The Question of Cosmetic Quote Changes

As a journalist in training, the AP Stylebook has become bedside reading for me.  While perusing its pages the other day and I came across this entry for quotations in the news: “Never alter quotations, even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage.  Casual minor tongue slips may be removed by using ellipses, but even that should be done with extreme caution.”  These rules struck me as rather draconian.  Plus, I realized I had already broken them by casually removing the “well, you know” from the middle of an otherwise wonderful quote one of my interview subjects had uttered.  I did not use extreme caution and I did not use ellipses. 

I had thought it was standard practice to delete verbal pauses and repetitions, and to correct the grammar in quotations. It seemed an innocuous action to take for the sake of the clarity and readability of the story.  As long as the meaning of the quote was preserved, where was the harm?

But reading the AP guidelines made me curious about the ethical and legal questions surrounding journalists’ use of quotations.  What if quoting every word makes the interview subject look, uh, I don’t know, less intelligent or something?  And how should a reporter deal with dialects or quoting a person who uses grammatical idiosyncrasies because their first language is not English?  If a source decides to sue, can a reporter be held liable for minor alterations of the quotation?

I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts on when, if ever, it is appropriate to “clean up” quotes.

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4 Responses to The Question of Cosmetic Quote Changes

  1. SandeepR says:

    I think it depends a little bit on the publication–newspapers tend be very strict about using exact quotations.
    For example, I think you could have been asked to write around the “well you know”, either by breaking the quote into two sentences, or paraphrasing part of it. Otherwise you kind of have to deal with whatever your source gives you–although you can keep going back to them to get better quotes.

    I do think it’s standard to delete verbal pauses, and grammatical errors. As you point out, we’re not trying to embarrass our sources, particularly if their English isn’t that good. I’m not so sure about repetitions, though.

    Here’s the AP stylebook on dialects: “Dialect should be avoided, even in quoted matter, unless it is clearly pertinent to the story.”
    And The AP agrees with you, in that “quoting dialect, unless used carefully, implies substandard or illiterate usage.”

    I mentioned newspapers, because I know of some magazine editors who are a little more blase about tinkering with quotes for readability, as long as it still accurately reflects what the source said.

    Here’s an article in the American Journalism Review, on whether quotes are sacred. Well worth a read, I think it shows some of the different perspectives.

    But as far as we’re concerned, like a lot of things it probably comes down to what each editor finds acceptable.

    • hestermandl says:

      I’ve wondered the same thing. I’ve been paraphrasing most of the time because it’s hard to carve out a quote that doesn’t have a big glob of ugly fat in the middle of it. I know that some of the writers in the press office take liberties in clarifying quotes if they have a relationship with the source that allows them to do so. I, however, have to write around those little problems.

  2. Keith R says:

    I’m coming from the radio world, where we have the luxury of referring back to a somewhat objective record of a person’s words.

    One of the first lessons I taught new reporters was to take a close listen to an interview clip, warts and all. If I let them “clean it up” as an exercise using our audio editing software, the next lesson would become clear to them upon playback: people sounded very strange and artificial without those vocal tics, conversational conventions, breaths, and bizarre asides that are typically overlook when talking to someone.

    I’m convinced that significant editing for clarity and perhaps more occurs between what the reporter actually hears and what is written in the reporter’s notebook.

    Then many reporters will read it back to the source, who can then agree: “that’s what I wish I had said.” It becomes anointed as a sacred quote through a strange negotiation that renders it pretty unrecognizable from the original exchange.

  3. nadiadrake says:

    Keith — that last paragraph reminds me of ‘telephone’. Bad news for everyone.

    I often wonder if it’s best to write around cosmetically-challenged quotes. As far as when it’s appropriate to perform a little plastic surgery — still not sure. I’m avoiding it for now.

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