Friday, August 27, 2010

Never, ever do this

OK, kids, let's start the semester with a Rule of Journalism: Write what you know, not what you guess or speculate.

Writing Thursday for Friday's paper, then, you might know that X number of people "were" in jail at some point on Thursday. You do not know whether any or all of them "are" in jail. Plainly and simply, you are making stuff up, and that is not allowed. You have no idea what might have happened between when you made your last phone call and when the fishwrap hits the sidewalks.

You can take Your Editor's word for it in the abstract, or you could simply read your own deathless prose:

Agro and three other employees -- a manager and two people dispensing pot -- were arrested and released without charges later.

It doesn't matter whether they were released without charges, or whether they made bail, or whether Butch and Sundance busted 'em out while Andy and Barney were looking the other way. Your story is what you know -- not what you want to say because you want to spin your story forward. Same goes for "is in critical condition today"; if you can see into the medical future that well, you're in the wrong business. Make it "was in critical condition Thursday night."

The Quote of the Day, drawn from the story, suggests an equally serious offense somewhere:

"This is Michigan. This is not a Cheech and Chong movie," Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said.

Hee hee! Sheriff Mike ought to spend a little more time on the mean streets of Language Czarina's little hometown here. But somebody else needs to spend a little more time hunched over the tape recorder. Here's the other paper's take:

"This is Michigan, not some Cheech and Chong movie," Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said Thursday at a news conference.

The two stylebooks can mud-wrestle over Mike vs. Michael all they want, but quotes aren't optional. Quotes -- we like to claim -- represent the exact words of the speaker, and only one of these can qualify.

This isn't a big difference or a change in meaning; it isn't even really a change in tone. But it's a difference, and it means at least one of the papers at the press conference doesn't mind making stuff up. That's not good.

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Blogger John Cowan said...

Probably neither of them is the exact words. As looking through Language Log will tell you, people are routinely misquoted in newspapers, and all because print reporters don't in general bother with making simple audio recordings, which are absolutely trivial nowadays. At best they scribble down some few words and then try to reconstruct later what was said in the heat. Scandalous, but there it is.

On the (extremely few) occasions when anyone has interviewed me, I have always insisted on checking quotes afterwards.

11:23 AM, August 27, 2010  

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