The Sequester: Don’t Get Lost in Translation

This week, there are two very confusing threads of news running through my feeds. The first is the sequester. The other, the elections in Italy.

Navigating politics is like navigating a murky swamp. Unless you’ve been there before, you’re bound to make a mis-step or get lost in the mess.

Luckily, I used to live in Italy and so I can walk myself through the hype and conjecture that runs rampant in the Italian press and straight to the hard news. I also speak American political theater, so I manage just the same with the sequester.

But it’s not easy territory to navigate. Both events have me thinking about how news, especially layered, complex news like budget plans and Italy’s electoral process, get lost in translation, especially through social media and the constant linking to sources as news breaks. Analysis in both cases is lacking as up-to-the-minute updating takes over.

No More Question Marks

If you aren’t mildly confused about the sequester, good for you. Many outlets have focused coverage on breaking it down for readers, but that only does so much good. Other outlets and their columnists seem caught up in the churning out of updates. It’s like trying to follow a 7th grader recounting a drama from the playground. Some writers don’t even seem to be  searching for real facts, or readily accessible plans, opting instead to simply join the peanut gallery. Adult supervision, indeed.

This is the fun part of the digital, 24 hour news cycle and the glory of cable news. I know I sound like a broken record, but read your retweets already! As we all gravitate to our little circles of like-minded folks on social media, sometimes we forget that there are other people out there reading our work. A political reporter needs to talk to political junkies, as well as the confused citizen finally getting around to Googling what’s going on this week in Washington. It’s also our job to make news exciting and garner page views, and nothing does that better than a showdown between the President and House Republicans. But it really is the “most boring economic crisis ever.”

There’s a reason why most sequester headlines end with a question mark, apart from its SEO factor, or include teasers to “simple graphs” that really aren’t that simple. I’m not saying not to cover it. But I am asking for some better summaries, sans the hype. Like John Stewart points out, no one would be golfing if they didn’t know it was going to work out.

Lost in Translation

While sequester news could use more translation for dummies, the coverage of Italy’s elections this week has been right on point. Who knew that foreign correspondents were doing so well? The hardest part about following the democratic process in other countries is that they are often very different from ours. And they happen on Twitter, too. Just not in our language.

I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong when I entered some tweets from civilians into Google Translate and they came out translated rather well. But if you’re in a smaller newsroom, don’t just depend on translation tools. Nothing would please an Italian Studies professor from the local community college more than a request for comment and help. It’s times like these when relying on wire services with people on the ground for facts is the best bet. Even major organizations can get the rules of the game wrong. Like this intro to a live blog from The Huffington Post that posits the leader of the opposition party, Beppe Grillo, as a “potential PM.” He can’t be, due to a criminal charge; he’s more like the Wizard of Oz pulling social media strings.

When researching, make sure you’re reading good English sources with reporters in Rome, maybe with real Italian names. And never try to get facts to check from an Italian newspaper. Say what you will about the American media, but it’s worse over there. The rule of thumb when making conclusions about Italy, at least, is trust no one. Except your own hired, fluent, gun.

There are only so many of us (un?) lucky enough to be stationed on the Hill or under the Vatican. It’s with news like this that you realize how important the experts are. Following the story and breaking new angles is only possible with due diligence, research, and good contacts in the know. Don’t try this stuff at home.