The great quote question

How much tampering with quotations can journalists ethically do?

Most reporters and editors see no harm in “cleaning up” quotes. But how much is too much?

By Doreen Carvajal

Doreen Carvajal is a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 1 (January 1991), pp. 1, 8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


“We wuz robbed,” wails the boxer in defeat.

“We were robbed,” corrects the editor in search of the inoffensive.

The words we live by are not always the words we see in print.

A football star who talks like a high school drop-out on the 11 o’clock news may speak with the precise grammar of Alistair Cooke in the morning sports section. A gritty city councilman who sprinkles conversation with an occasional “ain’t” may be a statesman declaring “aren’t” from the front page.

How far can a writer stray from the words? And just how sacred are the sentences between quotation marks?

It’s a question journalists answer daily. It’s also the question the United States Supreme Court is considering in a $10 million libel lawsuit pitting New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm against former psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson. He accuses her of fabricating and altering quotes. She contends his charge is ludicrous.

Her lawyer insists the quotes were unchanged — other than “a word here and a word there.”

“Tape-recorderese” is Malcolm’s term for halting conversation that is a thicket of ers, uhs, and fractured phrases. “Our ear takes it in as English, and only if we see it transcribed verbatim do we realize that it is a kind of foreign tongue,” she writes.

For many writers, translating this foreign language means repairing bad grammar, trimming unnecessary words, boiling away excess phrases. For some editors, it means excising black dialect or a police officer’s angry curse. For some it means dreaming up the words.

In Washington, D.C., a correspondent for a top newspaper is so zealous about quoting his sources accurately that he secretly tapes their telephone conversations. At The Philadelphia Inquirer, a newswriter turned football writer indulges in regular skirmishes with his editors about whether athletes should be quoted verbatim — with fourth grade grammar violations — or spared mangled syntax. Corrections are made.

“My own opinion is that all quotes are cleaned up,” said Donald Fry, associate, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. “It works in stages. You clean up as you listen. You filter out the ‘well, you knows.’”

“The second stage is taking the notes,” he said. “You clean it up again. Then when you decode it, you clean it up again. Then when you publish it certain words are carved away. There are levels and levels and levels. And we do it all with perfectly good motives.”

He offers as his own example his interview with the elegant columnist Murray Kempton. In a transcript of a verbatim interview with Kempton, the writer’s precise and clean style is reduced to a banal conversation that sounds like the chatter at the local mall.

Fry’s thoughtful style of speaking also suffers under the same magnifying glass.

“I don’t think you’re too pleasant in these pieces in front of me, like the one about the woman who burned up while the cops ate their breakfast, you know. I mean . . .” Fry said to Kempton.

“Well, I mean, you know . . .” Kempton replied.

Oddly enough, there are few formal rules to guide writers’ intent on turning speech into prose.

The New York Times, for instance, has no written policy. 

USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer have drawn up guidelines.

But even these guidelines are elastic at the Inquirer where reporters and editors sometimes disagree on application.

Basically, the Inquirer rule says don’t change the quotes — unless it is ungrammatical. (“Minor grammatical errors are repaired in those cases when highly-desirable direct quotation would be confusing or would make the speaker look foolish.”)

“This is a rule cited to alter many quotes,” said Thomas Ferrick, a veteran poverty beat reporter for the Inquirer. “For instance, I’ve tried to get in a black street usage of the verb ‘to be’ — ‘I be waiting,’ ‘I be dreaming,’ and have it changed. Ditto for street contractions: ‘you gettin’ out soon?’ Ditto for ‘ain’t.’”

Dialect is a delicate issue more sensitive than simply smoothing the grammar into proper style. Editors worry about embarrassing sources or offending readers. The venerable “Elements of Style” bible for the grammarian in newsrooms simply advises: “Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.”

Fry, of The Poynter Institute, recalls two cases that invoked the wrath of readers for very different reasons.

At the St. Petersburg Times, letter writers reacted angrily to a story about a black athlete who was quoted in black dialect. The writer, Fry said, had asked the athlete if he minded the quotations. He wanted to show that the athlete could shift easily between standard English and dialect. The athlete didn’t mind. Many readers did.

However, in Alaska, Eskimo Indians sought out the editorial board of a local newspaper to complain about the doctoring of their quotes, Fry said.

The spare construction of their speech had been massaged into standard English. And they were irritated to see themselves white-washed in print.

David Finkel, a magazine writer for The Washington Post, said he was baffled by some readers’ perceptions about dialect or the lack of dialect.

In a freelance story for Esquire, Finkel wrote about the relationship of a black homeless woman to a white suburban woman who took her into her home. No one questioned the suburban woman’s remarks, but they did raise doubts about the homeless woman.

“After it came out some people started saying — ‘Is that an accurate quote? She sounds so good. You must have cleaned up the quotes.’ I said no.

There was some kind of expectation going on that I didn’t understand. Some readers wanted me to redo quotes,” he said.

For four years, dialect and foreign language have been a standard part of beat reporting for Murray Dubin, the ethnic affairs reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. (“I’m the guy who covers Polish polkas and the Ku Klux Klan,” he explains to sources.)

In 20 years of reporting, he has fumbled with a tape recorder only three times. And he assumes that he naturally edits out the ums, dems, and uhhs.

“On this ethnic beat of mine, the only rule I have about quotes is not to shame or embarrass anyone because of their inability to speak English well,” Dubin said.

“Of course, there are pieces — profiles, ethnic or neighborhood pieces, for example — where the dialect, inflections, slang, way of speaking add to a word picture,” Dubin said. “However, when it is appropriate and when it is not, cannot be quantified. This is not a measurable science we’re involved in.”

The judgment call is even tougher when the translation is not just a matter of turning speech to pearls of prose.

“When I deal with a translator, invariably a long, emotional answer from the Cambodian or Pole comes back through the translator as flat ‘no,’” he said.

“It never fails.”

“You lose so much color and feeling when a translator is used that I generally use as few direct quotes as possible,” Dubin said.

Even when the reporter is the translator there are judgment calls.

While working in Panama for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I found myself feverishly trying to take notes in Spanish and English. My tape recorder was running. My pen was racing. But still I felt some of the blood and life of the quotes were lost. Later when I switched on the recorder to listen a second time to Spanish interviews, I made the disastrous discovery that conversation was even more illusive on tape.

Voices were obliterated by the roar of an air conditioner. Words that once seemed precise in conversation were unintelligible on tape. Even worse, my credit card-sized tape recorder had a tendency to be balky at key moments.

Janet Malcolm, whose notes and tapes are at the center of the pending United States Supreme Court case, blames some of her legal problems on a tape recorder that went awry.

She spent more than 40 hours interviewing Jeffrey Masson, who sued her for $10.2 million, charging she had fabricated or changed his quotes in a two-part profile about him. Most of Masson’s interviews were on tape. But the disputed quotes were not.

“In the case of the disputed notes, my recorder was broken,” she said. Distrustful of a battery-operated tape recorder, she said she used a recorder with a cord. Then, she said, during one of the interviews she tripped over that cord and broke the recorder.

“These notes exist,” she said.

The notes were challenged because most of the interviews were backed up by tape. And the notes that Malcolm produced were not the actual written notes, but typed copies of a morning interview with Masson. Malcolm had lost the original notes. In district court and in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Malcolm’s use of the quotes were vindicated despite Masson’s insistence that he had never described himself as an “intellectual gigolo.”

That court ruled that a journalist quoting a public figure can make up a quote without committing libel if the quote does not “alter the substantive content” of what was said.

Today, Malcolm said she has no qualms about repairing quotations that are ungrammatical or mangled. But she had learned one lesson from the years of legal battle with Masson. “The only thing I do differently is save every scrap of paper.”