A Dilemma Within Quotation Marks

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, August 19, 2007

What reporters put between quotation marks isn't simply a quotation. It's a choice about what they believe the person said -- or should have said. Post staff members disagree among themselves and some of them with Post policy -- as do readers. Gray areas abound.

Continuing from last week's column, I asked Post staffers and readers to comment on Post policy that using quotation marks means "those exact words should have been uttered in precisely that form." This arose when some readers noted that an early-edition quote from Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis was "cleaned up" by Howard Bryant, then a Post sportswriter, while Post sports columnist Mike Wise quoted Portis's ungrammatical words verbatim.

At The Post, the opinions varied from "we treat quotations as gospel" and "ANY change of any comment put within quotation marks is an ethical breach" to "I just don't see the reason for quoting someone verbatim . . . unless it adds something to the story." Some reporters told me they follow their instincts rather than Post policy.

Some readers were appalled that quotes were changed. A few readers wrote that changing quotes is "lying." That's a stretch, but most readers and Post staff members who answered my queries think anything between quotation marks should be precisely what the person said.

Some readers and Post staff members feel that preserving embarrassingly ungrammatical quotes is not fair and that cleaning them up is fine. Others thought that Portis's patois sounded authentic. He said, "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."

Richard Curtin of Ashburn wrote, "Isn't it possible that Portis speaks this way on purpose to maintain a persona as a dude from the 'hood?'' Jack McKay of the District said, "I'll wager that he could speak 'standard English' if he wanted to. He chooses instead the colorful nonstandard English that is common in African American communities. That's his choice, and his choice should be respected."

The reporters and readers who agreed that cleaning up quotes is okay used the same reasoning as Teresa Galloway of Ithaca, N.Y.: "The larger point is that people -- even very educated ones -- almost never speak according to the conventions of standard WRITTEN grammar."

Post reporter and funnyman Gene Weingarten said: "What does 'exact' mean? Does it mean we are compelled to include every momentary digression, every cough or mid-sentence sneeze, and every little illiteracy or word-choice imprecision that someone might utter in the course of answering a question? I don't think so. I think we are held to several responsibilities, as journalists, and sometimes these rub up against each other a little bit. We are supposed to tell the truth as best we can. We are also supposed to be clear and concise, and communicate thoughts efficiently. . . . I think our responsibility to write clearly and compellingly requires us to be more than just a tape recorder."

In fact, Style editor Henry Allen blames tape recorders. "Before, we were told to quote the person as exactly as possible, and above all to get the sense of what was said. Then we got tape recorders. The exact quote was possible. But with the exact quote we sometimes lost the sense of what was said because the hesitations and digressions in the quote steered readers away from the context."

Another important issue is note-taking. Reporters aren't court stenographers, and many don't always use tape recorders or have transcripts to refer to. Reporters may use most of the exact words and fill in the blanks.

When a quote is being translated from a language the reporter does not speak, the responsibility is on the interpreter, who may feel it appropriate to make the source sound more articulate than he or she is.

Correspondent Molly Moore, who is based in Paris, wrote: "We wrestle with translated quotes all the time. We try not to allow possible translation differences to make a person sound ignorant. If it's a matter of changing a single word that is a synonym but could be translated either way from the language, and clearly expresses the intent of the speaker, we might make a one-word change. If it's something that could possibly change the meaning of the quote, we rephrase it, putting the person's exact words in quotes, but keeping our own words out of the quotes.

"There is also the problem of quoting someone who is trying to speak in English, though it is not their first language. We try never to embarrass a person unnecessarily by quoting them directly using incorrect grammar or misplaced negatives. The exceptions are long narratives where broken English might more accurately convey someone's struggle or thinking but again does not unnecessarily embarrass them. Bottom line, we never, ever change words in a quote that could change the meaning or intent."

Bob Steele, an ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute, which trains journalists, said: "Quotes should accurately and authentically reflect the words used in an interview. If we start changing words inside quote marks, then we raise questions about all other quotes. We will increase the distrust factor about the veracity of our journalism."

It boils down to this: Be honest with readers. That's what Post policy requires. But it doesn't mean reporters need to put every "huh" or "ya know" into a quote or to embarrass someone whose English skills are sparse.

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

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