Cleaning quotes, when to and when to not

Filed Under (Reporting techniques, Skills) by on 06-04-2010 and tagged ,

I was cleaning up my computer files today and ran across this piece from 2007 from the Roanoke Times.

We all know the importance of getting the quote right. But does that mean running a quote such as:

“Well, like, we were heading down the street and like we were having like a good time, ya know? And like we saw this guy running like fast. Like really fast.”

I think we all agree that needs to be paraphrased!

And then there are accurate quotes with bad grammar that add color and spice to a story — especially a feature story.

Washing quotes clean

Joe Staniunas

Staniunas, of Roanoke, is special purpose faculty in the Department of Media Studies at Radford University.

“Fight Fiercely, Harvard!” … and Tech … and UVa.

If Vic Brancati (“When players break the rules — of grammar,” March 13) had been covering the Black Sox gambling scandal of 1919, he probably would have rendered the immortal line: “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” as: “Say it isn’t so, Mr. Jackson!”

And instead of reporting Willie Keeler’s memorable reflection on his career as: “I hit ’em where they ain’t” he might have quoted him as saying: “I hit them where they are not.”

Better grammar, to be sure. But off base, and dull.

It’s true that all reporters trade away some accuracy in quotes; seldom are they exact transcriptions of every syllable from an interview. In many cases, of course, they can’t be. As Leigh Montville tells it in his recent biography of Ted Williams, one of the Red Sox slugger’s terms for the “knights of the keyboard” in the press box began with “gutless … syphilitic” and ended with words for certain unprintable and unusual sexual escapades.

Those frustrated scribes, upset by the Splendid Splinter’s many instances of boorish behavior, yearned to show readers just how profane he was. They would toss their fedoras high if they could have enjoyed the freedom of today’s writers to let athletes hit away with a few mild curses and conversational syntax.

But banishing “f-this” and “f-that” along with “um,” “ah” and that all-star ejaculation “man!” is as much buffing as a quote needs; washing it through “The Elements of Style” makes it too misleading.

Broadcasters have to put what comes out of the mouths of players on the air and on the Internet, although the day is coming when even they might be tempted, through digital wizardry, to remove a few double negatives and turn post-game news conferences into prime minister’s question time. But those wouldn’t be the candid comments caught by a camera or tape recorder or cellphone.

And people would know it because so much material is out there these days.

Fans who can see ungrammatical interviews on TV and then read laundered remarks in the paper can tell something’s wrong with the print version of what an athlete reportedly said. They have to wonder how anyone can use such precise grammar talking to a reporter with a notebook, but seldom manage to do it speaking to one with a microphone.

So, today’s sportswriters and editors just have to cringe and bear it or risk damaging their credibility.

I do think athletes should know the rules of agreement as well as they know the strictures of the 3-4 defense or a zone press. But it’s up to their coaches and professors to improve their public speaking skills; reporters should just cover them, not cover for them.

Maybe along with trainers and bands and cheerleaders, colleges could dispatch platoons of English teachers to their stadiums to help student-athletes speak in phrases as well-rounded as the balls they hit, kick and toss.

Until then, it would better meet the goal of honest storytelling if sticklers for more precise grammar in quotes — as the Rolling Stones might say — fail to obtain satisfaction.

Original posting.

Comments are closed.