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Even during a formal interview for a news article, people speak informally. They say "uhm", they cut off sentences half-way through, they interject phrases like "you know?", and they make innocent grammatical mistakes.

As somebody who wants to fairly and accurately report the discussion that takes place in an interview, what guidelines should I use in making changes to what a person says?

While the simplest solution is to write exactly what they say and [sic] any errors they make, that can have the effect of unfairly casting a person in a bad light, especially when done editorially.

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migrated from May 13 '13 at 4:22

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

You don't have to add "(sic)", & if people make errors when they speak, so be it. Quote them verbatim or paraphrase what they say. It's unnecessary to add phatic grunts like "uhm", & you can just delete the "you know"s & replace them with ellipses "I just want to say, you know, that my administration.... Well, I mean that the current mayor's administration..." => "I just want to say ... that my administration.... Well, I mean that the current mayor's administration..." or "The former mayor said Mayor Doe administration 'was handling the problems well' and would solve them soon." – Bill Franke May 13 '13 at 2:42
You should check with the publisher about what you are & aren't allowed to do, however. The publisher may have strict rules & a style manual. – Bill Franke May 13 '13 at 2:43
This question is off topic: it's not about English, but about journalism or academic ethics. I suggest it might be a good question at Writers. – MετάEd May 13 '13 at 3:03
@MετάEd, I think you're right, thanks for pointing me to that site. I can't migrate the question myself, so I will re-post it there. – Jason Indigo May 13 '13 at 3:06
A moderator might take care of it shortly. – MετάEd May 13 '13 at 3:14

4 Answers 4

The only rules I follow here are necessity and common sense.

Necessity because sometimes the story gets better with informal speach, and it becomes vital to make such mistakes, specially if you really deeply on dialogues. For example, I don't see how a low level street drug dealer will have a well form speach. People expect him to speak with errors and slang. There will be no good to point that he's using slang and speak wrongly, if that is obvious and people already expect that. Besides, if you have a good gramar in the rest of the text, people will comprehend that the drug dealers speack is wrong intentionally, not because you don't know how to write. In my opinion, there's no need to point what is obvious.

But, on the other side, there's common sense. You can't get too far with slang and errors just because in reality people do that or you will become boring and confusing as you just can't write "T2UL. AC" just because someboy may write that in a SMS for "Talk to you later. At class, right now".

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To answer this question, I'd like you to think about why we quote someone: to strengthen an argument. When a news source quotes someone, they are doing it to strengthen their argument for what actually happened (the news). I like to think of quotes as confessions in a court of law. If you misquote someone, they get to go free.

A major guideline I use is, did you change the meaning by misquoting? Any minor changes to words does change the meaning and are not acceptable. Further, if your omission changes the meaning of the quote, you have misquoted the individual and lied in your writing. I found this example:

Film: Live Free or Die Hard. Blurb: Jack Mathews, New York Daily News: "Hysterically...entertaining." Actual written line: "The action in this fast-paced, hysterically overproduced and surprisingly entertaining film is as realistic as a Road Runner cartoon."

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Your example quote may apply the adverb to the incorrect adjective, but if Mr. Mathews found the overproduction to be one of the entertaining aspects (which would seem plausible) the edited quote may be consistent with the original sentiment. Pushing things perhaps, but not as dishonest as some edited quotes I've seen. – supercat Nov 23 '14 at 20:34
Anytime you paraphrase, you run the risk of changing meaning. I believe the paraphrase changed the meaning enough to warrant this example. Ultimately, it comes down to "how accurate do I care to be." I tend to like a bit more context in my quotes. – Jeff Nov 23 '14 at 22:40
The apparent meaning of the original is closer to the edited version than I would expect when I saw such an edited quote. If I saw the edited quote and had to guess what the original said, I would have expected something closer to "[Movie star name] may have been laughing hysterically all the way to the bank, but few in the audience will find this dreck even remotely entertaining." – supercat Nov 24 '14 at 15:07

It's conventional to drop the "umm"s and "you know"s and correct obvious grammar errors. Like if someone says in a speech "Senator Jones say he will ..." I think most reporters would correct that to "Senator Jones SAYS he will ..." with no hesitation.

Similarly, when people are speaking, they often repeat themselves and generally ramble. It's routinely considered fair to leave out repetitions and to compress unnecessarily verbose speech. Like, suppose a speaker said, "Albert Einstein was, he was a great scientist, I'm sure we all agree, yes, a great scientist, and, anyway, what I wanted to say, the point I was trying to make, is that he discovered relativity, I mean his first theory, the general theory of relativity, when, like, you know, he was working as a clerk, as a patent clerk, I mean a clerk at the patent office." A reporter might well quote this as, "Albert Einstein was a great scientist. He discovered the general theory of relativity while working as a patent clerk." Few would challenge that "clean up" of the quote.

In my opinion, going much beyond that is not legitimate. Changing the meaning of what the person said is dishonest and misquoting -- whether you are changing it to make the person you are quoting look better or look worse.

That said, many reporters disagree with this completely. There was a court case a few years back -- Masson vs New Yorker -- where Mr Masson was interviewed for a magazine article and sued the reporter for libel on the grounds that many of the supposed quotes from him differed dramatically from what he actually said. The courts ultimately concluded that although the article did pretty much invent quotes and put them in Mr Masson's mouth to make him look bad, this was not libel because the invented quotes were "rationally related" to things Mr Masson actually said. My favorite: according to court transcripts of the tape of the interview, Mr Masson, a psychologist, was talking about Freud's old house and said, "Freud's library alone is priceless in terms of what it contains: all his books with his annotations in them; the Schreber case annotated, that kind of thing. It's fascinating." The reporter quoted this as, "[Freud's house] would have been a center of scholarship, but it would also have been a place of sex, women, fun."

I think there's a murky middle ground on slips of the tongue and simple factual errors. Like if a historian made a reference to Andrew Jackson when in context it is clear that he is talking about Andrew Johnson, and there is no indication that he has the two men confused, it was just a slip of the tongue, I think it's fair to fix the name without comment. But in other cases, fixing someone's mistakes might amount to an attempt to hide the fact that the speaker doesn't have his facts straight and doesn't know what he's talking about. And I'm sure there are cases where a writer "fixes" statements that were in fact originally correct and the writer has now made them wrong. So I'd be very cautious about such corrections.

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If a speech proceeds something like: "Even after Andrew Jackson was impeached, he continued his policies ["Jackson?"] Excuse me, Johnson continued his polcies..." I think that unless one is trying to portray the speaker as more of an expert than he is, it would be fair to edit the speech to say "Even after Andrew Johnson was impeached, he continued his policies". The speaker never put the words in that order, but it would clearly represent his intent. On the other hand, if the speaker hadn't acknowledged the mistake, I think it would be improper not to acknowledge what was written, perhaps... – supercat Nov 23 '14 at 20:41
...with a footnote "* Mr. Smith presumably meant Johnson". Even if it turns out that the writer is incorrect in his assumption of what Mr. Johnson meant, it will be clear that the writer misunderstood the speaker's intention as opposed to attributing to him words he did not say. – supercat Nov 23 '14 at 20:44

As a former journalism major (who has used almost none of those skills professionally), let me tell you right now that you DO NOT make changes to what a person says EVER.

Don't misrepresent what the interviewee says. Don't misquote them. Don't change the meaning of what your interviewee says.

But you can leave the word whiskers out. Leaving out all the Ahh..Umm..Err... is just good journalism. Word whiskers rarely (if ever) add anything to the conversation. If you've ever read an interview in a magazine, listened to one on the radio or watched one on TV, it's been edited and most of the word whiskers have ended up on the cutting room floor.

But word whiskers tend not to be a problem if you're interviewing a famous person or someone who speaks professionally. Avoiding word whiskers is Public Speaking 101 kind of stuff. A lesser skilled interviewee will, obviously, not speak as eloquently. So what then?

A quick word on [sic]: [Sic] is not for interviews unless for some silly reason you're doing the interview by email. (Sic or sic erat scriptum literally means thus was it written not thus it was said. Even then [sic](in my own personal experience) is woefully overused.) Since you don't use [sic] in interviews, when people say things in their own personal style, which may or may not be grammatically correct, you quote them verbatim. One exception to this is people who give long, rambling answers (or use an excessive amount of word whiskers). This is when when your frenemy, the ellipsis, comes into play.

(This point is less important in the digital age when stories are no longer measured in terms of column inches but is nevertheless still critical in journalism.)

Proper ellipsis usage is key: Ellipses are okay if you do not change the meaning of what's being said. For example, here is a quote from an interview on gun control given by US Vice President Joe Biden, a man known for long, rambling answers:

It is an individual right, but it is also clear constitutionally that the government can limit the type of weapon you can own. For example, if the idea was to be able to repel a tyrannical government, then you should be able to own an F-15 if you have the money to buy it, with full ordnance. But you’re not allowed to do that, and the court says you can deny certain weapons available for individual ownership. You can’t have a nuclear bomb. So it is an individual right. You have a right for self-defense against any intruder or any illegal activity being perpetrated on you, and for your physical self-defense.

BAD Ellipsis use:

It is an individual right ... to own an F-15 if you have the money to buy it ... you’re not allowed to ... deny certain weapons available for individual ownership ... a nuclear bomb ... is an individual right. You have a right for self-defense against any ... illegal activity being perpetrated on you, and for your physical self-defense.

As you can see, Biden's words have been twisted to mean the opposite of what was said. This may be an extreme and obvious case but even small, seemingly innocent omissions can change meaning.

BETTER Ellipsis use:

It is an individual right ... [to] self-defense against any intruder or any illegal activity being perpetrated on you, and for your physical self-defense.

In this case we have distilled VP Biden's words to their core meaning: You have a right to self-defense, period. Also notice the bracketed word (another frenemy). The way Biden's words were summarized would have been grammatically incorrect, so the [to] was added to fix that. Please note: the meaning was not changed, only to correct grammar which would have otherwise been incorrect due to my editing.

One final thought: Be sure to record the interview (with the interviewee's permission, of course). Keeping everything on the record will help you accurately transcribe the interview (and keep you honest while doing so), as well as provide self-defense if the accuracy or intent of the interview is in question.

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One very tangential comment: While it is true that an article on a web site does not have the same rigid space limitations that a print article does, that doesn't mean that it's okay to be long-winded and ramble. You don't need to respect the size of a piece of paper, but you do still need to respect the reader's time! – Jay May 23 '13 at 14:44
One of my favorite real-life misquotes: In a recent election, a candidate aired an ad that included a clip of his opponent making some statements about marriage that some people might find objectionable. But the clip was carefully framed: He cut out two words the other guy said that somewhat changed the meaning of the quote: the part where he began with "Don't say". – Jay May 23 '13 at 14:48
In cases where a speaker says something and then corrects himself, is it proper to apply the corrections retroactively within the quite", e.g. "There are three widgets: the foozle, the goozle, the snoozle, and--make that four widgets--the woozle", would it be proper to quote the person as "There are four widgets: the foozle, the gooze, the snoozle, and the woozle"? – supercat Nov 2 at 19:18

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