Mending Language

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What do reporters do with a garbled transcript?

I just finished a telephone interview with Valerie Kent of The Newfoundland Herald.

I made a point of saying, in passing, that she was welcome to fix' my language, and smooth out any wrinkles in the blanket of our discussion.

Very few of us speak in flawlessly constructed sentences. Oral language is punctuated by stammers, incomplete statements, poor sentence construction and other murkiness. People generally know what we are trying to say, even if we are making a hash of it.

However, as sensible as it sounded during the interview, when you transcribe the tape and read the words on paper, well, that's another thing. Sometimes, the smartest people can seem completely incoherent.

Print reporters will know what I'm talking about. This happens, to some extent, during most every interview. People just don't talk the way they write, and writers often struggle to crib together a sensible quote from a convoluted transcript.

Quite often, in news writing, you see the use of ellipsis three dots in a row, which indicate a break in the text. Most often, this means that the writer has linked together two sentence fragments that belong or at least work together, but may be separated by seconds or minutes of other discussion.

But what do you do when the subject constantly changes tack, rarely finishing a complete sentence? Ellipsis are good to a point. However a sentence that reads like this is less than ideal.

I developed my own views on this early in my journalistic career, and adopted a policy that, admittedly, was unconventional.

I fixed bad language.

I listened closely to what people were saying as I transcribed interviews, and corrected bad grammar and poor sentence construction there on the spot. If someone said seen' when it should have been saw', I changed it, and many other errors that may have sounded okay in conversation, but looked embarrassing on paper.

Yes, I did use ellipsis when joining sentence fragments. But simple mistakes were corrected without fanfare or disclosure (and I was careful to never change the meaning of a quote).

I didn't do this to cover up for people. I did it to give them a fair shake, because the way we talk is different from the way we write. It is foolhardy to expect perfect diction, and unfair to embarrass someone for garbling a sentence. (Though I was more rigid in quoting politicians verbatim.)

I think it was a good call, because I have never been criticized by interview subjects for changing their quotes.

But that's my view. What's yours?

I'm interested in hearing from other reporters and editors on this one

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  • Heidi
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Hi Geoff - I agree with you 100% on this one. I have changed quotes to make a story readable and just to make it flow.
    However, I'm always careful to listen very carefully and to not change or alter the essence of what the interview subject is saying. And the wording is never changed to the point of altering what the speaker actually said. Only small changes, like I seen , or the babbling that we all do in normal conversation. It's not necessary for people to read a succession of Ums and Uhhs and ...likes - oh my!