Neil's News

Literal Quotes

27 February 2012

When a reporter quotes a source, is it permissible for the reporter to change the quote? In some cases, absolutely.

For instance cleaning up the language is perfectly acceptable. Consider this quote:

"I heard McCray -- I mean McCoy say, uhm, 'He's deceased, er dead, Jim'."

That's almost unreadable. It is a reporter's job to carefully extract the words that the source meant to say and report them, in this case:

"I heard McCoy say, 'He's dead, Jim'."

This can be especially tricky when dealing with stuttering, conversational language.

Another example is translating from one language to another. Consider this quote:

"I heard McCoy say, 'הוא מת, ג'ים'."

In places such as Europe where everyone speaks multiple languages it is not uncommon to leave quotes in the original language. However, in places where the audience cannot be expected to read a foreign language, then it is the reporter's job to carefully translate the words.

[Translation sometimes presents a problem and/or opportunity when nuance is important. President Bush was asked by the Chinese to apologize for a spying incident[?] in 2001 (this was before 9/11, back when Bush was actively trying to start a cold war with China). Bush mumbled a conditional half-apology. China decided to defuse the situation, so they translated his words as a full apology and everyone forgot the episode.[?]]

Recently I was contacted by a reporter regarding a story he was writing about what it is like to work as a Canadian in Silicon Valley. My initial email reply contained the following:

Just for the record, I'm not a Google PR rep, so be sure that I'm presented as a Canadian geek, not a corporate spokesperson. My views do not necessarily represent those of my employer or my goldfish.

The reporter agreed to the terms and a week later during the interview I mentioned the following (the reporter had a tape recorder):

Before I came to Google I thought "Don't be evil" was just marketing, but when I got here I found it was core to the DNA of the company.

The resulting article contained the following piece of creativity:

"Before I came to Google, I thought 'don't be evil' was a marketing mantra. But the more I see of this company, the ethics behind so much of it—it's fundamentally, basically, a force for good. Mind you, I'm not a Google spokesperson. I don't speak for anyone else, not even my goldfish."

Granted, the content wasn't dramatically changed (I wasn't quoted as saying that babies are delicious). But it is disconcerting to see that what's between the quotation marks can be quietly rewritten so extensively.

The rest of The Globe and Mail's article is similar. It bears a distinct resemblance to our interview, yet seems to emanate from a parallel universe.

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Legal yada yada: My views do not necessarily represent those of my employer or my goldfish.