magazine journalism for adjusting the length of text so that it fits more neatly, usually by substituting a shorter word somewhere in the text. Such action prevents the occurance of 'widows' or 'orphans', terms which are used fairly widely to refer to 'stray' words or lines of text.

  20. groki said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    @Alen Mathewson: 'standpart' or 'standapart' which is a short 'key' phrase or sentence that is taken out of the article text and used in a semi-decorative manner.

    US journalism uses 'pull quote' for this.

RSS feed for comments on this post