With all the fixing, mixing and mis-interpreting, reading is no longer believing
Carsten Stroud likes the way people talk. He drops in and hangs out with bikers, cokeheads and street kids, hoping to capture the way they sound in his magazine pieces. To him, the inarticulate are eloquent. But in March, 1983, Stroud was confronted by the prototypical reporter’s nightmare: having someone deny ever having talked to him. The protesting subject was a nurse, who, having read some apparently too-political statements attributed to her in an article about burn-out among nurses in the now-defunct Quest magazine, decided to get herself off the hook.
To a writer who prizes accuracy and precise detail as much as Stroud does, the accusation was more than just a shock; it was a betrayal. “She neither confirmed nor denied the truth of the statements, but simply denied ever speaking to me at all,” he remembers. “So Michael Enright-he was the editor then-called me up, understandably concerned. I mean, I’d never written for the magazine before-this was several years ago and I didn’t have any more reputation than anybody else-and he said, ‘Well, what about this?’ and I said, ‘This is outrageous.'”
Luckily for Stroud, he had taped his conversation with the nurse-something he didn’t often do back then. Enright phoned her, told her all her comments were on tape, and that was the end of that.
Well, nearly. The episode forced Stroud, who has since gained a reputation for being scrupulously exacting in his work, to ensure he’d never leave himself open to accusations of misquoting someone or, worse, making up what someone had said. And it reinforced his own policy about how to handle quotations, a topic newspapers and magazines grapple with every day: don’t touch them unless you absolutely have to. Bad grammar, incorrect words, screwy turns of phrase-Stroud keeps them all in his stories, and he goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure he’s got these less-than bons mots correct.
He sometimes carries two tape recorders to interviews. He sets one on the table between him and his subject. If the interviewee is scared off by being taped, Stroud shuts off the recorder on the table and switches on another one strapped to his calf and controlled by a wired trigger that runs down his sleeve to his hand. “I guess it’s kind of a dubious proposition, but it has two advantages,” he says. “First of all, I get the cadence of the speech exactly right, and, secondly, I have proof that I was there and this was said.” If Stroud’s method is questionable, his intent is honorable: to get quotations right, and keep them right when he incorporates them into his stories. “My overall policy is, if it’s in quotation
marks, you can’t play with it. If you get in there and impose your sense of grammar or cadence or expression on someone’s speech, then you’re just jerking around with what the guy really is-whatever he is. I’ve never said, ‘Let’s sweeten this up a bit,’ or, ‘Let’s fix this.'”
That’s something not easily said by most editors and reporters who work for newspapers and magazines across the country. Remarkably few publications have clear policies on handling quotations, and these policies are usually so oblique and unenforceable that they are, in practice, meaningless. It’s not clear at all how sacred quotations are at Canada’s major dailies and magazines. Do reporters routinely fix bad grammar, substitute more appropriate words for incorrect ones or juxtapose out-of-context quotations in their stories? Are these practices repeated by editors once the stories have been filed? And is it becoming increasingly difficult to tell if what was said was actually what was said? The answer to all these questions, in a word? Yes.
“In the main, we don’t fool around with quotes,” says Shirley Sharzer, associate managing editor of The Globe and Mail. “Occasionally, where poor English or incorrect grammar can be seen as making someone look foolish, we clean it up-unless it’s a politician or somebody who should know better. When public figures use improper language, I guess they’re fair game.”
The Globe’s position on quotations is fairly standard for a Canadian newspaper, but it’s not a firm policy; rather, it’$ just an unofficial guideline. What writers and editors do to quotations is up to them, and their handling of quotes is guided by little more than a kind of journalistic scout’s honor. When new reporters start at the Globe, they’re given a copy of the guideline “and we expand on that in a preliminary talk,” Sharzer says. But at no point are staffers told exactly what they should and should not be doing to quotations. The newspaper favors using brackets to insert “correct” words and ellipses to signify that some words have been dropped, but there is no way to determine if all reporters and editors do this.
The same is true at The Toronto Star, where even the official line on quotes is wobbly: “Except for slight changes to protect grammar, quotations should never be changed,” the policy handbook states. But Rod Goodman, the Star’s ombudsman, says the policy is not rigidly followed. “We don’t know on the desk if it’s not an exact quote. How can we know? Most people who are interviewed wouldn’t remember exactly what they said anyway. It’s only if their words were twisted they’d know something was wrong.” Goodman says it doesn’t matter if what people say is nipped and tucked or dressed up a little before it gets in the newspaper as long as the meaning isn’t changed. For example, it’s “a matter of discretion” on the writer’s part whether he slips words into a quotation without bracketing them or eliminates the ellipses when he drops words.
“A lot of reporters take down full quotes, but a lot of others take down key words and fill it in when they get back to the office,” Goodman says. “As long as it’s the flavor of what’s said, then that’s okay.” The flavor, though, can turn a little sour when people call up the newspaper claiming they’ve been misquoted. Even here, finding out just what was said is difficult-it’s the reporter’s word against the complainant’s. The only surefire way to prevent being accused of misquoting someone is to “take confident notes, and if you have a tape recorder, refer back to it,” Goodman says.
But “confident” notes do not ensure that quotations won’t be tampered with. Brackets and ellipses are ugly, and they destroy the flow of good quotations-why shouldn’t reporters and editors be tempted to leave them out when there’s nothing to stop them from doing so? Flabby policies may sound official, but they don’t do much. A staffer at The Vancouver Sun who wished to remain anonymous says the newspaper’s policy is “don’t quote without the name of the person being quoted.” It’s as simple-and simplistic-as that. The Kitchener- Waterloo Record, which has a policies and ethics manual-an unusual thing for a medium-size daily-doesn’t address the issue of quotations at all. The closest it comes is this: “Accuracy must be our constant goal. There is no such thing as a minor inaccuracy inasmuch as every error tends to erode the newspaper’s credibility.” (The paper’s manual is currently being revised and is expected to have a section on quotes.)
Policies at Canadian magazines are not much more encouraging. The handling of quotations at Saturday Night, for example, is dealt with on a case-by-case basis, says Executive Editor Dianne de Gayardon de Fenoyl. The magazme prides itself on its accuracy, but when it comes to changing quotes, its position is fuzzy. “We’re probably, on the whole, stricter on leaving quotes alone than most other magazines,” says de Fenoyl. “It’s hard to draw the line on whether to change something-we usually just check everything.” One of the magazine’s researchers confirms all the facts in the stories the magazine runs. (The practice is standard at many magazines, which have the luxury of time that newspapers don’t.) Checking sometimes includes finding out if what a person said is really what he said, but Saturday Night doesn’t read back quotes to sources. Instead, the checker asks the source in a roundabout way to confirm what he’s already said.
The magazine corrects factual or grammatical errors in quotations, usually inserting square brackets so the reader knows the quotation’s been touched. It rarely uses “sic,” which trumpets mistakes to the readers and makes quotations look clumsy. But although Saturday Night tries to be scrupulous once manuscripts are with the editors, it doesn’t tell writers how they should handle quotes. Says de Fenoyl, “We sort of trust them. We assume they know what they’re doing.”
The editors at Toronto Life, where quotes are similarly sacred, assume the same thing. “We trust our writers. There’s no way we can run after all of them to make sure they’re being good little boys and girls,” says executive editor Jocelyn Laurence. “Some writers like to put in ellipses if they’ve removed something from a quote and others don’t bother. We don’t desperately worry-it doesn’t throw me into a panic.” The magazine’s editors toyed with the idea of a guideline for its writers last year after two writers gave copies of their stories to their subjects to read a practice universally frowned on. A two-page memo on ethics was put together and circulated around the office for a while “but we never took it very seriously,” Laurence says. “It had a kind of feel of bureaucratic zeal that we didn’t like.”
Such zeal, though, isn’t such a bad thing if it ensures accuracy in quotations. It’s a zeal that editors at 10 Canadian news outlets probably wish they’d imparted to their reporters before they sent them to cover the 1984 Colin Thatcher murder trial in Saskatoon. A study by Peter Calamai, who covered the trial for Southam News, shows that 57 per cent of the quotations in news stories on the trial contained errors. Calamai, who did the study while appointed to the Max Bell Chair in Journalism at the University of Regina in 1985-86, was rather forgiving in deciding what constituted an error: he didn’t include cleaning up for grammar or clarity without inserting brackets or ellipses. He compared 1,551 paragraphs of news copy that contained at least a phrase of direct quotation with 2,053 pages of official trial transcript. What he found was, as he understates now, “distressing.” Reporters routinely added and omitted words, used incorrect words or got the order of them wrong. Nearly half of these errors changed the meaning of what was said. The Calgary Sun was the worst offender, with errors in nearly three-quarters of all the quotations it ran. Sixty-seven per cent of those were classified as major misquotes. But the Toronto dailies were not far behind. Of the 10 news outlets studied, only Canadian Press and Southam News (Calamai’s own stories) were found to have printed correct quotes most of the time, and both just barely. Here’s an example of what actually was said (as recorded in the trial transcript) and what was printed in some of the newspapers:
An exchange between Defense Attorney Gerry Allbright and his client, Colin Thatcher: Q. Where were you at six o’clock on January 21st, six p.m. January 21st, 1983 Mr. Thatcher?
A. Having dinner.
A. In my kitchen.
Q. In Redland, in MooseJaw?
A. In MooseJaw, yes.
Q. And who was with you at that time?
A. Sandra Hammond, my son Greg and Regan.
The Regina Leader Post reported it this way: “I was having dinner with my housekeeper Sandra Hammond (now Silversides) and my sons Greg and Regan,” Thatcher said.
But newspapers not only pieced together quotes; sometimes they assigned guilt and other times they even attributed quotes to the wrong people. (Calamai himself was guilty of this, once attributing testimony of Thatcher’s son Regan to his other son, Greg.) And reporters didn’t only misrepresent testimony; sometimes they even changed the questions that lawyers asked.
Allbright: “Witness, what kind of a woman sleeps with a man she’s not married to, when she knows in her mind if what you tell us is true, that that man has just committed murder? What kind of woman does that, witness?” To the Globe the question became: “What type of woman would sleep with a man who has just murdered his wife?” The Moose Jaw Times-Herald put it similarly: “What kind of woman sleeps with a man she knows has just committed murder?” And The Calgary Sun had the murderer confessing his crime: “What kind of woman sleeps with a man who has said he’s just committed murder?”
Guilt was assigned in other instances, too, even when witnesses carefully avoided incriminating themselves. Small-time hood Charlie Wilde testified how he and another man, Cody Crutcher, had stiffed Thatcher by promising to arrange his ex-wife’s murder: “Yeah, and he [Crutcher] had no intentions of committing the murder; he was just going to steal the money that was upfront, or whatever.”
But The Toronto Sun made Wilde the guilty one by printing this: “I had no intention of doing the murder. We just wanted to steal the money.” In the Globe report, though, the theft disappears, and instead the paper has Wilde saying that his friend “had no intention of doing the murder. He just wanted the money.”
Another report in The Toronto Sun made it sound as if Thatcher was challenging Crown Prosecutor Serge Kujawa to a fistfight. According to the trial transcript, Thatcher, enraged that Kujawa had accused his sons of lying in court, shouted: “Why don’t you step out on the Court House steps and say that, where you don’t have immunity?” But the Sun reported Thatcher shouting: “Why don’t you step out on the court house steps and say that?”
What’s even more revealing than Calamai’s findings is how editors across the country reacted to his study. While some questioned the results, others questioned the accuracy of the trial transcript itself. And John Swan, managing editor of the Leader Post, doesn’t necessarily believe what’s between quotation marks is always verbatim.
Oddly enough, Calamai is not touting his findings as a plea for more accurate reporting and less fiddling with quotations, but as a means of getting improved conditions for court reporters. Prompted by the study, the Centre for Investigative Journalism, an Ottawa-based group devoted to improving Canadian journalism, has promised to lobby to get better media seats in courtrooms, earphones to carry amplified sound to reporters and permission to tape record proceedings. (At present, taping is only allowed in the Supreme Court of Canada.)
But where do reporters and their obligation to report the news accurately fit into all this? Will taping mean more accurate handling of quotations? And should other measures be taken, such as making shorthand mandatory for court reporters-or all reporters? The Star’s Rod Goodman doesn’t believe so. “I don’t think you should force anything on anyone. Most people have their own little system of taking notes where some half-as sed word means something else. If you’ve got a reporter that makes that kind of error [that changes meaning], he’ll make it with or without a tape recorder. He’s just a bad reporter as far as I’m concerned.”
Reporters themselves are inclined to agree with that, and most stand fiercely (if a little defensively-several refused to be interviewed for this article) behind their personal policies on quotation handling. All said they’d never cooked quotes, and most said that when they clean quotes up for grammar or misused words they insert appropriate punctuation so the reader isn’t misled. And all made it clear were at pains to make clear-that they never read quotations back to sources: that would only give interviewees the chance to deny saying what they’ve already said. If reporters need clarification of something their sources say, they usually ask their clarifying questions in a roundabout way. (Other journalists, though, like June Callwood, sometimes read back quotes to their sources, especially in stories where friendly sources have given them sensitive information.)
“I guess I’m old fashioned,” says John Picton, a 34-year veteran of the newsroom, who’s been at the Star for the past seven years, “but as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one style for quotes: accuracy.” Unlike many of his younger colleagues, Picton doesn’t tape his interviews. And he doesn’t touch quotations. “I make a point of not changing them because of law cases-you’d better have it in your notebook.” But Stanley Oziewicz, a Queen’s Park reporter at the Globe, where he’s worked since 1976, likes to have everything in his notebook and on tape. Although it’s time consuming to transcribe taped interviews, the transcript is “a good backup” to the notebook, he says. “You simply can’t write as quickly as people talk. It’s impossible. So I’ve developed a form of shorthand.” If he’s not able to decipher something he’s written, Oziewicz won’t use it. “I learned a long time ago, if in doubt, leave it out. Or paraphrase.”
That’s also a rule used by Luisa D’Amato, who covers the welfare beat at the Kitchener- Waterloo Record. D’Amato says she learned two things about dealing with quotations when she was pursuing her master’s degree in journalism at New York’s Columbia University: it’s okay to correct poor grammar, and there’s no need to put ellipses between connected chunks of quotes as long as the quote is not out of context. At the Record, though, she says she’s “a lot less free” about splicing quotes. She’s not convinced that taping interviews means reporters will more accurately quote their sources. “I have a lot of problems with tape recorders. I will use them if I think I might get sued and I need real good proof. But I’d rather spend my time perfecting what I’ve got and calling more people than taking notes from a tape recorder. I find that to be a real tedious, lengthy thing.”
For many reporters, tape recorders are a bother for another reason, too: even with good hookups, telephone conversations sometimes come out fuzzy when they’re taped, and that makes them infuriatingly difficult to transcribe. Then there’s the problem of whether to tell a subject the conversation is being recorded. (All reporters interviewed for this article said they don’t think it is necessary to tell sources because taping is just a backup to note-taking.) What’s more, tapes aren’t always more accurate than notes: it can be difficult to hear plurals, for example, and those can sometimes change the meaning of sentences.
The problem plurals can pose became a case for the Ontario Press Council in 1978. At a press conference-one that was taped by the electronic media-on April 19, 1977, John Diefenbaker said of David Crombie, then mayor of Toronto: “I look for him to come to the House of Commons Dominion of Canada.” A Globe reporter, knowing a tiny perfect quote when he heard one, dropped the “s” from “positions,” making it sound as if Diefenbaker were touting Crombie for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party. The Star, not wanting to be outdone, “shortened it up and smartened it up,” says Fraser MacDougall, the council’s executive secretary, and the next day the newspaper had Dief proclaiming “one day Crombie would ‘hold the highest office in the Dominion of Canada.'” The press council upheld a complaint by the former prime minister’s executive assistant that the Star story misrepresented what Diefenbaker had said-lion the grounds that you shouldn’t fool around with anything in quotation marks,” MacDougall says. Although the council doesn’t have a code of ethics member newspapers are expected to follow, it does have a common-law system of ethics. Its ruling on how to handle quotations, as decided in the Diefenbaker case, is “that to maintain credibility with the public, newspapers ought to do everything possible to ensure the words they publish within quotation marks are the words used by the person they are quoting.”
What, then, can publications do to ensure that just what was said appears in print correctly? Should newspapers force reporters to record all conversations and then have editors check their stories against tapes, as checkers do on magazines? That would be time consuming, impractical and, worse, telegraph to reporters that they are not to be trusted. Should publications implement rigid quote-cleaning policies and question any writer whose quotations smell a little too sweet? Or should newspapers and magazines simply tell their readers what their quoting policies are: that just what was said is sometimes what-was-said-as-we-want-you-to-hear-it?
There’s no easy answer, that’s clear. Editors simply have to rely on the honesty of their reporters, who in turn have to wrestle with their consciences when they handle quotations. Carsten Stroud says that’s the only real choice. “I think that in any story that’s a substantial piece involving real people, you get scrupulous about reporting them accurately because, hell, they could blow you right out of the water if you don’t-and that’s the end of your career. I don’t think in this business there are very many quote cookers. It’s no fun, you know. It’s no fun trying to make up stuff. It’s no fun faking dialogue.”
by Mark Bastien
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.