Quote, Unquote

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 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."

David Lapan of Alexandria wrote: "Why did Bryant feel the need to 'clean up' Portis's language while Wise presumably didn't? Most importantly, how did Post editors miss the incorrect use of quotation marks?"

Scot French, a University of Virginia history professor, noted that the ungrammatical version of the quote had been changed to match the cleaned-up version by the time it was published on washingtonpost.com. "Does the identity (pro athlete) or status (public vs. private figure) of the subject affect the decision on what to leave raw and what to clean up? . . . I ask this as a professional historian who has long relied on journalistic accounts as 'the first rough draft of history.' "

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.

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."

Post policy says that "quotations of people whose speech is marked by dialect, incorrect grammar or profanity often present difficult choices." The policy recommends: "Sometimes we will want to avoid humiliating a speaker by paraphrasing in grammatical form an ungrammatical statement."

Speaking of mangled English, how does The Post treat President Bush's speech? White House reporters Peter Baker and Michael Fletcher say they don't touch it. Baker pointed out that every word that Bush "ever says in public is transcribed. We don't clean it up. In fact, we go to great lengths to make sure the quotes are as precise as possible. If it's fractured, we can use ellipses or brackets or fragment quotes. If the fracture is particularly noteworthy, we might point it out."

Fletcher said, "I try to avoid using fractured quotes mainly because I feel they can be distracting. Other times, I use ellipses. My theory is that using fractured language puts the focus on the wrong thing -- Bush's poor syntax, or poor stage presence, or whatever -- when he is talking about vital issues. . . . On certain kinds of pieces -- features or In the Loop, I use them to illustrate clearly this guy's style."

Bryant and Garcia-Ruiz noted that Spanish-speaking athletes -- there are many in baseball -- may be articulate in Spanish but not in English. Bryant, who speaks Spanish, thinks it's unfair to quote them using poor English. The Post's policy says to use "special care" when quoting "people for whom English is not their first language." It goes on to say: "If such quotations make the speaker look stupid or foolish, we should consider paraphrasing them (outside of quotation marks of course). When appropriate, a story should note that a source was struggling with English."

My view: Quotes should not be changed. If coaches or athletes are routinely "cleaned up," that should stop. Simply put, quotes should be and sound authentic. And The Post needs to set this particular record straight. Wise's Portis quote should be restored to its original form. The rough draft of history is still history. More on this issue next week. Reader comments welcomed.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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