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.