Should Journalists Clean Up Quotes?


There is some debate about how reporters should clean up quotes from interviews…or whether they should make any changes at all.

If you have interviews full of “um” and “ah” and stammering, should you clean up quotes?

Some reporters seem to think they should present the quote as it was spoken with very little adjustment. Others have no problem quietly removing stammers or studders to present a “clean” quote.

Sometimes, people will repeat words when they speak, particularly when they’re answering unrehearsed questions. It’s human nature.

So what’s a reporter to do?

Those who think the quote should be rendered in a news story exactly as it was spoken might consider what Boing Boing had to say about it. In a recent post, they quoted from a report that quoted precisely what a younger person said. Here’s a snippet of the quote they pulled:

“I think that it’s really hypocritical because not only is he making fun of someone for like, something that she didn’t really like, say, um, but I do feel like he says so many like, racial slurs against like…

You get the idea. Was the reporter trying to make the speaker sound uneducated or at least uninformed? Or was the reporter trying to be so transparent as to transcribe word for word what the interview subject actually said?

Regardless, there are members of the audience who might assume the reporter was trying to be a jerk by including all the “likes” and “ums” in the quote, even if that’s what the person actually said.

I would have cleaned up the quote. I’d have dropped those extraneous words.

But I’d have done so not so much because I was trying to make the speaker look better but rather because I’d want to make what was being said clear and easy to understand. It’s tedious trying to get through that quote — particularly when you read the full version at the link above.

The Associated Press Stylebook advises against altering quotes, even to correct grammatical errors or word usage. But it then states that if a quotation is flawed because of grammar or lack of clarity, “it may be paraphrased in a way that is completely true to the original quote.”

A journalist will, of course, operate within the guidelines of the organization for which he or she works. But as a general rule, I tend to agree that it’s better to leave a quote alone unless extraneous words make it less clear (or so distracting that it can’t be followed).

If you were being quoted and you stammered a bit, would you want the quote cleaned up or left as you said it?

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.