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Cleaning up the Quote: Wash Post Ombudsman faults ex-Reporter Howard Bryant

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by heyabbott, Aug 13, 2007.

  1. heyabbott

    heyabbott Well-Known Member

    Howard Bryant is well served by his new job at ESPN, he's clearly not a journalist.

    By Deborah Howell
    Sunday, August 12, 2007; Page B06

    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.
  2. The Big Ragu

    The Big Ragu Moderator Staff Member

    This is an age-old question. If you capture the meaning of the quote--which it looks like both Bryant and Wise did--is it OK to clean up quotes? Many sportswriters do clean them up. This isn't just Howard Bryant. One rule of thumb some follow is that they will only go with the ungrammatical or slang version of the quote if it is germane to the story somehow. Otherwise, they realize these guys are not orators and they are sometimes struggling on the spot to come up with something quotable to say in an after-game or practice situation. Athletes have always been cut a lot of slack. This is not a major transgression that thousands of others haven't, and do, commit.

    I personally think cleaning things up is is fine for the day-to-day guys--again, as long as they are not changing meanings or taking things out context. Where leaving it as it is often makes sense is for magazine and feature writers. Sometimes when you are trying to capture the essence of the person and do it in a descriptive way, you can describe his personality better by letting the subject do it himself -- not cleaning up the quotes. You let the way he says things paint a picture for the readers that you could never paint with your own words.

    In the context of those quotes, that wouldn't have been the case, but I also understand that WaPo has a policy and if you are going to have a policy it should be adhered to. And the ombud is rightfully doing what ombuds do. At the end of the day, though, to me that it is much ado about nothing. Readers don't really give a shit (the few "ah-ha!" types who write in notwithstanding) and it doesn't make Howard Bryant a bad reporter.
  3. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    I don't minor grammatical fixes in a quote but this is way too far. It's not a quote anymore.
  4. SixToe

    SixToe Active Member

    I'm not in favor of cleaning up anything, other than curse words and even then a damn, hell or ass doesn't bother me.
  5. heyabbott

    heyabbott Well-Known Member

    The readers did give a shit. To the point that there were letters to the editor published on multiple days and the Ombudsman got involved. It doesn't make Bryant a bad reporter, it makes him a bad journalist on multiple levels.
    1. if you don't know the definition of "QUOTE", you're an idiot not a journalist.
    2. if you don't know the style book of your newspaper when you're employed by The Washington Post, you're a fool.
    3. if you lie and say you didn't know the policy, when you obviously did, you're a piece of shit liar.
    4. if you are intentionally covering for the object of your story by cleaning up their grammar , you are not a reporter, but an advocate or a PR hack.
  6. Twoback

    Twoback Active Member

    If I were an athlete and quoted the way Wise quoted me, I would never speak to another reporter. Or, at the very least, not to wise.
    We've got to figure out whether we want to quote people or tell people what they said. It can be two different things. Most conversational speech does not read all that well.
    Journalists have been addicted to the quote for far too long.
    Maybe that's what this high-and-mighty ombudsman should have been addressing. Because this person surely does not understand what it's like to do journalism in the trenches.
    Oh, and one more thing.
    When Bush appeared appeared in Pennsylvania in May and talked about building more nuclear power plants, this is how a co-bylined story authored by the WaPo's Peter Baker and Steven Mufson quoted him:

    "Nuclear power helps us protect the environment. And nuclear power is safe," he said to loud applause from workers at the Limerick Generating Station, about 40 miles from Philadelphia. He added: "For the sake of economic security and national security, the United States must aggressively move forward with construction of nuclear power plants. Other nations are."

    I guaran-freaking-tee you that George W. Bush did not say "nuclear power." He has never in his public life said anything other than "nucular." So where was the ombusdman to call them on that?
  7. SixToe

    SixToe Active Member

    If you're going to quote someone, you quote them.

    If you're going to tell readers what someone said, then you better be damn sure you understand the meaning of it and not put quote marks around something a person didn't say.

    It's pretty simple. We're not here to "protect" a speaker because he uses bad grammar.
  8. Bob Cook

    Bob Cook Active Member

    It's always been my understanding that the cleaning-up-the-quote-function is more for the odd, unintentional grammatical error. In this case, the Portis quote has more intensity in its ungrammatical form than it does in the cleaned-up version. If we always severely altered any quote that wasn't the King's English, we would have such classics as:

    "The ship is sinking."

    "The police are not there to create disorder, the police are there to preserve order."

    "Four, four, four."

    "Baseball is 90 percent mental, the other 10 percent is physical."
  9. Left_Coast

    Left_Coast Active Member

    Quotes should not be cleaned up. A quote is a quote is a quote.

    Also, interesting that the quotes in Wise's column were cleaned up -- and he wasn't consulted/contacted.

    That's not good at all.
  10. Norman Stansfield

    Norman Stansfield Active Member

    In the past, I've had athletes who don't speak properly tell me specifically 'not to make them sound stupid.'

    Shouldn't that be their job? Not to make themselves sound stupid?
  11. jlee

    jlee Well-Known Member

    There's a difference between yokel pronunciation and different words entirely. "Nucular" is not a word.

    I agree that sometimes you can avoid making an athlete looking like an idiot to preserve a relationship, but if someone who comes to games dressed in costumes while using aliases like Dr. I Don't Know says "nobody" instead of "anyone," that's not one of those times.

    Paraphrasing is a better option. As a mentor once told me: We get the names right. We get the scores right. That is the basics of what we do. We have to be accurate first.
  12. Frank_Ridgeway

    Frank_Ridgeway Well-Known Member

    Skilled, ethical journalists can disagree on this and probably always will. I think paraphrasing is the best option, but I've worked where quotes were cleaned up when the speaker was someone who normally would not be a public figure. Why run a quote at all if how someone says something detracts from the substance of what he's saying? Sometimes running the verbatim quote does appear to be a mean-spirited or at least condescending attempt to portray someone as being not very smart, or at least awkward in speech. So that's the truth about the person? Well, yeah. But I can tell you there were lots of times when I've seen such a quote and thought, yes, readers are going to have a good laugh at this athlete's expense, just like they'd have a good laugh at the writer's expense if I didn't fix a few things in his copy. The writer usually has the luxury of looking over what he's written before sending it in, and then he usually has one or more editors trying to save him from looking ignorant, but the speaker has no such advantage. I think it's fine to disagree with what Howard did, but it's dishonest to pretend he did it for any reason other than to just be decent.
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