Software Musings

A Journalist Lying?

Posted on: 25/12/2008

There are pictures which, depending on how your brain interprets them, switch between two women’s faces and a vase. Or a cube that comes out of, or goes into, the page. Switching between the two can be almost instantaneous. I had a similar experience yesterday over the comments on a Globe and Mail article (as I always say on these occasions, for non-Canadian readers I should explain that the Globe and Mail is a Toronto local newspaper distributed Canada-wide in paper form and world-wide on the internet). When I first accessed the article, it spoke about a woman giving birth to twins while “…laying in the snow in the street”.

I obviously left a comment saying that my first reaction to the use of the transitive verb “to lay” in this context was that it was a grammatical error, possibly a substitution for the intransitive verb “to lie”: perhaps the sentence should have read “…lying in the snow in the street”. On reflexion I thought that, given the nature of the story, “laying” might have been a clever choice on the part of the reporter.

This comment led to a thread discussing whether women “lay” babies or not and, after a while, the verb was changed in the original story (indicating that someone from the Globe and Mail is monitoring the comments even on Christmas Eve!). So far, so normal.

And then a woman added a comment saying something like “I don’t know what you people are talking about but I hope that you’re not being disrespectful to the mother who gave birth in the street”. That was a moment when the picture switched. Of course, we were being disrepectful to a grammar-challenged reporter, not the mother, but I suddenly realised that the story to me is a constructed list of words; to someone else it is a representation of a woman in a dire situation. It is possible (from the “I don’t know what you people are talking about….”) that the person leaving that comment did not understand the difference between laying in the street and lying in the street, and all she heard was the disrespectful and condescending attitude we were adopting.

This brings me back to something about which I blogged many months ago. I had created a CD of photographs that my wife was to take to the local photography shop for printing. I labelled the CD “Photo’s for Printing” and my wife queried the apostrophe. I explained that “Photo” was a short form of “Photograph” and that the apostrophe indicated that letters were missing. She was concerned that ignorant people might think that I had incorrectly used the apostrophe to represent plurality or possession. In effect, she wanted me to make a mistake so that ignorant people would not think me ignorant.

I wonder whether a lot of the controversy we hear about religious people objecting to comments being made about their irrational beliefs fall into the same catagory. I am not particularly sympathetic to the views of people who believe in the tooth fairy, Father Christmas, honest politicians or the Christian/Islamic/Jewish/Druidical gods but I do suddenly have pause to think whether we have a right to dismay the faithful. I think we do.

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Disclaimer

The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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