Are Quotes Sacred?
Some journalists say it's fine to "improve" quotations as long as the meaning isn't changed. Others argue that the practice is dishonest.
By Fawn Germer
Fawn Germer is a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.
The editor removed the ellipsis. The reporter guessed at a word he couldn't quite hear. But it sure made for a great quote. "You got a duty to die and get out of the way," a Denver Post reporter quoted former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm as saying.
The Associated Press picked up the quote and soon it was everywhere. The New York Daily News ran the story under the headline, "Aged Are Told to Drop Dead. Colo. Gov. Says It's Their Duty." The Boston Globe ran a cartoon of Lamm kicking old people off a cliff. More than a decade later, the quote still resurfaces occasionally (see "The Nexis Nightmare," July/August 1994).
The problem is, that wasn't quite what Lamm said. The actual quote was, "We've got a duty to die and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and everything else like that and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life."
The Lamm misquote is a classic example of what can go wrong when the printed quote is not a verbatim account of what was said.
Sometimes a misquote stems from human error. But often quotes are altered to make them grammatically correct, or easier to follow, or sexier.
The debate over quotes stretches from the newsroom to the courtroom. While most agree it's no crime to fix a simple grammatical error, there is wide disagreement over the extent to which journalists should alter quotes.
If only sources could say it right the first time. If only they didn't ramble, switch tenses, inject "ummm" or "ah" into sentences and use "gonna" instead of going to. If only their subjects agreed with their verbs. Then there wouldn't be the temptation – or necessity – to ever clean up a quote.
The issue of altered quotes dogged New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm for more than a decade after a libel suit alleged she fabricated five quotes in a profile of a controversial psychoanalyst. Some of the disputed quotes were combined from interviews done many months apart. The most recent jury decison went in her favor, but debate over such tactics lingers.
Some question whether a public official who never uses proper grammar should be the beneficiary of a clean-up job every time his or her remarks appear in print. Others say running poor English might be a deliberate attempt to make someone look bad.
And what about quotes from an ordinary citizen? Should his poor use of language be widely exposed just because he happened to be interviewed once?
It's hard to admit that the purveyors of truth would reconstruct someone's words, then put the doctored version inside a set of quotation marks. Don't quotation marks indicate that what is inside them was actually what was spoken? If a quote needs to be fixed, shouldn't it just be paraphrased instead?
Some say it's not always that simple.
There is a big difference between changing quotes and cleaning them up," says Sue O'Brien, a media ethics professor and newly named editorial page editor of the Denver Post. "I think cleaning them up is very common. Changing quotes means actually changing the words people use, whether it is for clarity or emphasis. Cleaning them up is leaving out words, substituting a contraction for a bulky phrase. The one place you change a word and call it cleaning it up is changing a tense. But do it with the words they used. It's wrong to change the thrust or context of what someone is saying."
Other professionals say the rules vary.
"I've changed quotes and I've been accused of changing quotes, but I have never been accused of changing a quote I actually changed," says Jon Franklin, a two-time Pulitzer winner who now teaches journalism and creative writing at the University of Oregon. "People don't say what they mean, and they expect you to quote what they mean, not what they say. That is slippery, but it's the reality."
So what should you do when a high-ranking public official says the following: "The indictment certainly came as a shock to all of us. We knew they were requesting a substantial amount of information, and quite frankly, that had us nervous. You've been in this city for a long time, right, and know about me. We are certain that once everything is heard in court, we will be vindicated."
For some this is an easy call. Sentences one, two and four are perfect and fit perfectly together. Sentence three is the sentence from Mars. Just paraphrase it or use an ellipsis. But some would simply delete the third sentence and connect the rest.
While some believe editing quotes is doing the source – and the reader – a favor, others say there's simply no excuse for it.
"You can't. You can't fix quotes. Period," says Susan Feeney, national political reporter for the Dallas Morning News. "If somebody speaks in a way in which quoting them is incomprehensible, you don't use the quote. You use partial quotes. I don't fix them. Ever."
If it's a bad quote, Feeney says, paraphrase. Use ellipses. No cutting, no pasting. For Feeney, there is no debate.
"I'm never going to change my view on this," she says. "I'm one of those people who think quote marks are sacred, and when you are putting quote marks around it, you are telling the reader that this is exactly what the person said."
Contrast Feeney with David Hayes, a Toronto magazine freelancer who has also written three books.
"What I put inside quotation marks is true," he says. "I've compressed and imported quotations most of my career and have only had a subject complain about the content of a quote once or twice. That's because they read their words as they believe they said them – the intent, the meaning is accurate, even though, for example, the five-sentence quote in question is made up of two sentences from a conversation in their car and three from a face-to-face interview in their office."
Yet that is precisely what made history out of New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm's two-part profile of the psychoanalyst who said she cooked up some of the quotes.
Jeffrey Masson sought more than $7 million in damages, accusing Malcolm of falsifying his remarks. Malcolm acknowledged combining statements that were made months apart and changing the setting where remarks were made, but said her work accurately reflected what he was saying. A federal jury found in her favor on libel claims last November. While the jury found two of the five disputed quotations were false, it said Malcolm did not recklessly falsify one of the quotes and the other was not defamatory.
The marathon legal battle ignited debate over the ethics of quotations. Do readers consider the punctuation mark a sacred covenant that signifies every word is reported exactly as it was spoken? That depends on whom you ask.
University of Southern California journalism professor Ed Cray: "Of course. What else are quote marks for?"
University of Oregon journalism professor Jon Franklin: "Some do, some don't, but I don't think it is a big complaint either way. I think journalists think more about it than readers, because we tend to confuse accuracy with truthfulness."
Palm Beach Post Managing Editor Tom O'Hara: "They think that what is between those quote marks is what the person quoted said. But you know and I know and everyone knows that if the county commission chair says, 'I'm gonna vote against this,' it's going to show up in the paper as, 'I'm going to vote against this.' I think that readers have no problem with that and, in fact, expect their newspaper to make that kind of change in a quote."
Says Gene Miller, the Miami Herald's associate editor for reporting and a two-time Pulitzer winner, "If it's garbled and messy, I say, 'Hey, would it sound better like this? And is this what the person said?' And call the person back and get the quote right."
When he has a problem with a quote, Miller says, he goes back to the source. It isn't necessary to put words in their mouths, he says: "If you talk to somebody long enough, they'll say anything."
But editor Ralph Langer says it's not the reporter's place to push a source into saying the words that fit best in a story. "Our job is to report what people say and think, not to put words in their minds about what they might have said if they were as articulate as we are," says Langer, senior vice president and executive editor of the Dallas Morning News. "We aren't speechwriters for people."
Reporters say the decision to clean up a quote is rooted in fairness to the reader and the source. "If reporters relied on transcripts, most of the people they quote would appear blundering and inarticulate," says New York Times reporter Matthew L. Wald. "And the point of quoting someone is generally not to make the person look silly. The solution is generally to put quote marks around the words that the speaker squeezed out in good English."
Often the amount of clean-up depends on the savvy of the source. "Generally, I fix quotes for grammar, especially with average, ordinary people," says Ellyn Ferguson, a regional reporter for Gannett News Service. "I am doing the interview to get information from them, not make them look like idiots."
But it's stickier with public officials, she says. The ones she deals with now are polished and need to be accountable for their words, she says. But it was very different when Ferguson was working in Lakeland, Florida, covering politicians in what was then a rural, undereducated community. Many of the politicians there hadn't graduated from high school and had trouble getting the subject and verb to agree. She would make it work.
"Besides conveying facts, I think our job is to convey coherent information," she says. "Sometimes, when I am standing there doing the interview, it makes all the sense in the world. But when I sit down to write, it makes no sense at all. When that happens, I either paraphrase or I call them back."
Franklin says reporters have to carefully translate spoken English into written English when dealing with regular people. "This is particularly important with someone who is not media wise," he says. "But if I have to change very much, I'll just paraphrase. I think that's probably the solution."
Matt Clark, a freelance writer and former longtime medicine editor for Newsweek, agrees that it's important to consider the source before deciding whether to change a quote.
"A distinguished professor of medicine might utter an ungrammatical phrase and there wouldn't be any harm in cleaning that up," he says. "On the other hand, if you're interviewing an Appalachian miner's wife about tough times, you don't go out of your way to make her sound like a Wellesley graduate, do you? How she talks is part of the story, maybe the most important part. On another level, if the speaker is a presumably distinguished scholar and the issue happens to be his fitness to be head of a university department, you might be expected to leave the ungrammatical parts in, so long as they are quoted accurately."
The Miami Herald's Miller is also a hardliner on changing quotes in certain instances. If the subject is Bill Clinton or George Bush or Richard Nixon "saying something stupid," he says, the quote should run as uttered. If it is voiced in a courtroom or a setting where it is videotaped, the quotes need to be exact, he says.
"But you don't have to use quote marks all the time," he adds. "You paraphrase. You use selected quotes on certain words. You put dots in quite frequently."
In fact, quoting some people verbatim could amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
"If we quoted Mayor Daley correctly every time we dealt with him, he probably wouldn't be embarrassed, but some people would probably be embarrassed for him," says George Langford, the Chicago Tribune's public editor. "..The way around this is to simply not quote directly. Paraphrase."
Athletes are also in the public eye, and Miami Herald sportswriter Linda Robertson doesn't see anything wrong with giving them a break when it comes to usage. Ballplayers are prone to poor English, particularly after a game, she says.
"You will make the subject and verb agree so Joe Quarterback won't sound like a rube, but you won't change what he is saying," she says. "People appreciate that because most of us aren't public speakers. These aren't people who have taken classes at Toastmasters."
Some say journalists quote exactly only when it is convenient, like when they want to highlight or expose an individual's faux pas to make a point.
Robertson, who has a hard news background, says she is bothered by what she sees as a double standard in reporting quotes. "When we choose to embarrass people, we don't apply any of these rules," she says. "When we want to nail somebody, remember how we quote them directly and put sic in there. I'm speaking of the 'we' as the profession as a whole. You'll see an investigative story where clearly they are trying not to paint a flattering picture of someone, and then you'll see this whole tactic of cleaning up quotes go out the window. There are two sets of rules."
Michael Finney, executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald, says double standards can creep in unintentionally. "If we are writing about a bad guy, it is convenient to assume that a guy's bad language will reveal some flaw in his character," he says. "It seems justified to leave embarrassing, destructive quotes in a story. Obviously, there are times and types of stories where those types of things absolutely should run. But that is only when it is powerfully revealing about an important aspect of a story."
When reporters use quotation marks, courts have allowed a degree of latitude. If the remark reflects what the person has said, "the courts have not required precision," says Alice Neff Lucan, a Washington, D.C., newspaper lawyer who runs a libel hotline for the National Newspaper Association and whose clients include AJR. So it is unlikely that a reporter who cleans up dialect or imperfect grammar will be guilty of defamation.
"Remember that for there to be defamation, there has to be falsity," Lucan says. "If the falsity amounts to nothing more than cleaning up the grammar, there's no defamation there. On the other hand, if you put a racist term in someone's mouth when they did not use the racist term, it is very likely that would create liability."
From a legal standpoint, it is all right to delete a clause as long as it doesn't change the meaning. "Courts don't require tape recorder-like precision," Lucan says. But the courts do consider a quotation more sacred than a paraphrase because the reader's expectation is different, she adds.
But even though judges aren't as strict as the purists, Lucan still advises, "Don't screw around with quotes. If you need to interpret something for your readers so they understand it better, take the quote marks off of it."
Sportswriter Robertson wonders why the subject isn't broached more frequently in newsrooms. "There is no set of universal standards," she says. "It would help to have some guidance. It's a really murky area, and it should be taken seriously. What's the most popular complaint of our subjects? That they were misquoted."
One last thing. No quotes were changed for this story. But when the journalists were interviewed about changing quotations, nearly every one of them ended their interviews the same way, the way the Miami Herald's Miller did.
"If I screwed up," Miller said of his own quotes, "fix it." l ###