Cleaning up quotes

September 27, 2007

In my undergraduate editing classes, we’ve been discussing to what extent, if any, an editor is justified in “cleaning up” quoted material. In other words, when should a published quotation represent the exact words of a source in exactly the way those words were uttered, no matter how ungrammatically, and when is it permissible, even preferable, to alter a quote?

The quotations that led to this discussion are colorful indeed:

“Didn’t have a stitch of clothes on,” Drouillard said. “I mean, no socks, no underwear, no nothin’. They didn’t say much. They mainly got out and chanted religious sayings.”

“When they got out of the car, they were singin’ ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,’ but I’ll tell you, them people was leanin’ on every other body part imaginable,” he said.

Now Drouillard, a Louisiana sheriff, obviously is a colorful character, and his cadence and colloquialisms are an important part of how that character is manifest in conversation. However, if we (reporters and editors) allow his liberties with the language into the paper and onto the Web page, shouldn’t we then similarly treat everyone else? Or, for the sake of the Queen’s English, do we “help” the lawman and present his quotes altered for grammar and subject-verb agreement? Another option would be not to quote him at all, but perhaps to paraphrase what he said.

A similar debate took place at the Washington Post last month after two Post writers used the same quote from Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis, only the two quotations as published were markedly different. As Deborah Howell’s column states, in Bryant’s story, Portis said: “I don’t know how anybody feels. I don’t know how anybody’s thinking. I don’t know what anyone else is going through. The only thing I know is what’s going on in Clinton Portis’s life.”

Wise quoted him as saying: “I don’t know how nobody feel, I don’t know what nobody think, I don’t know what nobody doing, the only thing I know is what’s going on in Clinton Portis’s life.”


Most reputable news organizations believe that what is in quotation marks is sacred, that to alter a quote is to deceive the reader, though of course there are degrees of alteration and, therefore, degrees to that deception. “Quotes as gospel” is the Post‘s policy.

One reader pointed out that Portis perhaps speaks the way he does deliberately, to reflect where he is from and from whom he is seeking respect. Likewise, a county sheriff might deliberately use local and regional colloquialisms, perhaps even exaggerating their affectations, to live up to the public persona that got him (or her) elected.

I really like how the Poynter Institute’s Bob Steele, who specializes in ethics in newsrooms, responded to the Post. He said quotations “should accurately and authentically reflect the words used in an interview. If we start changing words inside quote marks, then we raise questions about all other quotes. We will increase the distrust factor about the veracity of our journalism.” Be honest with the reader.

Because it is, after all, in large part about the audience, and earning and maintaining our readers’ trust. Our responsibilities are, among other things, to maximize truth and minimize harm. This would permit us to put “They” in front of Drouillard’s “didn’t have a stitch of clothes on,” but to retain his Looziana drawl in “nothin’.”

That’s what I think. What do you think? What would you do with Drouillard’s words?

By the way, to the gang in JoMC 711, Howell is the Post’s ombudsman, a position we’ve discussed online. 

Inverted pyramids on the Web

September 20, 2007

A wonderful discussion in my Writing for Digital Media course about how the inverted pyramid helps and how it inhibits when writing online.

Karen Rhodes, a veteran magazine editor, helped us by describing the pyramid’s application to the multi-level nature of the Web. This is how she did it:

“In traditional print media, the pyramid’s base is at the top of the article. All of the most important information is at the top of the print column, and as you go further down the column, you get to the less-relevant material. The reader travels ‘down’ the pyramid. In Web media, the pyramid’s base is facing the reader. All of the most important points are highlighted right there on the first view, and as you go deeper into the rabbit holes we talked about — the links — you get to material that’s less-relevant to the main points. The reader travels ‘forward, into’ the pyramid.”

She amplified her depiction by describing that when we as Web surfers approach the point of the pyramid, “we come across more and more pyramids, reaching them on their sides, their bases and their points.”

I like this, so let’s build on it. Anyone else?

Conflict of interest? Unprecedented coverage for an air show

September 19, 2007

Recent coverage in Rome’s newspaper, the Rome News-Tribune, of a local air show raises questions of conflicts of interest or, at the very least, of balance in the way the paper covers local events and the organizations that sponsor them.

Here are the basic facts. Beginning Wednesday, Sept. 12, the RN-T began promoting a local air show with six-column headlines and front-page stories and photography, including detailed information on how to get there, where to park, admission prices and where to buy the tickets, even what to do with the tickets if it rained (good news: the tickets were good the rest of the event).

This front-page coverage continued for six consecutive days — three before the event, two during and one after. The last was my favorite, headlined, “Air Show Flies Out of Town.” That’s right, a front-page story on how the air show ended the very day everyone thought it would, the day it was supposed to end.

Other gems included the hype-filled, “Thousands expected for air, car show,” another the A1 story, “Air, car show begins today” (in case you hadn’t purchased a paper for three days), and, “Delayed air show thrills; Unused tickets for Friday’s show may be used today or Sunday.” This isn’t advertising. This is A1 editorial. Sunday’s six-column spectacular: “Show about more than air” ?!?

The print coverage was supplemented with three video presentations on the newspaper’s Web site and letters to the editor in support of the show. (I wrote a letter on Friday, three days into the media extravaganza, questioning the blanket coverage. That letter ran today, Wednesday, three days after the event, with no changes, as if I’d it had published on Saturday. Thanks, RN-T!)

Now, I have absolutely nothing against air shows in general or the local one in particular, but this lavish, extravagant coverage is coverage most suspicious, and it is coverage any local event would kill to get. You can’t even pay for this kind of exposure — it was all on P1.

So, let’s connect the dots. The primary sponsor of the air show? Coosa Valley Technical College. The primary sponsor of the RN-T hyperlocal Web coverage, Gridiron Central specifically? Coosa Valley Technical College. On the CVTC board of directors is an executive with the RN-T’s parent company. Hmm….

A conflict of interests of epic proportions? Of course not. Suspicious? Most definitely. I hope the 100BlackMen event here in Rome gets lavish coverage, too, and I hope Berry’s own French Film Festival, which I help to organize, gets at least a line or two. I can see the headlines: “Festival about more than film.”

Our crowdsourced SNPA contest entry

September 15, 2007

Thanks to all in JoMC 711 and COM 303 (A&B) for your help putting together our entry. I’m attaching the submission to this post for anyone interested in taking a look. I’ll also attempt to attach the .pdf of the visual I submitted on our behalf to accompany the entry form.

Now we wait and see.

SNPA entry

SNPA visual (.pdf)

Transparency yields trust

September 8, 2007

I read with interest, in yesterday’s New York Times, the decision by New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., the nation’s largest public health system, to begin publicly releasing data on infection and death rates. According to the report, the healthcare group is responding to “widespread concern about deadly, preventable and costly hospital-acquired conditions and pressure to crack open the shrouded culture of many hospitals.” The paper calls it a bold move by an industry that has long resisted transparency.

The key word here is transparency, which, thanks to the hyperlinked and socially networked nature of the Internet, is fast becoming an essential part of credibility of and for information online. Compare the NY hospitals’ efforts to win trust with the FBI’s data mining practices. Granted, the FBI needs a great deal of secrecy to do its job, but when it is revealed how that secrecy may have been abused, when it is revealed by someone other than the FBI, the result is an erosion of trust.

A colleague’s and my research on how readers determine credibility of information suggests that read-writers (Internet users) will reward our willingness to be transparent, or to be forthcoming, candid and open. It only makes sense that we better trust those we perceive as having nothing to hide.

Bloggers have taken the lead in capitalizing on transparency. They link to original source materials, credit where they get their information, and admit and correct error. They acknowledge contributions from readers, engaging in a conversation rather than a lecture. And they disclose their own personal politics and biases rather than leave the discerning of those biases to the detective work of readers. All of these norms build trust.

The poster child for what happens when someone refuses to be transparent in the face of calls for candor is Alberto Gonzales. How many times, how many ways did he refuse to pull the veil back on exactly what happened in the Justice Department and why?