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American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2006


When good people use bad grammar

By Hallie C. Falquet
Falquet is an AJR editorial assistant.     

A famous football player uses incorrect grammar at a news conference. A man who suffers from Parkinson's disease stutters into a radio reporter's microphone. Do you paraphrase the quote or clean it up? The issue recently came up at Raleigh's News & Observer when editors--to the dismay of some--deemed it appropriate to go with the vernacular, as in "They was good friends" and "They killed my young'un for slam nothing." As experts from print, radio and online media outlets explained to AJR, it's not always an easy decision to make.

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar, Poynter Institute:
"I believe every writer, every journalist that I know, whether they're willing to admit it or not, cleans up quotes in some way," Clark says. "I don't believe there are any virgins in this particular practice." But the decision, he says, often hinges on who is doing the speaking. "Is this person a public figure or a private citizen? Do they know what they're doing, are they used to speaking in public, as opposed to a person who stumbles into the news somehow?" Years ago, Clark says, an African American quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got into a contract dispute and left the team. "I hope they [the Buccaneers] be zero and 16," the quarterback said at a news conference. Ultimately, Clark says, the quote ran verbatim in the St. Petersburg Times.

Randell Beck, executive editor, Sioux Falls, South Dakota's Argus Leader:
"Don't do it," Beck says. It doesn't depend on who you're interviewing or what the story's about. "Anytime you start drawing the line after no, you're making a judgment call that is very difficult to enforce." It parallels journalists' ethics policies, he says. Some places say it's OK to accept gifts worth $10, some say $15. It's much easier to set the limit at zero, he says, recommending that reporters "avoid the whole nasty mess" by paraphrasing the quote. "No one sounds as intelligent as they think they are," he concludes. "It just doesn't always come out of our mouths the way we think it will."

Howard Berkes, rural affairs correspondent, National Public Radio: Recalling an interview with a person whose speech pattern was affected by the onset of Parkinson's disease, Berkes says, "I kind of laid out the options to him; I can edit out the stuttering, or we don't have to do the interview." The man seemed very grateful for the editing, Berkes says. He was the executive of a cannery company, and the story was about the state of the salmon fishing industry in southeast Alaska. The man's speech pattern had nothing to do with the story. In general, Berkes says, print reporters have more leeway when it comes to editing grammatical mistakes. They "naturally edit their quotes" he says, while "broadcasters don't have the option of correcting grammar."

Jim Brady, executive editor,
When it comes to live online discussions, Brady says the Post will clean up grammar, take out typos and remove profanity. "We never," he says, "change the meaning of what they're saying." Readers do, however, complain when comments appear and then reappear with certain edits, such as the deletion of obscene language, so the Post is careful to note when it does make a change. Brady does this because he believes a bigger issue is created when you remove entire quotes. Then, he says, the story becomes, "Why did the Post change this?"

David Dixon, managing editor, Henderson, Kentucky's Gleaner:
For Dixon, correcting quotes depends on the speaker. "If it's the superintendent of schools, for example, we're not going to give him any help," he says. But, "if we're going to ambush somebody out of the blue, a man-on-the-street survey is a good example, we might clean up some minor things. We're not trying to make them sound stupid." However, if the way people speak is "regional, a dialect kind of a thing that illustrates who they are, you wouldn't want to do much with that," he says. "Perhaps that's part of the story."

Craig Whitney, assistant managing editor, New York Times:
Whitney comes from a generation that took notes and did not use a tape recorder. "I'm sure things got cleaned up occasionally," he says. And it still happens today. If someone said something that sounded like "gonna," it would be OK to use "going to," he says. In general, however, "our guiding rule is what's between quotations is what the speaker actually said." If the speaker uses a dialect or bad grammar, Whitney says, it's preferable to paraphrase the quote, unless, of course, the actual language is germane to the story.



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