Attributing Info / Sources
Less is More was slated as Writing Tip #2, but another shiny object popped out of my coronavirus feed. Less didn’t just dwindle to zero; it’s coming later. My current concern, though, involves a writer’s relationship to readers, and the bulwarking of evidence. These writing tips have no natural order anyway; they’re recursive (like language itself).
This newest inspiration came from a Giles Tremlett piece in last week’s Guardian: “How did Spain get its coronavirus response so wrong?” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/spain-coronavirus-response-analysis
Tremlett writes plenty about Spain, and while I don’t always agree with him, he often provides keen, provocative insights. I’ve even used his book “Ghosts of Spain” in my English classes.
The headline grabbed me because I live in Madrid, and three weeks (a million years) ago, it felt like the government moved pretty quickly to lock us down [more on that below]. Reading through the article, though, a couple of attributions –or lack thereof –bothered me.
The first one came when Tremlett reported, to my surprise and dismay, that local Chinese shop owners had closed down “to avoid a racist backlash.”
Now, I live near a couple of Chinese-run shops whose owners I’m friendly with. So this was concerning. I wanted to know more, but there was no more. No mention of how many cases this was based on, or what exactly happened in those cases. Did the information come from another published source?
I really needed some facts, as a reader, to get any notion of scope and magnitude. Maybe this was just a lapse, or Tremlett felt other items deserved more attention. Anyway, the omission left me miffed and unsatisfied –but did lead to the current writing tip.
Showing evidentiary origins respects readers and solidifies a case.
These two related functions apply not only to journalism –where citing sources is a long-held imperative –but to other types of writing as well. Really, all writing involves building a case. Even ostensibly non-persuasive prose asserts its own relevance and value, and that push relies on some kind of evidence.
The good news is showing it has never been easier. Drop a link to other texts, images, audio or video. Copy and paste some relevant quote. It’s all right there at a writer’s fingertips.
And your readers will appreciate it. They may want to do additional research. Or satisfy doubts about a source’s reliability. For scientists, knowing where a study first got published is huge. We might also be curious about sample size or experimental conditions, maybe the original descriptors used.
If writers trust me to judge source material for myself, showing that respect, I’m a lot more likely to trust them in return. It boosts their credibility. This relationship between writer and reader (narrator & narratee, roughly, for fans of reader-response theory) is key to guiding our message toward the kind of landing we hope for. When you feel respected as a reader it’s a good feeling and fit.
As easy as linking information has become, care need still be taken. In the Tremlett article, for instance, the following highlighted sentence intrigued me: “Yet no-one expects a return to normality,” Like probably everyone else, I’ve been wondering how much the new normal (as opposed to the current normal) will resemble the old normal –once this damn thing ends. But the link brought me to an article saying nothing about that. Takeaway: make sure those links actually fill the bill.
Copyright and Ethics
Legal and ethical considerations are probably the original raison d’être for source citing. All I can say about that is, don’t steal. Use.
On the ground (grounded) in Spain
I’ll end with a brief timeline of how things have gone down here in Madrid, to show you why the heavy-handed headline snagged me, and because you might just be interested anyway.
It’s easy to remember when, not long ago, Spain had only three reported coronavirus cases, two on different islands and another somewhere down south. Seville? At that time, the problem was mostly Italy (apart, of course, from much earlier reports from far-away Asia). There was some concern over certain individuals who’d been to that country. My wife had a co-worker whose husband had returned from a trip to Milan. A case was rumored to have appeared in a business park building alongside another where colleagues of my students worked.
In my English classes, we’d been joking about the virus. I remember offering as an example of a conditional sentence: “if there are 500 cases in Madrid, I’ll start to worry.” Whoops.
Flying did seem like a valid concern. A couple of students who’d booked vacation trips for themselves –or in one case as a present for his mother –wondered what to do and whether they could get refunds if they chose to cancel.
Shortly thereafter, a small cluster of cases appeared in San Fernando, a neighboring town.
Then, on the evening of March 9th, word came that Madrid would be closing its schools for two weeks. I walked into my language academy to find the owner and another teacher with their heads in their hands. We had the mistaken impression the edict was for the next morning but we ended up getting that day to prepare ourselves. Wednesday, March 11th was –and remains –our kids’ last day of school. I fretted, like everybody, over how to go to work with the kids at home. But that turned out not to be a problem. In very short order, all my classes –all paid work –were indefinitely cancelled. The local equivalent of pink slips flooded my phone.
So it felt sudden enough. But after the Tremlett article last week, I heard people criticising Spanish politicians’ lack of foresight. Indeed, the very next day, the Guardian published a story headlined “Spain defends response to coronavirus as global cases exceed 500,000,” without, though, referencing the Tremlett piece. [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/spanish-coronavirus-deaths-slow-as-world-nears-500000-cases] CNN chimed in after the weekend with their own take, “How Spain became a hotspot for coronavirus.”
As of today –Friday –that particular blamestorm has apparently calmed. Growing global numbers and measures are the new(s) media fronts. At home, we’re all just chillin’. It’s not a bad time to get some writing done. More tips to come!