July 19, 2004

More on Chekhovian relevance in journalism

Earlier today I complained that the NYT shouldn't "put a foreign-language sign on the wall in a picture of an American municipal office, if the story is not going to comment on it", citing Chekhov's law of literary firearms. Nick Allott at Meaning and Thinking has some thoughts on how "Chekhov's law might be derivable from the communicative principle of relevance with some extra assumptions".

Nick's musings are about the application of Chekhov's principle in literature -- he questions whether I'm right to apply the principle to journalism:

... it seems to me that it can't be reasonable for journalists to remove real details that fail to conform with our (stereotypical) expectations: life is richer in details than we expect, perhaps, and I don't think we need to be protected from that.

There is a limited sense in which this is unavoidably true. Any picture of the 311 call center will be rich in details, most of which are irrelevant. A pictured operator, for example, must have some age, some sex, with some details of hair and clothing, and normally we don't expect the story to explain these details or even to mention them.

But in a broader sense, I don't agree. If the call center operator had been dressed in 18th-century costume -- say in a picture taken at a July 4th fancy dress office party -- we'd expect the story to feature the reason for the costume. If the costume doesn't figure in the story, then the photo editor should have picked a different picture. To use such a picture without discussing it is a violation of the journalistic version of Chekhov's law, because the costume is way outside our expectations about what a call center operator should look like.

A Yiddish sign on the call center wall, illustrating a story about helping "thousands of visitors to the Republican National Convention next month navigate the city", is similarly incongruous.

In this case, the photo editor almost certainly had dozens if not hundreds of pictures to choose from. I can assume this from the usual practices of newspapers, but I can also infer this from the image file name, which is hotline.184.1.jpg. In the image that the editor actually chose, the Yiddish sign is the most visually salient component. I suspect that eye-tracking analysis would show that most viewers look at the sign quicker and more frequently than at the operator's face. And there's not much else to look at in the picture -- just the backs of two Dell flat-panel displays, and a standard acoustic-tile ceiling.

I'd guess in this case that the story originally mentioned the 170 languages, and maybe even said something about Yiddish, but lost these aspects in the editorial process.

Either that, or some bored photo editor was exercising a bit more creativity than is normal at the Times.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 19, 2004 09:10 PM