Column: To quote or not to quote

So what did Clinton Portis really say?

According to Mark Liberman, a University of Pennsylvania linguist who hangs out at the blog Language Log, the Redskins running back said during a July 27 meeting with the media, “I don’t know how nobody feel, I don’t know what nobody thinking. I don’t know what nobody going through. Only thing I know is what’s going on in Clinton Portis life.”

As Liberman explains, an Aug. 12 column by Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell prompted him to transcribe that passage from a videotape available on the team’s Web site. Howell’s column examined how the paper came to run two different versions of what Clinton Portis said, neither of them strictly accurate.

In a news story by Howard Bryant, readers learned that Portis had said, “. . . I don’t know what anyone else is going through.” In a column by Michael Wise, Howell said, that part of the quote was rendered as “. . . I don’t know what nobody doing, . . .”

Howell said the paper’s policy was clear. “When we put a source’s words inside quotation marks, those exact words should have been uttered in precisely that form.”

Given how people speak in real life, such a policy is unworkable. But in any case, Bryant said he had never heard about it. And neither, apparently, had the staffer who replaced Wise’s version with Bryant’s version without even telling Wise — which is wrong whatever you think about standardizing quotes.

Liberman accuses Wise of getting the supposedly verbatim quote wrong, with a broad-brush sideswipe at “the spectacularly lax standards of big-time journalistic quotation.” And then he goes on to ding Howell: “But what fascinates me here is that Howell didn’t bother to (have someone) take ten minutes to check what the verbatim version of the Portis quote actually was.”

Well now. It turns out that Wise relied on a staff transcription (something I found out by e-mailing him to ask). So Liberman cannot know that Howell “didn’t bother” to check the accuracy of the quote; perhaps she checked the same transcript Wise used. Did Liberman bother to ask?

Whether and when and how far to standardize quotes is contentious. Doing it may seem condescending; not doing it may seem mean-spirited.

Wise e-mailed, “I also feel a sense of compassion for some people I interview who aren’t necessarily savvy in the media. If it were a kid who had trouble with the language — and not a guy who loves to affect a persona and knows very well how he comes across when he speaks like that — I would have paraphrased. But it’s Portis, the guy who dresses up as Southeast Jerome and other assorted characters.”

I’m uncomfortable with putting altered words in quotation marks, even if the reason is benign. When I was working in Los Angeles, I went to a rally for supporters of a school-voucher initiative that was on the ballot that year, and the featured speaker was Polly Williams, who led the campaign for vouchers in Milwaukee.

She’s black, and the audience was almost entirely white, but they were also enthusiastically pro-Williams, and as the audience warmed up she gradually shifted from standard English (a descriptive term, not a normative one) to Black English Vernacular. So I had to decide when I wrote a column about the rally, do I quote her accurately, leaving the BEV grammatical markers intact, or do I pretend she spoke standard English throughout? I opted for accuracy, and further for not mentioning that it had been a choice, figuring that my obvious admiration for her would convey to readers that I wasn’t trying to make her look bad.

Still, if the Post’s policy is never to standardize quotes, writers and editors shouldn’t do it. And when in doubt, check the tape.

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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