Letter to Miriam Pepper, et al.
Editor's note: This letter was in response to an Oct. 6, 1999, column by Miriam Pepper, who, at the time, was the “Readers' Representative” at “The Kansas City Star.”

November 26, 1999

Dear Ms. Pepper,

A student has just given me a copy of your Oct. 6 column on altering quotes. She was as chagrined as I about your comments.

First, some background. I was a reporter, editor and news executive for 34 years, most with the New York Times Co., before turning in my keys to the newsroom for the classroom. For the past three-plus years, I’ve been the lead editing teacher at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at KU. 

To put it as simply and bluntly as possible, your view is poppycock. It contributes to a disturbing process in journalism that nibbles — no, gnaws — at newspaper credibility. When you put something in quotes, it’s what is said. Period. If you want to alter it, paraphrase. The AP and I agree, and it’s a standard that must be kept. It’s what I demanded in my newsrooms and, now, demand in my classroom.

Are there exceptions? Yes, but only two: the “uhhs” and “ers” and other little “thinking” interjections, as well as the “glides” (“gotta” for “got to,” for example, but it’s amazing how many of those get in when it’s regular folks and not folks like you). All of us exhibit such “clutter” or lapses in our speech, but the listener doesn’t really hear or remember them. The rule in this case: Report what is heard, accurately. When such clutter does set in a listener’s mind, employ this technique: Include an example of exactly what’s said and then clean it up, letting the reader know what you’ve left out, for clarity’s sake, and why. An example (not mine, but Don Fry’s):

A brilliant young high school scholar was interviewed by a reporter. The young man literally interjected “I know” after about every third word.What was said around those ubiquitous and annoying “I knows” was pithy and profound. But, if quoted exactly, it would have been impossible for the reader to decipher. So the reporter gave a sample of his speech, including the “I knows,” and described the way the young man spoke. The reporter then told the reader that for the rest of the story all the “I knows” had been deleted.

Simple, eh? A good reporter using good reporting and writing techniques without hurting credibility. 

As for fixing a grammatical misstep, at least three problems arise. One is relatively small, the second more serious, and the third worth pondering.

1.  What about those who heard the quote, either in person or on the air, and noticed the difference? Oops, another little chip in your credibility.

2.  Often it’s done for the “ins” and not the “outs.” Having grown up in a public housing project, perhaps I’m overly sensitive to such things, but my experience has shown that language is too often cleansed for the occasional gaffe by a city commissioner or “reader’s representative” and not for the folks from less privileged backgrounds. I don’t think quotes should be changed in either case. 

3. Where do you draw the line? What do you change and what don’t you change, and for whom? You’d have to come up with a manual as thick as the Bible and with as many “do’s” and “don’ts. ”

The lines drawn by the AP (and me) are relatively simple, leave no room for doubt, and have served good journalists well.  I reported, wrote and edited a helluva lot of stories in my 34 years in the newsroom and never knowingly altered a quote. And I know a helluva lot more journalists, far greater than me, who had long and successful careers without ever doing it either.

Ultimately, it’s a question of credibility. If you change quotes, you don’t have as much as you should, in my opinion. And, if recent polls are correct, the public agrees.

Oh, I can’t leave without a comment about your own grammatical gaffe that appeared in print.

English, as with any other language, has many forms, including the spoken and the reported. Spoken speech is much more casual and often contains inconsistencies that, by the way, are not really grammatical errors but conventions of the way we talk. “That” for “who”; “they” for “it” (General Motors, newspaper, family).

Would it have been better for you, particularly given your position, to get it correct?  Oh, OK, but who doesn’t do it, at times? (In British English, by the way, you likely were correct.) Is it a sin? No. We allow more grace in speech, even when it appears in print. Does it make you look foolish? Perhaps, but only to a few (and you), and why are you worried about them? They’re snobs, and like most grammar snobs I’ll catch ‘em at something else (just as you may catch me at something in this letter, though I’m no snob, except when it comes to quotes, perhaps). No writer, editor or speaker is perfect. Too many pitfalls. Read E.B. White in “Elements of Style” about “the fact that.”

To me, by the way, all this is less a case of being foolish but, because of your response to the reporter, of being vain. If it’s that important to you, then watch what you say. It’s not a reporter’s or journalism’s responsibility, it’s yours. So don’t make the rules just because you screwed up.

And you can quote me on that (just don’t change any words).

Sincerely, Malcolm D. Gibson

P.S.: As with your quote, which was unedited when you said it, this letter, too, is “unedited” in the same vein. It has been reviewed by my eyes only. As I tell my students, writers who edit themselves are like those lawyers who defend themselves: “They have fools for clients.” So, if you spot any errors, feel free to think me a “fool,” just don’t quote me. Paraphrase, please.

cc: Mark Zieman, Executive Editor
     R. Richard Hood, Editorial Page Editor

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