The Language of News

How do we tell a news story? Can the way we write be the same even in a different language? Here I look at the main stories from three newspapers in three countries – Britain, Ireland and France – on Monday June 2nd, analysing the style, tone, choice of words and the use of quotations.

BRITAIN: THE i

LABOUR PLANS SIGNIFICANT INCREASE IN NHS SPENDING DESPITE FEARS OVER RAISING TAXES by Oliver Wright and Charlie Cooper

The i showcased a political story, like both The Irish Times and Le Monde. With an image of Ed Miliband gesturing wildly alongside the main headline, it higlights his “major new plan” to win the general election particularly through health spending. These two key points about the story entice you to read on. The byline is shared between Oliver Wright – Whitehall Editor – and Charlie Cooper, Health Reporter.

The 20-word intro is a little bit of a disappointment. It’s written in more of a passive style because the writers want to play up the fact that it’s an exclusive. The awkward wording makes a potentially great opening lack flair. “Labour is drawing up plans to increase significantly NHS spending should the party be returned to power, can reveal.” The verbs are more passive in comparison to the other articles I will discuss, with (repeated) phrases like “drawing up,” “examining” and “it is understood”.

While this does link to the subject of the article and the hesitancy with which Labour can test the boundaries of finance limits, the style could have been more engaging. Almost half the article is dedicated to the importance of Labour’s “potential problems” and three ways the party can tackle the need for more NHS spending. There are no particularly strong interviews in the piece and any quotes referenced are from unnamed sources: “senior Labour figures”, “sources close to the shadow Health Secretary,” anonymous Labour representatives and “another Shadow Cabinet source.”

A breakdown of the £95.6bn NHS England health costs is provided alongside the main article on page 4. These huge, startling figures add an extra shade of drama to the accompanying bold tinted pictures of a doctor’s surgery in red, blue, yellow, green, orange and brown. The additional sidebar on the NHS funding crisis is fascinating, offering insights from a recent report from the King’s Fund think tank such as “a quarter of NHS trusts were running a budget deficit” and that “a financial crisis that would damage patients was ‘inevitable’ by 2015-16” (the latter highlighted in bold by the newspaper). This sharp, clear article, with concise quotations from the report, is bolstered by the gloomy opinion of the King’s Fund chief economist and lead author of the report.

The online version leads with the glaring word “exclusive” and the headline is noticeably shorter: “Labour plans big rise in NHS spending.” The intro includes the words “to go into the next election with a manifesto pledge”, giving the original a much-needed boost of active words, and incorporates a comparison to Gordon Brown in the third paragraph: “This would mirror [Mr.] Brown’s raising of NI [national insurance] by 1 per cent in 2002 to fund Labour’s last expansion of the NHS.” One could certainly question why that sentence was included and what was the reaction the writers were hoping to ignite in the reader. The choices of the Liberal Democrats are also mentioned as that party is “also moving towards a commitment to increase NHS funding.”

Crucially, a quote from the only named source – Frank Field – is included on the website. “‘I can’t tell you what a good meeting I had with Ed Balls,’ he said. ‘He knew all the right questions. He was brilliant. I have been discussing this with John Cruddas for some time and he is happy with it.’ He added: ‘We are not pretending that the NHS can be saved through efficiencies nor that increased funding will not be accompanied by serious reform. By God, it has to be. But there won’t be much left to reform if we don’t do it.'” This additional quote that can actually be attributed to someone really helps to bring the article to life.

IRELAND: THE IRISH TIMES

KENNY FACES PRESSURE TO SHAKE UP FINE GAEL’S SENIOR RANKS by Stephen Collins, Political Editor

The Irish Times focuses on a story about the Fine Gael party and pressure on the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny) to “shake up [the] senior ranks.” The front-page lead emphasises the need for Kenny to “radical[ly] reshuffle” his key government figures in the wake of the Labour Party’s leader Eamon Gilmore’s resignation last week.

With an extensive 32-word headline and a first paragraph remarkably similar in wording, the story draws attention to the word “pressure” and seamlessly incorporates the new FG contenders for leadership, Joan Burton, Minister of Social Protection; Alex White, Minister of State for Primary Care; and very possibly Arthur Spring (equivalent of MP for Kerry North-West Limerick). The fraught tension between the potential three leaders of the Fine Gael party is underlined by Collins’ choice of verbs: commit, matter, pledge, question, insist, offer and handicap. These are very clearly verbs of action to draw the battle lines between the political opponents and it’s this clash of personalities that dominates the front page. It is not accompanied by a visual. The quotes from the two unnamed Fine Gael ministers are strong, although they are anonymous. For example, the thoughts of a senior party figure: “We also have to show that we have got the message and that means serious changes. […] Most important of all it means a new Minister for Health and new Fine Gael faces around the table.”

Here’s the link to the online article. Note the picture of a sheepish-looking Kenny and the contrasting, more serious one of Burton below, although the latter is only about a quarter the size of the former. The accompanying caption to Kenny’s is: “Taoiseach Enda Kenny is facing pressure from Fine Gael TDs to implement a much more extensive cabinet reshuffle than planned.” Burton’s caption is: “[She] says front bench will change if she becomes leader.” How much more powerful are her words when written in the future tense, as opposed to the present tense for Kenny? Burton’s determination is already telling from the description the paper gives her and marks her as a candidate worth watching.

FRANCE: Le Monde

LA MAJORITÉ FACE AU “PROBLÉME HOLLANDE” by political reporter Helene Bekmezian and Bastien Bonnefous

Monday’s Le Monde is dominated by a photograph of the French President in a thoughtful pose. It leads with a story on ‘The majority [of French people] are worried about the Hollande problem,’ with a subheading of ‘The President no longer seems, in the eyes of certain socialist deputies, to be the natural candidate for his own succession.’ (Online, it more literally translates to ‘worries about the problem’ rather than ‘faces the problem of’.)

These already implicit words tarnish the President’s capability and seem to encourage the readers to be convinced by this. The metaphor of the music of his own doom growing louder and louder is an interesting way to open the article; however, I’m not quite sure if this was the most effective way of getting it to grab attention. It’s told more like the narrative of a story and is more lyrical somehow – not just because of the language difference. The mingled quotes – “mentioning Francois Hollande’s candidacy in 2017, a minister […] added spontaneously, ‘If [he’s] going for election'” – with the writers’ analysis really make each word count. Although again a political story, it is clear that it is intended to be captivating, with powerful verbs and a combination of short, snappy sentences with longer and more intricate ones.

The pull quote – “‘Autiste’, ‘sourd’, ‘obtus’…Les qualificatifs ne manquent plus à gauche pour qualifier le président” (“‘Autistic’, ‘deaf’, ‘dull’…The qualifications that no longer qualify the President”) is the writers’ critique and defines the tone of the article as a whole. It’s no longer even about the man in a professional capacity: it’s turned to him personally. While the British and Irish articles I have featured do not include this aspect, the French newspaper has no problem in doing so, and it’s perhaps a detriment to what otherwise is a well-written piece.

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