Luke Brennan: The Truth With No Buts


From top: The Irish Times, February 15, 2021; Luke Brennan

‘Bill Gates: “I’m not trying to take anything away from Greta Thunberg, but…”’

Can you spot the difference between the above, and this, speaking about Greta Thunberg…

“I’m not trying to take anything away from her. And every movement needs iconic leaders who speak, and that’s a pretty good thing. But there’s probably some teenager who believes that the Rohingya should be treated better, and another who thinks we’re not investing enough in good education. So the world has sought her out to speak in this clear, almost innocent way about a cause that we’re trying to orchestrate our energy around, and say, hey, can we maintain this and convince people to make sacrifices? And how big do these sacrifices need to be? So I’m glad: you can’t have a movement without high-visibility figures. I hope she’s not messing up her education. She seems very clever.”

The first quote is an Irish Times headline, leading to an article, which contains the text below it. The article was first published in The Guardian on February 15, then reprinted under the above headline in the IT on February 16. Nothing unusual in that, much of The Irish Times content these days is articles reprinted from The Guardian, The New York Times, Financial Times, etc.

The article went straight into the Irish Times “most read” articles category, staying there for four days. It even made a second appearance last week, I was surprised to see a three-week old article finding such readership, but it really is quite a headline.

What surprises me more, is the difference between the implication of the headline and the text to which it refers.

My (basic) understanding of grammar would lead me to believe that what they should say is “Bill Gates: ‘I’m not trying to take anything away from Greta Thunberg…but’”. In that the ‘but’ does not appear in the same sentence, or the following sentence, but the one after it.

That is some serious ‘but’ searching they have carried out. Based on their example, you could take any book with the word ‘but’ in it, then quote from it, taking any statement you wish then add ’,but…’ to create a headline quote.

It’s not as if they don’t have a roster of international standard journalists, a room full of editors and more grammar junkies than would comfortably exist in a room together. I am imagining grammar pedantry is not off the menu. I’m guessing that when something is incorrect, everyone is very aware.

But what exactly happens when they review the most popular stories each week and see that this ‘truth gap’ is clearly present. Do they argue that it should be corrected? Does everybody look at their shoes? Is it squeaky bum time?

And what happens when the same article appears again three weeks later? Do they say “That headline is unbelievable”. Or is it like a fart at an executive meeting which is best ignored? It must be difficult to ignore. But it brings me back to a question they must ask…‘Is this true?’.

It is a noble act to wind the clock over in D’Olier street and I do not mean to diminish it. But it must be remembered that they are not manufacturing truth, merely endeavouring to present an accurate representation of it.

You might say, “Who is harmed?” But I would say that more people see a headline than read the article. Bill Gates? I’m sure he cares little, but It would be disappointing to him to be misrepresented in this way.

Greta Thunberg? Thick skinned, but I’m sure it get a little tiresome the way newspapers use her name and image as a way to ‘trigger’ all those that feel they don’t need to be lectured by a teenager about the world. Bill Gates does a good job of showcasing the good reasons for her deserved world profile in the article, the headline implies he’s taking her down.

I presented a similar situation here on Broadsheet two months back, where a similar disconnect existed between a headline and article in The Guardian. The headline in that instance, “They said I wasn’t hot enough: Carey Mulligan hits out again at Magazine review”. My issue with that? They removed the word ‘basically’ from between wasn’t and hot.

Within 24 hours of that article, it was aped (the killer headline, rather than the article) by Donald Clarke at the Irish Times, with the headline “Not hot enough: Why has Variety apologised to Carey Mulligan?”

I know that Donald Clarke, a fine journalist, is not to blame for this, his phone probably rings to ask him if he has his copy to file at 4pm. He admits he has not and then, I imagine,  is told in no uncertain terms to “deliver 2000 words by 5pm and make it clicky!” He says, “Yes boss.”, the result is the above article.

So, both article titles leave out the ‘basically’ but there was another gift in this, as another Broadsheet reader pointed out to me that what Carey Mulligan actually said was “It felt like it was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse.”  (my italics)

Now the “It felt” in there, which I was not initially aware of, is significant for me. Not in terms of what Carey says, but in terms of the bigger picture of the article, why the truth of it was important to me.

For me, life has two realities, how it is, and how it feels.

It is something that I’ve often had to remind myself of in tough times, that things might feel a certain way, but that may not be how things ‘are’. I think that is something fundamental to our human perspective. Often it is an obstacle we must overcome to resolve a problem.

Back in my days as a laboratory assistant, when we wanted to measure the make-up of a sample (Science has a more effective set of rules for discovering the truth of a situation) there was a process of calibration any machine would go through before it would start measuring.

This is the purpose of truth. We use the truth to calibrate our emotions, it allows us to see the difference between how it is and how it feels. I think it is an Irish thing, this emotional streak. We like to live close to our skin.

That may seem to go a bit deep for an analysis of newspaper headlines. We know why they do it, newspapers are scared senseless of becoming irrelevant in the Internet age. It is the high stature I hold the Irish Times in that makes me feel their version of the truth should be held to high account.

But what use is the clock on D’Olier street, if it is not accurate?

‘Just before our love got lost you said
“I am as constant as a northern star”
And I said, “Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?’

Joni Mitchell

We need truth, constancy and accuracy to accurately know things. With enough hands, you can carry the sundial of truth around your garden to change the perceived hour. You may look silly today; but you will render it useless tomorrow.

As Joni says, we need constancy, without it, we’re in the dark.

Previously: Luke Brennan on Broadsheet

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28 thoughts on “Luke Brennan: The Truth With No Buts

  1. ce

    I love being lectured about climate change by folks who spent decades calling (or implying) the utterly brilliant people researching, designing, and actually making/using green technologies, at best unrealistic idealists, and at worst a bunch of stoned hippy idiots. Now the globalist wokerati smell the money (including appearance fees)… magically they are all onboard…

    Yeah, Greata could be annoying… I was annoying when I was a teenager and most of you were too… but at least I know she actually believes in what she is saying, and is not in it for the money, and she’s right. It will be interesting to see what her and her generation go onto work/study – hopefully they’ll keep some of their spark and put it to good use.

    As for everybody else/situations in the article … newspapers generating controversy with cleverly edited/selective headlines… I hope you not implying anything is suspect with The Star and their important gull reporting

  2. Micko

    Good article Luke.

    In a world where companies are vying for your attention, the more triggering a headline is, the more successful it is.

  3. curmudgeon

    Congrats Luke, this is such a neat piece on the responsibility of sub editors to get a headline right, and also the flagrant abuse of paraphrasing to get clicks. Aside from its own merits, It’s positively refreshing to read something from a BS contributor that isn’t a rant in long form. Thank you.

  4. Clampers Outside

    Great piece Luke.
    The bit about the emotional thing being Irish though… Nah… It’s a world wide problem when things like ‘lived experience’ and ‘my truth’ – both bedded in the subjective and devoid of any scientific calibration – are way too often touted as a reality to be applied to all, which is in all fairness and reason, the dumbist poo-poo ever. And certainly not just an Irish thing :)

    1. Nigel

      That’s odd. You have, quite movingly, used your own lived experience to talk about domestic abuse here. Why suddenly so dismissive of people’s first-hand accounts of their lives and experiences as a means of understanding what’s going on in the world? All of reported experiences are subjective – demanding objectivity and scientific caibrations is impossible, in the former, and ridiculous, in the latter. Our most trustworhy reports of events events outside ourselves come from the words of those who experience it directly, or who directly observe others experiencing it.

      Furthermore, Luke is fuzzy in moving from inaccurate headlines to ‘two realities – how it is and how it feels.’ There was the ‘how it is’ – what was actually said about an emotional response – and on the other hand there was an inaccurate headline about someone describing an emotional response. No ‘how it is/how it feels’ division there, but rather reality as reported by the person experiencing it versus unreality conveyed through an inaccurate headline.

      That the headline (calculatedly) provoked unwarranted emotional responses is on the headlne writer and the people who didn’t read the article (or who read it carelessly, primed to respond a certain way by the headline.) The subject of the article reported their emotional response, their experience, their truth, faithfully. The proces of reporting/consuming that truth lead to it being misconstrued. To me this suggests you need to get past reporting that’s supposed to be, or claims to be, objective, or any kind of ‘scientific calibration’ (???) and if you really want the truth get as close to the original source, the lived experience, as you can.

      1. Clampers Outside

        One your first para…

        I’ve never used my personal ‘lived experience’ as a bench mark for how intervention should be worked and have stated before that my particular circumstances are in the case type accounting for less than 1%.

        I have never, at any time used my ‘lived experience’ in a manner suggested in your opening line.

        And thus, there is absolutely nothing hypocritical nor contradictory in any of my comments on the matter of domestic violence and abuse.

        Read my previous comment again.

        Thank you.

        I say again… Never.

        1. Nigel

          No charge of hypocrisy or contradiction intended, but you seem to have backed into a corner of denying the usefulness of describing your own lived experience in order to deny the usefulness of descripions of… all? lived experience?

          1. Clampers Outside

            ‘lived experiences’ are valid only on a micro level, and in the assistance of understanding pain of an individual and thusly should never be used as a marker for application of intervention methods applied on a macro level.

            This has always been my position.

            For example, in the case of DV, the ‘lived experience’ of one sex has been used (under an ideological framework) to create the Duluth Model of DV Intervention.
            This model has been repeatedly shown to be flawed.

            Stating the problem of using ‘lived experiences’ (selective one at that) to determine a methodology of DV Intervention, does not in any way diminish those ‘lived experiences’. They are better used contextualy, in discussion points, within the bigger picture of the issue of DV.

          2. Clampers Outside

            The charge of hypocrisy or contradiction would be in your suggesting in anyway that I have suggested that lived experience is not of use, or that I have ever denied its usefulness.
            On the contrary.
            Again, they are good in context of discussion points within anissue, not broad application to an issues’ solution.

          3. Nigel

            Nothing you say here contradicts the idea that lived experiences are the crucial building blocks of understanding overall phenomena. That does not preclude them being used badly, as you argue with the Duluth Model, or even, as in the headline issue above, misleadingly. In such cases to get a better understanding of the truth of the matter, you have to go back to surveying individual experiences. Also I don’t get how you can insist your experience as a man who experienced DV is an outlier but that a model that depended on the experiences of ‘one sex’ was fatally flawed?

          4. Clampers Outside

            Yes, now you get it, “surveying individual experiences”, a multitude of them.
            That which make up statistics and quantitative research, with a qualified research based on a tonne of different ‘lived experiences’, not just a few selected.

            You’re getting there.

          5. Clampers Outside

            I don’t insist my experience was an outlier. The research pointed to that fact.

            Look up a video from Dr Tonia Nicholls …. titled something like… Uncomfortable Truth About IPV.

          6. Nigel

            Actually, it sounds like you’re getting there. The statistical analysis and the research all have the capacity to be the bad headline of this story. You’re saying these are supposed to have primacy when really they’re just one more way of looking at the world, and as potentially flawed and misleading as any sub-head writer. And to flip it around, what place does statistcal analysis or research have in either of the story/headline divides in this article?

          7. Clampers Outside

            Oh will ya shhhhtop….

            You brought up the DV connection, a d continued with that line of question, and then you ask me what all that has to do with the original article?

            Are you for real…. ya muppet.

          8. Nigel

            I was just trying to understand why you were being so dismissive of lived experience, but we were essentailly in agreement, the only thing puzzling me was why what Luke said caused you to bring it up, but never mind.

          9. Nigel

            I can objectively report a sinking feeling as I contemplate what you seem to think that means.

  5. Jimmy the mink

    I was only thinking that this morning. The sub-editors of the Irish Times really take away from some good articles. They can mislead or cause disappointment in the reader when the article isn’t a reflection of the sub heading.
    I’d be getting cross if I was one of their writers

  6. alickdouglas

    I did some journalism classes as part of a postgraduate course, and we did a fair bit of sub-editing. If you submitted something like that, with the sneaking in of the ‘but’ from the succeeding sentence, you’d have been made wear a D hat and sit in the corner for the week. Absolute thicko stuff. I appreciate that the subs have a rotten job, and a fierce short amount of time to make compelling headlines, but this example is beyond embarrassing.

    And indeed, nice article Luke!

    1. Nigel

      I think sub-editors get turfed out fairly early on when stock-holders or boards of directors demand greater profits through cost-cutting.

  7. fFs

    Thanks great piece,
    I started writing a complaint to the Irish Times about this very thing. I was not so eloquent and only frustrated myself so I binned it and decided to unsubscribe instead. It was the 3rd time in two weeks I was just appalled at how they framed a story.

    1. ian-oG

      If I was to send a letter of complaint to the Irish Times I’d imagine I’d so through the medium of art in the vein of someone like Jackson Pollack and I would engage the services of a dog who found its way into a large packet of fizzy cola jellies to help with the actual material I would use.

      Twould be quite the mess.

      No idea what the stampage would be either?

  8. benblack

    The truth reduced to human interpretation – not by the human mind – as one reasonable person could usually assume, but, the human emotional spectrum.

    Enlightened stuff.

    More please.

    The world needs more of this wisdom.

    The higher faculties must rule the lower.

  9. Lilly

    I think you’re being pedantic, Luke. Technically you’re correct of course but the whole point of a headline is to entice the reader to read on. Only a crank would object to that But, which looks a lot less awkward in a headline than the …version.

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