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.