[quote] Er, um, like, you know, eh? [end quote] said Kuppajava.
May 28, 2013 12:10 PM   Subscribe

How do I explain to a student journalist that when quoting someone with whom they have recorded an interview they should refrain from keeping in the verbal filler words and tics we all use in casual conversation unless absolutely necessary?

I was recently interviewed by a rather naïve journalism student for an article about my professional work. Another professional in my field whom I respect suggested I speak to this journalist, so I felt I had little choice to take a pass on it. I don't typically speak to inexperienced journalists and told my colleague as much but they assured me it would be ok to help out this student who is young and getting their start in the journalism world.

Now that the article is in print, I've discovered to my horror that said journalist, after speaking to me (or more accurately, considering other things I am not mentioning here that were unprofessional, wasting my time) for an hour and a half, used exactly one direct quote from me but left every single "er" "um" "you know" and "like" in that quote. Even though I know full well I do this and it is poor form, I was mortified to read it in print, verbatim! Luckily, this article will not have an impact on my career and won't be read widely, but might be in the future if the news outlet takes off.

My quote would have been pitch perfect had I not been sloppy while answering questions or the journalist simply excised every instance of filler words. There was no point to quote every single sound I uttered! We all speak with verbal tics (I know I can improve on this, so please refrain from making suggestions about that...). However, seasoned journalists I respect always edit those words out of direct quotes unless it is germane to the story. I can assure you in this instance, it was not helpful to leave them in. The quote doesn't, um, scan well and, er, loses impact because of all the, you know, commas around, like, each filler, um, word or, er, phrase. ;)

I have the opportunity later this summer to provide this student with feedback and critique on how to properly quote someone. I can be a pretty scathing critic, and since I'm upset with myself about my performance, I want be diplomatic in suggesting this person learn to edit out extraneous words yet still get the quote right.

Are there any good places on-line I could link to for this student journalist to learn standards and good practices for transcribing and editing recorded interviews? I think this student is getting a short shrift at their J-School and I feel they would benefit from better wisdom on the subject.
posted by kuppajava to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
They need to know that reporting isn't the same as transcribing. The subject of the interview is trusting that the interviewer will retain the absolute truth of her/his statements, without leaving in every um or uh. (And if you're the writer, getting paid by the word--no editor on earth will count those little sounds as words.)

Of course, the NYT's Deborah Solomon went too far in the other direction.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:15 PM on May 28, 2013

I think it depends on the context.

If you're in a position to know that this is something that just isn't done within a journalistic context, and you are coming from a position where you can give that note as guidance, I think you should just tell the student this in the proper forum for providing feedback.

If you're not a journalist and you don't 100% for sure know what the industry standard is, I don't think it's an appropriate note to give.

You mention talking to mutual connections about this -- can you have that person relay the criticism? Or potentially talk to their teacher/editor/boss about it?

In any event, if you choose to give feedback I would divorce it from any emotions you have and frame it as a "note" rather than some kind of accusation about what this could do to your reputation, etc. Either it's standard practice to remove the ums or it isn't. This should have nothing to do with you.
posted by Sara C. at 12:18 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Tell them to make sure and only leave those words in when you're trying to present the subject in as unflattering light as possible.
posted by resurrexit at 12:20 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The AP says not to do it:
We do not alter quotations, even to correct grammatical errors or word usage. If a quotation is flawed because of grammar or lack of clarity, the writer must be able to paraphrase in a way that is completely true to the original quote. If a quote's meaning is too murky to be paraphrased accurately, it should not be used. . . . Always, we must be careful not to mock the people we quote.
Hope this helps.
posted by resurrexit at 12:28 PM on May 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

Seconding resurrexit and adding, tell them to only leave them in if they want to be spared the trouble of getting another interview with the subject.

PS Is there an editor at this rag? They should have caught that, I think.
posted by Infinity_8 at 12:29 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

They need to know that reporting isn't the same as transcribing

I used to transcribe interviews done by my professor as a summer job, and I tell you, we didn't keep the ums and ahs in the interviews either, and that was for academic publication! I agree with infinity_8, an editor should have caught that stuff.
posted by LN at 12:40 PM on May 28, 2013

Best answer: It might be worth pointing out this example of omitting filler words. It's from Terry Gross's introduction to her book of interviews, "All I Did Was Ask":
"With the exception of the occasional John Updike, no one speaks readable, perfectly grammatical sentences. So we've edited the answers my questions elicited for clarity and concision, while sticking as closely as possible to each interviewee's actual speaking style."
It's fair to say that in your experience, this practice is commonly accepted for the purposes of clarity and space, and that the student journalist's future editors will most likely expect it.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:51 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

resurrexit: The AP says not to do it:
We do not alter quotations, even to correct grammatical errors or word usage. If a quotation is flawed because of grammar or lack of clarity, the writer must be able to paraphrase in a way that is completely true to the original quote. If a quote's meaning is too murky to be paraphrased accurately, it should not be used. . . . Always, we must be careful not to mock the people we quote.
I'd like to believe them, but between George "I invent new words every time I open my stupidhole" W. Bush and Barack "um, uh, I ah, um, have a last name, um" Obama... I ain't buying it.

At least not that literally as they seem to imply.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:00 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree. Giving journalists the directive to clean up quotes opens a wide door for the journalist's hidden and not so hidden biases to slip out.

It is the responsibility of the interviewee to clarify what editing will and won't be done for publication. And to excise as many tics as possible when speaking in an interview. Unlike casual conversation, an interview subject can pause and compose a thought without losing their turn to talk.
posted by gjc at 4:02 PM on May 28, 2013

Best answer: First, I'd try to divorce the transcription issue with the other problems you had with the reporter - that you didn't want to do the interview, you feel as though your time was wasted, etc.

Quoting someone too exactly, especially when it's not done maliciously, is not a cardinal sin of journalism. Personally, I'd so much rather see a student who errs by treading too cautiously than one who doesn't understand the importance of accuracy.

That being said, this article is a nuanced, if dated, exploration of how to deal with quotes.

I'd also perhaps advise the student that if they're having a hard time getting usable quotes from someone, it's OK to ask someone to restate - but ideally, this sort of discussion should be something they're having with their faculty and advisers, rather than a peeved source.
posted by eponym at 4:39 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would argue that the AP's stance is more agnostic than is argued above. "Grammatical errors or word usage" is not the same as filler words. One of the major point of SPJ's code of ethics is to 'minimize harm' and not making sources look dumb unnecessarily is included in this in my opinion. 'Quote cleaning' definitely treads around dangerous lines though and ethics are such that neither concern really overpowers the other (although I prefer the minimize harm approach).

What happens in practice though? From my experience most writers excise the filler words when transcribing. Nearly all people use fillers so it's very hard to get a quote without them. Also I've heard some sports writers tend to clean up foreign players sentences when they're grammatically muddy too, but this gets further into 'quote cleaning' than I would be comfortable with.

What would I tell the student? It's good that you think so highly of the sanctity of the quotation marks, but you make sources look foolish if you quote them like that. Filler words are often removed in the practice of journalism. Paraphrasing is always an option if the idea needs to get into a story but you feel you would have to too radically alter a quote to not make your source look silly.
posted by john-a-dreams at 11:44 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think you should touch this with a ten foot pole. You don't sound like you be coming from a place of true altruism. If he hasn't learned this yet the person he is hurting now and will hurt in the future is himself, it's not your problem, and it would be a mistake to engage further in any way that you would not be thrilled to have verbatim reproduced by him in any context he sees fit.

Sounds like your frustration would be more usefully channelled towards letting your colleague know it was a less than stellar experience and you don't recommend he use his social capital towards this young journalist's benefit or vouch for him, and towards recommitting to your decision to avoid inexperienced journalists.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:28 AM on June 3, 2013

Response by poster: My apologies in the delay for reporting back on this. School ended for this journalist and it was hard for me to suss out some of the details people were asking for. I did quote Terry Gross and the AJR as referenced in an e-mail directly to the student journalist.

I don't think the editor for this particular news outlet is "hands on" and I've asked around and no one seems to know who the editor is. I also checked back with my colleague who set me up with the interview and they were rather pleased with the article as a whole but did understand my concern and assured me that this student is new to journalism and that pretty much no one will read the article because it isn't as wide spread as I thought it was.

Thank you all again for helping me weigh what to say and what not to say. I left out any mention of my frustrations with feeling my time was wasted and kept the tone of my note upbeat and positive, giving the student encouragement on future endeavors.
posted by kuppajava at 7:53 AM on June 12, 2013

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