March 11, 2004

You Can't Quote Me On This

Back in my halcyon days of college journalism classes, where we learned big and important concepts like the Inverted Pyramid and human interest stories, I had a little rule hammered deep and hard into my skull.

Namely, you don't mess with direct quotes. If you're quoting someone in an article, it had better be accurate, damn it, or it could come back to bite you. Because I wasn't keen on committing libel, I took this quote rule very, very seriously, and it served me well through two newspaper gigs.

The thing is, when people talk to you, 2/3rds of the time they sound dumb as a stump. But, because it was THEIR words, I dutifully transcribed them as intact as I could, except for, of course, disposing of the multitude of "uhhhs" and "ummms" and other such verbal throw aways.

Here at the magazine I now write for, I exercised the same diligence regarding direct quotes. Even if an high ranking IBM exec sounds rock-hard stupid in some of their quotes, I left the quotes intact. Even though I know what they mean to say, I don't feel it's my place to interpret and fix their quotes. Then it wouldn't be a direct quote any more, right?

Well, because this magazine is basically a marketing tool for IBM and is beholden to IBM for much funding, we here at the magazine take a few liberties with the rules of journalism. Namely, after I finish writing an article, I send the rough draft out to the sources whom I quoted so they get a chance to "undumbify" their quotes. Not surprisingly, most articles come back to me awash with quotation changes and remarks that basically say they can't believe how dense they seem when they see the spoken word in print. That doesn't mean they're dumb by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it. I mean, I like to think of myself as a somewhat smart guy, but when I hear myself on tape or see me quoted somewhere, I think "Gawd, I sound like a gibbering proto-human."

Anyway, because my sources are the ones making changes to their own quotes, I really don't have a problem with them changing them. In the end, their quotes are still their quotes, even though they were allowed to pretty them up.

Well, today I got into a discussion with my managing editor about this. She was giving me a little crap, all in good fun, about having such high ideals, and that I shouldn't have any problem with doctoring quotes to make them sound better.

"But," I said. "Then they wouldn't be THEIR quotes any more. It would be me divining what I think they mean and making it concise and intelligent-sounding for them. I have a problem with that. That wouldn't be a direct quote."

"How is that different from them getting a chance to clean up their quotes?" asked Evelyn.

"Because, it's still THEIR quotes."

"Okay. But, let's say you clean up their quotes and then send them out for their review, and they return the copy and are happy with the changed quotes? Isn't that just easier for both you and them?"

"Well, easier, sure, but what's the point of even having quotes then? If I'm basically taking what they said, interpreting their words for them, and changing them as such. . . I don't know, it just seems as if the whole point of putting quotes in a story is misleading somehow to the reader."

"If you know what they meant to say, and you can make them sound better, and they want you to make them sound better, there really shouldn't be any problem. If we were a newspaper, yes, I'd say you have an obligation, morally and legally, to quote them as directly as possible. But here, we're in the business of making IBM sound good."

"I understand that, but. . . oh, nevermind."

I'm not sure why, but this has been twisting around in my head all day. Really, what's the point of using quotes if they're basically reworded versions of the original quote, authored by me? I can't accept that and, given the choice, I'll continue to allow the sources to clean up their quotes rather than making them sound smart for them.

I don't know. What do you people think?

Posted by Ryan at March 11, 2004 05:05 PM
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