Yesterday, the Washington Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, took up the question of quote cleaning: "Quote, Unquote", 8/12/2007:
When you read a quote in The Post, is what's between the quotation marks exactly what the person said? Post policy says it should be, but it ain't necessarily so.
Several readers of an early edition of the July 28 Sports section noticed different versions of the same quote from Redskins running back Clinton Portis in a story by Howard Bryant and a column by Mike Wise. 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."
According to Howell,
The Post's policy couldn't be clearer: "When we put a source's words inside quotation marks, those exact words should have been uttered in precisely that form."
So Bryant didn't follow the policy, but he said he had never heard of it. To make things worse, Wise's verbatim quote, caught on tape, was changed to agree with Bryant's.
Now, the first thing to say here is that Wise's quote was NOT actually verbatim. Journalists' attempts at quotation almost never are, as we've document here many, many times (see the bottom of this post for a list of links). It took me just a couple of minutes to go the Washington Redskin's website, find a video of Clinton Portis' 7/27/2007 media session, and record and transcribe the relevant bit of audio -- and sure enough, Wise got it (somewhat) wrong.
Here's what Portis actually said during the passage in question, lined up with what (Howell said) Wise said he said:
Wise: I don't know how nobody feel, I don't know what nobody think,
Portis: I don't know how nobody feel, I don't know what nobody thinking,
Wise: I don't know what nobody doing, the only thing I know is what's going on in Clinton Portis's life.
Portis: I don't know what nobody going through.Only thing I know is what's going on in Clinton Portis life
These are small errors, and not many of them, by the spectacularly lax standards of big-time journalistic quotation. By the unforgiving standards that NIST applies to speech-recognition error rate calculations, I believe that we have four word errors here (one substitution, one deletion and two insertions in 31 original words, for a Word Error Rate of 4/31 = 13%.
But what fascinates me here is that Howell didn't bother to (have someone) take ten minutes to check what the verbatim version of the Portis quote actually was.
For the record, here's my transcription of the relevant Clinton Portis Q&A, along with an audio clip so that you can listen for yourself. I've normalized the pronunciation (e.g. "ask" for [aks], "thinking" for "thinkin", "I'm going to" for [ɑɪ.mən], etc.) but I've tried to get the word sequence right.
Q: How hard will it be for you to accomplish that?
I mean, you like to say things, will it be kind of hard to bit your tongue on some things?
A: It won't be hard, I just got to mind my business, you know?
((So that)) I can't fight nobody else battles.
I'm going to mind my own business,
I'm going to keep Clinton Portis out of trouble,
I'm going to keep Clinton Portis focused,
I'm going to keep Clinton Portis on top of his game.
Outside of that, you can't ask me about the next man,
I don't know how nobody feel,
I don't know what nobody thinking,
I don't know what nobody going through.
Only thing I know is what's going on in Clinton Portis life,
and- and that's the only thing I control.
Now, Howell ends up focusing on a fascinating and important question -- whether journalists should change sources' morphology, word choice and sentence structure to conform to the norms of the standard language. Here's what she, Bryant and Wise say about this, according to her:
Bryant, who just left The Post for ESPN, thinks the policy is wrong. "For me, having covered athletes for 15 years, I've always felt conscious and uncomfortable about the differences in class, background and race -- I'm an African American -- and in terms of the people who are doing the speaking and the people who are doing the writing. I really don't like to make people look stupid, especially when I understand what they're saying."
What Bryant did is common among sports journalists, said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, assistant managing editor for sports. "Sportswriters have been making minor grammatical fixes to athlete's quotes forever. The meaning of what the athlete is saying is not altered, just the grammar. It's rooted in the belief that you shouldn't embarrass someone whose command of grammar is weak. We have told our writers to run quotes verbatim or paraphrase when the grammar is horrific, but some old habits die hard. We will try to do better."
What if television or a tape recording should catch a quote that Bryant changed? "I don't really worry about it," Bryant said. "I am totally convinced -- along racial, class and cultural lines -- that when it comes to white players from the South, reporters instinctively clean up their language. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, in his own way, can sound as inarticulate as Portis in terms of perfect grammar, so I clean up his language to not embarrass him. I also do it with athletes. What's fair is fair."
Wise disagrees, and he didn't like the fact his verbatim quote was changed without consultation. "I just have a hard time cleaning up anyone's quotes. I just feel it robs people of their personality. And if I'm not capturing who the person is through the rhythm and cadence of their words, I'm not telling the readers who they are. I just feel people need to be portrayed as they sound, irrespective of whether you're an aging white coach or a young black athlete. Otherwise, we run the risk of homogenizing everyone."
But she completely glosses over another point, which is that a significant fraction of the words in journalists' "quotations" are simply wrong, even when they're not trying to standardize a speaker's grammar.
Let me stress that Portis got off relatively lightly. Here are a few of the other ways his answer was quoted in print media, with the (relatively few) mistakes indicated in red:
Joseph White AP (from USA Today, "As camp opens, Portis tries to escape the sting of a lost year", 7/27/2007)
"I'm going to mind my own business," Portis said. "I'm going to keep Clinton Portis out of trouble. I'm going to keep Clinton Portis focused. I'm going to keep Clinton Portis on top of his game. On top of that, you can't ask me about the next man. I don't know how nobody feels. I don't know what nobody's thinking. [...] The only thing I know is what's going on in Clinton Portis' life."
Jim Ducibella, "Portis preaches goal to stay focused", Roanoke Times, 8/2/2007
"I'm going to keep Clinton Portis out of trouble," the Washington Redskins running back vowed last week. "I'm going to keep Clinton Portis focused. I'm going to keep Clinton Portis on top of his game. ... I don't know how anybody feels. I don't know what anybody's thinking. I don't know what anyone's going through. The only thing I know is what's going on in Clinton Portis' life."
Adam Himmelsbach, "Clinton Portis: The chip's back on his shoulder", The Fredericksburg Free Lance, 7/20/2007
"I just have to mind my business," Portis said. "I can't fight no one else's battles. I'll keep Clinton Portis out of trouble. I'll keep Clinton Portis focused and I'll keep Clinton Portis on top of his game. Outside of that, you can't ask me about the next man. I don't know how no one's feeling. [...] I don't know what nobody's going through. All I know is what's going on in Clinton Portis' life."
I agree with the Post's policy, which I believe is pretty much the standard one (though I've got no problem with regularizing spelling and even morphology, and editing out most disfluencies). But I don't believe that I've ever checked a journalist's transcription against a recording and found that it was actually word-for-word accurate, even allowing for editing of this type.
In this case, why should Clinton Portis's "nobody" be replaced with "no one", or his "outside of that" be replaced by "on top of that", or his "going through" be replaced by "doing"? That's not standardizing his language, it's just slipshod transcription.
These are not isolated errors. They're representative of the normal practice of journalism. The superficial issue is that journalists -- as a culture -- don't act as if they care whether quotes are accurate. The deeper issue, in my opinion, is the role that such quotes play in journalistic rhetoric. They're usually not treated as data, facts about the world in need of explanation, but rather as illustrations or expressions of the writer's opinions and conclusions, put into someone else's mouth because the rhetorical norms of the profession require it.
Often, such quotes are made to order by getting sources to answer leading questions, over and over again, and ignoring all of the answers that don't fit the framework that the writer has in mind. In other cases, bits and pieces of quotation are taken out of context and strung together in order to create a meaning that suits the writer's intent (which may or may not have been the speaker's intent).
When you think of quotes from sources in that cultural framework, it's hardly surprising that it's hard to get journalists to pay attention to whether someone said "going through" or "doing".
Some other relevant Language Log posts:
"Journalists' quotations: unsafe in any mood", 5/24/2007
"News and entertainment", 9/11/2006
"'Approximate' quotations can undermine readers' trust in the Times" 8/27/2005
"This time it matters", 8/13/2005
"'Quotations' with a word error rate of 40-60% and more", 7/30/2005
"Ethnograpy, journalism and interview rituals",
"Bringing journalism into the 21st century", 6/30/2005
"More comments on quotes", 7/1/2005
"Down with journalists!", 6/27/2005
"Ritual questions, ritual answers", 6/25/2005
"Ipsissima vox Rasheedi", 6/24/2005
"What did Rasheed say?", 6/23/2005
"Typography, truth and politics", 9/15/2004
[Update -- Suzette Haden Elgin writes:
I'm writing as someone whose native dialect of English is non-standard [and who has always done her best to present her "scholarly papers" at conferences in militant Ozark English].
And what I want to say -- finally getting to the point, you know how us Ozarkers go on and on and on and never get to the point -- is that the sequence "cleaning up non-standard language" _presupposes_ that non-standard language is dirty. Filthy, even.
And she's absolutely right -- in the original version of this post, I took the "cleaning up" phrase from the WaPo reporter's quote, and used it without even any scare quotes. So I've gone back and changed the wording to use "standardize" and other such expressions instead.
There are lots of these nasty metaphors, according to which non-standard speech and language are not only dirty, but also lawless and diseased. It's hard to avoid using them, because they get to be so bleached out after a while that we forget what they really mean.]Posted by Mark Liberman at August 12, 2007 07:05 AM