Saturday, September 08, 2007

Quotes and how they get that way

Here's an interesting addition to the recent discussion on quotes and on cleansing 'em (nicely rounded up, with index, at Language Log). Unlike the case that set off that useful round of chat -- the appearance of a quote from a football player in two different articles in the same day's WashPost sports section, with some substantial differences* -- this one isn't about regularizing disfluencies in speech but about how speech gets de-regularized.

Quote-cleaning is always a good discussion to have, because -- well, let's not kid ourselves. Anyone who's spent any time at all in the sausage factory knows how preposterous it is to claim that everything in quotes reflects the exact words of the speaker, and that's leaving aside the question of fairly representing the speaker's intent. In the days when Men Were Men and Notes Were Scribbled, the discrepancies were a bit easier to understand. Quotes were often reconstructed from skeletal notes (see the passage in Mort Rosenblum's Coups and Earthquakes explaining the function of "Nixad must cease am agg"), and the reconstructing reflected both the writer's language skills and the writer's judgment of what the speaker must have sounded like.

The diffusion of better and smaller recording devices was supposed to eliminate that, and it's certainly helped. But recorders can't eliminate "telephone" errors, which result from the enduring inability of the human ear to hear stuff it doesn't recognize. One of my favorites is from the Knight-Ridder Washburo, which phoned a Middle East expert back in the dim days of August 1990 to try to get a handle on just who was this Saddam Hussein fellow whose troops had invaded Kuwait. His goal was "to be the new Solomon of the Middle East," the expert was quoted as saying. What he'd said was "the new Saladin." But Saladin wasn't the sort of guy who rang any bells at K-R, unlike the highly available Solomon, so Solomon it was. The correction was lovely.

Today's example is a bit different, but it still looks like a case of You Hear What You Know. I'm going to suggest it's amplified by the shortage or outright lack of editing that goes into Web-first publishing, which is scary enough as it is. Let's have a look:

DURHAM - Mike Nifong, the former district attorney who spent 24-hours behind bars for withholding evidence during the Duke lacrosse case, was released from the Durham County Detention Facility at 9 a.m. today to the excited utterances from the same supporters who surrounded him Friday.

The "24-hours" thing is a warning signal -- though in the accompanying caption, Nifong has just finished a "24 hour-sentence," so perhaps the hyphen gods were out for coffee when this was posted. "To the excited utterances from the same supporters" is a bigger one, but it's hard to pin down the problem: is it an excess of definite noun phrases, or just an ineptly chosen preposition?

Unlike Friday, Nifong had some things to say.

He thanked the jail staff for "the professionalism of which I was treated and the respect which I was shown. Other than that, I just want to go home and spend some time with my family."

"The professionalism of which I was treated"? Which rewrites into a clause as "I was treated of professionalism"? Whoa. It's in a quote, so it's sacred. We can't change it. But does Mike Nifong talk like that?

Well, no. Or at least, not in this case. The N&O posted a link to the audio clip in question, and there's no doubt: What Nifong says is "the professionalism with which I was treated." How did the reporter manage to hear it so wrongly? (More to the point, why didn't an editor ask the obvious question: "Did he really say that?") Here's a possible clue:

But Nifong had more to say. He was thankful of the supporters who surrounded him during the past two days.

No. He might have been thankful for them (or at least said he was), and he might have thanked them, but he wasn't thankful of them. Which suggests that the writer has some kind of preposition issue. He's not trying to make Nifong look bad; he just doesn't hear any differences between "of" and "with" or "of" and "for," so he grabs the nearest one to hand. Whether it's from tape or from notes doesn't matter. Solomon rides forth against King Richard.

The people who need a talking-to here are the ones on the desk. The soundbite is literally a click away. There's no excuse for not running a license check on something that obvious, especially given all the hints in the text that the writer has trouble with idiomatic phrases. And if this is an artifact of time pressure, the brave new Gannett-led world of throwing stuff up on the Web and waiting for readers to tell you that a lawsuit's in the offing, then a publisher or two has something to answer for as well. The N&O used to take pride in thorough editing. This ought to be embarrassing.

One more quote from the weekend's Nifong coverage stands out:

"He's guilty, he's a dirtbag," said one man, who stood near the jail entrance.

No reason to doubt the veracity of that (and no reason not to erase the comma splice by putting a period between the independent clauses; as a rule, people don't speak punctuation). But "one man, who stood near the jail entrance" is what's known as an "anonymous source." The N&O is normally rather boastful about holding the line against such things:

Every night, N&O editors toss out such unsubstantiated stories, newsworthy as they might be, because of the policy against unnamed sources. Thus, when The Post reported in January that the Bush administration had finally given up on finding weapons of mass destruction, The N&O didn't have the story the next day, even though other papers did.

So why ignore your own policy to include an ad hominem comment of no substantive value in a staff-written news article? At a guess, the N&O is still trying to make up for its uncritical leap into the prosecution's camp at the outset of the Duke case. Which isn't much of an excuse, so I'd be happy to entertain others.

* It can get worse. Back in the pre-Intertube days (the '86 playoffs, if you really want to know), I found 20-some versions of the quote in which Lenny Dykstra described his game-winning homer as his first since his days of playing Strat-O-Matic against his brother -- differing not just in word order or use of the trademark for "card-and-dice baseball game," but in his own precious little brother's name. Two distinct versions appeared on the same page of the Newark Star-Ledger.


Blogger TruePath said...

That doesn't seem fair. This guy isn't really a source because he isn't sourcing anything.

Unlike statements like "sources say ..." there is no implication of reliability here. N&O is not standing by the claims made by this guy in any sense.

Or to put it differently how is this different from saying, "a witness in the court case alleged..." or from saying "one protester at the event chanted "Death to Bush" and was escorted from the event.

Sometimes unknown people's utterances are newsworthy and no rule against anonymous sources was meant to prevent the reporters direct testimony about what other people said when they are included for the news value of what they said not to back the claim they are making.

4:52 AM, September 16, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

Interesting distinction, but I think you're overlooking an important function of sourcing policies. I think Mark Liberman's suspicion -- that quotes often function as "illustrations or expressions of the writer's opinions and conclusions, put into someone else's mouth because the rhetorical norms of the profession require it" -- is widely shared by lots of people who put it far less politely. So insisting that the article name the person who says "he's guilty" isn't vouching for the opinion as much as offering a kind of evidence that the quote wasn't simply fabricated to fit the needs of the story.

If a witness at a trial alleges something, it's literally on the record; anyone with the wherewithal can track down the quote in the office that keeps court records. If a protester is dragged shouting away from a presidential event, there's a good chance that some outside record is being made. The justification for the blind-source policy here is assurance -- admittedly, not really "evidence" that the guy isn't the proverbial airport cabbie of parachute journalism lore.

For the record, I think the N&O's source policy emphasizes appearance over substance. In this case, tho, I'm less interested in the merits of the policy than in why so many people at so many levels ignored it in such a high-profile story.

10:44 PM, September 16, 2007  

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