Never assume

My all-time favorite photo cutline from the Associated Press was for a picture of President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict XVI. It read: “Pope Benedict XVI (left) welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama (right) at the Vatican.”

It’s difficult to imagine a reader for whom the words “Pope Benedict XVI” and “President Barack Obama” are in any way meaningful while also requiring those “left” and “right” designations to tell them apart. I can’t imagine anyone looking at that photo and thinking, “Wait, is Benedict the black guy in the suit or the old white guy in the robe?”

But this is AP policy and a basic rule of newspaper journalism: Never assume that readers know something you haven’t explicitly told them.

For photo cutlines, that means identifying every person and clearly indicating who is who, even if it seems totally obvious. “Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (left) follows through on a two-run home run as Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann (right) looks on …” Oh, so the guy swinging the bat is the batter and the guy in the catcher’s equipment is the catcher? OK, then. Again, if the reader doesn’t understand from the photograph itself who is the batter and who is the catcher, then nothing else about the cutline is going to make a lick of sense to them either. Anyone who needs to be told “right” and “left” in that photo is unlikely to know what is meant by “a two-run home run.”

But AP photographers always add those right and left designations because the rule is a good rule: Never assume that readers know something you haven’t explicitly told them.

AP’s reporters, unfortunately, don’t stick to this rule anywhere near as meticulously. Almost no reporters do anymore.

They follow the rule in some of its forms — scrupulously identifying the title of even the most well-known public officials on first reference, for instance — but utterly disregard it in many other circumstances.

And that’s understandable, because sticking to this rule can often seem clunky or heavy-handed — as in those cutlines above. An artful allusion becomes less artful when it has to be explained. In other contexts, it may be wholly appropriate to write:

“I am shocked … shocked,” the spokesman said, doing his best Claude Rains impression.

And it can seem laborious and inelegant, in the context of newspaper journalism, to have to render that:

“I am shocked, shocked,” the spokesman said, quoting a line from the 1942 film Casablanca, in which Claude Rains’ character ironically and insincerely feigns indignation.

Or it can make you feel almost like you’re insulting your readers’ intelligence. Think back to the 2008 presidential campaign, when an exhausted candidate Barack Obama told an Oregon crowd that “over the last 15 months we’ve traveled to every corner of the United States. I’ve now been in fifty … seven states? I think one left to go. One left to go. Alaska and Hawaii.”

When reporting on a gaffe like that it seems perfectly safe to assume that the readers of your newspaper know that there are, in fact, only 50 and not 57 states. But the rule says that you must never assume. The rule says that you must correct such misstatements by supplying the correct information as close to the misstatement as possible.

“I’ve now been in fifty … seven states?” Sen. Obama said. There are only 50 states.

That proximity matters — corrections further down in a story can get lost or cut or ignored by readers who never get that far. But placing the correction directly after the misstatement can come across as snarky, as though it’s set-up … punchline. And getting all that right — the correction itself, the proper placement, the proper tone — is a lot of work that can just seem unnecessary because, come on, be serious, who doesn’t already know that there are only 50 states? Can’t we just assume that readers already know that?

The rule says no. No you can’t. The rule says you can never assume that readers know something you haven’t explicitly told them. And it’s a good rule.

Let me give you an example as to why it’s a good rule, and why our failure to abide by it — while understandable — has had grim consequences.

A friend of mine works for another paper where he handled the birther story this week. The lede and first dozen or so grafs of the story were reaction from local tea partiers to President Barack Obama’s getting Hawaii to release the long form birth certificate to supplement the legal certificate they give every other Hawaiian citizen, and which Obama had already released to great fanfare back in June of 2008. The story mentioned that earlier release of the normal birth certificate, but only briefly and way, way down in the story. So he moved that vital piece of information up toward the top, closer to the many quoted assertions from the tea partiers that the president ought to have responded to their questions sooner. That got him in hot water with his bosses, who moved that information back down to the nether regions of the story because, he was told, he should assume that readers were smart enough to know that already.

The result was an article that allowed a false assertion — Obama never released this information before — to go unchallenged for more than a dozen paragraphs. That’s a violation of one rule (proximity between misstatement and correction) based on reasoning that violates another rule (never assume that readers know something you haven’t explicitly told them).* The result, in other words, was a story that elevated misinformation and diminished the correction — a story that will likely end up reinforcing the ever-mutating fantasies of birtherism and after-birtherism.

I don’t mean to pick on one reporter or one set of editors — this is a problem across the board. I think Christiane Amanpour is a top-notch journalist, but as David Folkenflik pointed out on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” she allowed the assertions of birthers to stand uncorrected in recent interviews:

Some television interviews recently – and there have been a bunch – notably failed to contradict Donald Trump or others casting doubt on where Mr. Obama was born.

NBC’s Meredith Vieira and ABC’s Christiane Amanpour acknowledged those remarks passively. Amanpour did not challenge the Reverend Franklin Graham when he said this…

Reverend FRANKLIN GRAHAM (President, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association): The president, I know, has some issues to deal with here. He can solve this whole birth certificate issue pretty quickly. I don’t know why he can’t produce that.

I would guess that Amanpour was thinking the same thing as those newspaper editors — that it was safe to assume that viewers already knew the truth, that it might seem to insult viewers’ intelligence to follow Graham’s false claims with a statement of the actual facts. But the result again is an interview that winds up reinforcing Graham’s bogus claims without ever challenging them.

If you’re the teacher of a class with 30 students and two of them fail the final exam, then you might conclude that those two students have failed to learn. If you’re the teacher of a class with 30 students and 20 of them fail the final exam, then you should probably conclude that you have failed to teach. That is the conclusion that newspaper journalists should be taking from the relentless barrage of polls showing that a substantial plurality of their readers believe many things that are demonstrably untrue.

If 5 percent of your readers aren’t sure what country the president was born in, then it’s possible to laugh at those wacky fringe-dwellers. When 35 percent of your readers aren’t sure, it means the newspaper is failing to do its job — and there’s nothing funny about that.

A simple step toward correcting that failure would be for us to go back to following our own rule: Never assume that readers know something you haven’t explicitly told them. That means that whenever a statement of incorrect information is quoted in the paper, it should be followed closely thereafter with an explicit statement of the correct information:

“I just got back from the state capital in Philadelphia,” Rep. Smith said. Pennsylvania’s state capital is in Harrisburg.

Anything less than that increases the number of readers who think Philadelphia is the capital. “I know it is because I read it somewhere,” they say. And they did. Just as they read that President Obama never released his birth certificate until this week.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* This also highlights the problem of a lack of meaningful diversity in newsrooms. It would not have been possible to shrug off my friend’s concerns if someone like Baratunde Thurston had been present to explain that birtherism isn’t just an amusing abstract oddity. But of course even the presence of such a person would not be meaningful without the corresponding presence of someone willing to listen to them.

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  • Anonymous

    When 35 percent of your readers aren’t sure, it means the newspaper is failing to do its job

    Or that 35% of the paper’s readers don’t actually care about facts, since they’ve proven inconvenient to the readers’ delusions and othering.

  • We Must Dissent

    I’m curious: when did “paragraphs” become “grafs”? I had not noticed this term before a few days ago, but now I am seeing it quite a bit.

  • http://profiles.google.com/scyllacat Priscilla Parkman

    “Grafs” is just newspaper talk, like “lede.”

  • http://redwoodr.tumblr.com Redwood Rhiadra

    It’s been a standard term in journalism for decades.

  • cjmr

    After-birtherism sounds like the belief that if we just all went to Kenya we’d find the placenta there…

  • Anonymous

    I thought after-birtherism was what Tom Cruise was into.

  • cjmr

    After-birtherism sounds like the belief that if we just all went to Kenya we’d find the placenta there…

  • http://www.facebook.com/Blotzphoto Louis Doench

    “After-birtherism sounds like the belief that if we just all went to Kenya we’d find the placenta there…”

    OMG!!!!!! You win the Internet…

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Unfortunately, Fox News has demonstrated that the real money in journalism is in giving people information that they want to be true, rather than information that is objective. So of course, like in so many other industries, other outlets play “follow the leader” and ape that style, resulting in an overall reduction in quality.

    The unfortunate aspect of the free market is that profitability does not necessarily equal quality.

  • Matri

    The RudePundit also posted about this debacle. I had predicted this exact reaction four years ago.

    I also predicted that should these nutjobs time travel back to witness Obama’s birth in a US hospital on US soil, they’ll still call it fake because that minutes-old baby does not resemble a 49-year-old man. I don’t know whether I want to be proven right or wrong about this one.

  • Rikalous

    I think I’d like you to be proven right, because time travel.

    Unless it’s a one-off thing for the birthers. Then there’d be a whole crapload of gullible voters added to the sixties’ demographics. That could end poorly.

  • Matri

    Even worse, I shudder to think of time travel technology in republican hands.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VAV5XMWGZ4KTRQAL7PTWOBKBQE peter

    Ever read Turtledove’s Guns of the South?

    Admittedly, it’s not really the same, but…

  • Lori

    That got him in hot water with his bosses, who moved that information back down to the nether regions of the story because, he was told, he should assume that readers were smart enough to know that already.

    It’s pretty amazing that these people have been editing a newspaper while apparently living in a cave for the last several years.

  • Matri

    It’s pretty amazing that these people have been editing a newspaper while apparently living in a cave for the last several years.

    To be fair, the editor was just making the simple mistake of assuming the readers are smarter than they actually are.

    It’s an easy mistake to make, especially when dealing with people who always go “Of course I know how to use a computer! I’m not an idiot, you know. Now how do I open the cup holder?”

  • ako

    The RudePundit also posted about this debacle. I had predicted this exact reaction four years ago.

    You predicted that they’d tread the fact that the doctor who delivered him wasn’t a time-traveler as evidence for their conspiracy? Because that would never have occurred to me.

    (Personally, I’d be far more likely to believe in a conspiracy if he had been delivered by a Doctor doctor with inexplicable knowledge of the future.)

  • Matri

    You predicted that they’d tread the fact that the doctor who delivered him wasn’t a time-traveler as evidence for their conspiracy?

    Okay, maybe not exactly, but I did predict a general “They still will not believe it even if he did everything they asked.”

    But the “this young baby is not an adult man” prediction? Yeah, those were my specific future prediction, which I still don’t know if I want to be true or false.

  • Anonymous

    No amount of truth telling will help people who prefer their version of reality.

  • Matri

    No amount of truth telling will help people who prefer their version of reality.

    The completely un-funny bit of irony is that the fundamentalists fall back to this specific argument in a heartbeat when dealing with people who stubbornly refuse to renounce their non-Christian ways and become one of them…

  • Rikalous

    Ain’t projection grand?

  • Anonymous

    Just in case anyone skipped over it, that link to Baratunde’s video is absolutely amazing. I strongly recommend everyone take ten minutes to watch it, especially if you’re white or otherwise highly privileged.

  • Lori

    I would guess that Amanpour was thinking the same thing as those newspaper editors — that it was safe to assume that viewers already knew the truth, that it might seem to insult viewers’ intelligence to follow Graham’s false claims with a statement of the actual facts. But the result again is an interview that winds up reinforcing Graham’s bogus claims without ever challenging them.

    Sadly I suspect this is giving Amanpour too much credit. I used to have real respect for her work, but in recent years I’ve been less impressed. That PR opportunity for Graham masquerading as an interview is a prime example of why my opinion has changed. Challenging Graham’s assertions would have generated complaints and that can’t be allowed to happen, so it was all softball questions and lots of time for him to pontificate on matters about which he knows nothing.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5V7WB5LWONXO22R6D4CYEZGYFE Alan

    In her defense,I know that she is of Iranian descent and I assume she is a Musliim, though Wikipedia is silent on her religious background. She was accused of having a pro-Muslim bias in her coverage of the attempted genocide against Muslims by Christians in Serbia. I imagine that any less than obsequiousness in her interview with the son of Billy Graham would probably lead to death threats and calls for her to be fired. Actually challenging him forcefully while committing the triple-sins of being a woman, a foreigner and (again, I assume) a Muslim, would almost certainly lead to the end of her career in mainstream journalism.

  • P J Evans

    Oh, it’s worse than that:
    Some of them are claiming that the long-form is a forgery, because the PDF file that was released has ‘layers’ – which is perfectly normal for a PDF file.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    Like an onion! Or an ogre! Or a parfait!

    Ergo, Obama must be a secret muslim atheist socialist fascist kenyan ogre onion parfait!

  • Anonymous

    Adhering to this rule might have been a good idea for Stossel today when he introduced an impersonator as the President and then proceeded to moderate a debate between Ron Paul and the impersonator. Or maybe it was a Ron Paul impersonator.
    Fox viewers may never know.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Adhering to this rule might have been a good idea for Stossel today when he introduced an impersonator as the President and then proceeded to moderate a debate between Ron Paul and the impersonator. Or maybe it was a Ron Paul impersonator.

    what

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    which Obama had already released to great fanfare back in June of 2008. … he should assume that readers were smart enough to know that already.

    I didn’t, actually, because however great the fanfare, I’d have ignored it as not particularly interesting. Unless it pops up in front of me unavoidably like the cover of whatever checkout-counter magazine it was, and then I just think “yep, looks just like the one I’ve got, same shade of green, same seal. Idiots.” and go on.

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    which Obama had already released to great fanfare back in June of 2008. … he should assume that readers were smart enough to know that already.

    I didn’t, actually, because however great the fanfare, I’d have ignored it as not particularly interesting. Unless it pops up in front of me unavoidably like the cover of whatever checkout-counter magazine it was, and then I just think “yep, looks just like the one I’ve got, same shade of green, same seal. Idiots.” and go on.

  • Anonymous

    to assume makes an ass out of you and me.

    Jack Reacher

  • Omas

    Would the Fundamentalists have burnt John McCain at the stake if he did get the Presidency in 2008? Being born in Panama and all? Oh… He’s white…

  • pointatinfinity

    Off-topic on Obama, but my favourite example of that left-right distinction is the Soviet newspaper that printed a photo of Khruschev visiting a pig farm and standing surrounded by live swine. They debated long how to caption it, and finally went with, “Khruschev is third from right.”

  • Matri

    They debated long how to caption it, and finally went with, “Khruschev is third from right.”

    ROFLMAO!
    That is all.

  • Matri

    They debated long how to caption it, and finally went with, “Khruschev is third from right.”

    ROFLMAO!
    That is all.

  • agia

    What I want to know is, why hasn’t the media addressed the evidence that “President” Obama doesn’t have a real birth certificate because he was grown in a vat by the CIA in order to assassinate JFK before going on to fake the moon landing?
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    p.s. obama was not grown in a vat.

  • Anonymous

    off topic but anyway: happy queen’s day everyone

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Which queen?

  • renniejoy

    Orly Taitz, a prominent birther, flat out told Stephen Colbert 2 years ago that there is no possible evidence that would convince her that Obama is an American citizen.

  • Lori

    Orly Taitz, a prominent birther, flat out told Stephen Colbert 2 years ago that there is no possible evidence that would convince her that Obama is an American citizen.

    Not at all surprising, she still refuses to admit she was wrong. Exhibit A: her appearance on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show the day Obama released the long form birth certificate. She just kept gong on about some nonsense Obama’s social security number. O’Donnell finally got fed up and cut her off. She was on a remote feed and they just turned the feed off and went to commercial.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zB3W5NTAAAo&feature=player_embedded

  • Anonymous

    I’ve heard that one on Faux before…It’s a “fact” that Obama has 13 SS numbers. (not sure on the number, but it was absurdly high.)

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Orly Taitz, a prominent birther, flat out told Stephen Colbert 2 years ago that there is no possible evidence that would convince her that Obama is an American citizen.

    What a coincidence, because I am convinced that Orly Taitz is a dangerous lunatic who can only be safely contained in a padded cell with straightjacket and ballgag, and no possible evidence will convince me that this should not be so.

  • hagsrus

    Khruschev and the pigs far outshines my memory of a photograph years ago in New Scientist with the approximate (presumably mischievous) caption “Dr —- (front) and —- the gorilla.)

  • BaseDeltaZero

    “Ever read Turtledove’s Guns of the South?

    Admittedly, it’s not really the same, but…”
    I recently read it… very intersting. I suppose my biggest issue with is just how racist the characters *weren’t*… it wasn’t a bad thing at all, but it just seemed a bit… easy. Amittedly, one was an ‘OC’ and more or less believable, and IIRC Lee did make some statements in similar directions, at least in his notes…

  • http://spanghew.wordpress.com/ 2fs

    Not terribly relevant, but…I haven’t heard audio, but is it possible that when Obama momentarily lost track of what he saying re number of states, when he said “fifty-seven” he was actually making a joking reference to the “57 communists” in Manchurian Candidate…itself a reference to Joe McCarthy’s ever-changing number of alleged communists in the State Department? In other words, was this a sly dig at conspiracy theorists? It would not be out of character for Obama, I don’t think…

  • http://spanghew.wordpress.com/ 2fs

    Not terribly relevant, but…I haven’t heard audio, but is it possible that when Obama momentarily lost track of what he saying re number of states, when he said “fifty-seven” he was actually making a joking reference to the “57 communists” in Manchurian Candidate…itself a reference to Joe McCarthy’s ever-changing number of alleged communists in the State Department? In other words, was this a sly dig at conspiracy theorists? It would not be out of character for Obama, I don’t think…

  • Anonymous

    I hate to rain on everyone’s parade, but I don’t think backwards time travel will ever happen. If someone discovers it in the future, then they would have visited us. Sorry everyone! Maybe we’ll find a way to travel faster forward through time without requiring long flights in outer space, but we’ll probably never find a way to go backwards in time.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    If someone discovers it in the future, then they would have visited us.

    Maybe they are here and keeping it on the QT.

  • chris the cynic

    Or maybe we just haven’t told you.

    I mean seriously, being a time traveler is a very personal thing, and just because no one you’ve met has come out as a time traveler doesn’t mean that no one you’ve met actually is. Perhaps the reason that none of us have come up to you and said, “Hi, I’m a time traveler,” is that your denying their existence doesn’t exactly make them feel it is safe to confide in you.

    I think of this as a generally safe place, but your implication that time travelers don’t exist is incredibly hurtful. It’s downright unpersoning.

    How would you feel if you got up in the morning and found that someone had said people like you don’t even exist. Not that you were evil, or that you should be denied rights, but that you’re not even real. You’re nothing and no one.

    How would that make you feel? And while you consider that also consider how it would make you feel if you were part of a group with no citizenship, with no rights, with no protections under the law.

    Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have some kind of understanding of why time travelers might not be willing to open up to you about their atypical* personal histories.

    I thought the naked linearism of the text of the Walters Amendment** was bad, but it was nothing compared to denying the very existence of travelers.

    I have to say I expected better from the slacktivist community.

    *Or would you prefer “deviant” you chronological hegemon?

    ** Which passed the US Senate with a filibuster proof 66-43 majority (one abstention), we have a long way to go people.

  • chris the cynic

    What the hell disqus?

    I posted the previous comment 24 hours ago.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=752002772 Andrew Glasgow

    Walters Amendment

    The Google does nothing. Cite?

  • Murgatroyd

    If someone discovers it in the future, then they would have visited us

    Really? I wouldn’t. I’d go to Antarctica 12 million years ago, or 1774 France, or go tell Mr Wilde that he has fancy pants but not to enter any court cases anytime soon. The here and now is a comparatively boring time.

  • Rikalous

    1. We have a nonwhite president for the first time in history.
    2. There’s all kinds of crap going on in the Middle East that could have dramatic historical effects.
    3. There’s the Red California Incident in just a couple weeks.

    Besides, there’s probably going to be some history geeks with a special interest in early twenty-first century history.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    What if *gasp, horror* in the future the USA is not the most important country in the world?

  • Rikalous

    Well, I’m assuming there will still be Americans civilized enough to be allowed to use the time machine, and that they will have some interest in the country of their birth. Besides, wouldn’t it be fun to visit a proud, strong nation in its last days of primacy?

  • Lori

    What if *gasp, horror* in the future the USA is not the most important country in the world?

    A) American status isn’t the sole driver of interest in item 2

    B) Even if the USA is the least important country in the world in the future it’ll still be of academic interest to some people. Sumeria isn’t exactly a world power these days but I have a friend who would spend every cent he has to get back there.

  • Lori

    I’d go to Antarctica 12 million years ago, or 1774 France, or go tell Mr Wilde that he has fancy pants but not to enter any court cases anytime soon. The here and now is a comparatively boring time.

    Interesting is really a matter of perspective though. It could be that something is happening right now that will be viewed as terribly important in the future and therefore well worth a visit.

  • Lori

    I’d go to Antarctica 12 million years ago, or 1774 France, or go tell Mr Wilde that he has fancy pants but not to enter any court cases anytime soon. The here and now is a comparatively boring time.

    Interesting is really a matter of perspective though. It could be that something is happening right now that will be viewed as terribly important in the future and therefore well worth a visit.

  • P J Evans

    3. There’s the Red California Incident in just a couple weeks.

    Is this something that I, as a resident of California, should be aware of beforehand?

  • Emix

    Fred, don’t leave us hanging. Which one was Benedict, the black guy in the suit or the old white guy in the robe?

  • hf

    This argument against time travel has some of the same flaws as the argument claiming that we probably live in the Matrix. (Civilizations like ours would create many simulations, the argument goes, therefore most worlds like ours exist in simulations.) It makes a lot of assumptions about the future. Clearly telepathic time travelers would only need to send one tourist or historian in order for all of them to have the experience of going. And the actual time traveler might just copy memories from a lot of people in our time. Meanwhile a nanite-controlling superintelligence (if it cared about us at all) could go everywhere without detection.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    This talk of time travel reminds me of this xkcd.

  • Münchner_Kindl

    [quote]My all-time favorite photo cutline from the Associated Press was for a picture of President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict XVI. It read: “Pope Benedict XVI (left) welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama (right) at the Vatican.”

    It’s difficult to imagine a reader for whom the words “Pope Benedict XVI” and “President Barack Obama” are in any way meaningful while also requiring those “left” and “right” designations to tell them apart. I can’t imagine anyone looking at that photo and thinking, “Wait, is Benedict the black guy in the suit or the old white guy in the robe?”

    But this is AP policy and a basic rule of newspaper journalism: Never assume that readers know something you haven’t explicitly told them.

    For photo cutlines, that means identifying every person and clearly indicating who is who, even if it seems totally obvious.[/quote]

    There is a bigger benefit to this, whether in photos or articles, besides not letting wrong assumptions stand unchallenged: History.

    Anybody doing research on newspapers 20 or 40 years old, whether it’s just a high school project or a doctoral thesis, will be hugely grateful for a caption/cutline identifying who’s who among people extremly well known in their own time, but now no longer. Besides JFK, who would you recognize in a photo from the 1960s?

    And people outside the US may well have [b]heard[/b] of Obama, but not seen a picture of him, depending on what news media are common there. (Similarly for the Pope).

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’m pretty confident that any of those of us outside the US who would be reading a newspaper article that mentions Obama and the Pope will be at least dimly aware that Obama is a black guy and the Pope is an old guy who wears a white robe. I’m equally confident that people over the next century, at least, will be aware of same.

  • http://dragoness-e.livejournal.com/ Dragoness Eclectic

    I don’t know where Scalzi found this one, but.. yeah.

  • http://profiles.google.com/james.e.hanley James Hanley

    If you’re the teacher of a class with 30 students and two of them fail the final exam, then you might conclude that those two students have failed to learn. If you’re the teacher of a class with 30 students and 20 of them fail the final exam, then you should probably conclude that you have failed to teach.

    As a college prof, I wholly agree. In fact I’ve had that experience (although, thankfully, not quite to that degree).


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