Our World of Rough-and-Ready Ethics: Journalists in the US Agonise about the Smallest Details, but Here We Prefer to Use the Broad Brush, Telling Ourselves That's How the Readers like It. Soon We Will Have to Change

By Cathcart, Brian | New Statesman (1996), September 10, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Our World of Rough-and-Ready Ethics: Journalists in the US Agonise about the Smallest Details, but Here We Prefer to Use the Broad Brush, Telling Ourselves That's How the Readers like It. Soon We Will Have to Change


Cathcart, Brian, New Statesman (1996)


A few weeks ago the Washington Post carried a story about an American footballer called Clinton Portis, whose career has been blighted by injuries. It quoted him as saying: "I don't know how anybody feels. I don't know how anybody's thinking. I don't know what anyone else is going through. The only thing I know is what's going on in Clinton Portis's life."

Elsewhere in the same edition of the paper a sports columnist also looked at Portis's prospects, and he used the same quotation--or at least, almost the same quotation. His version had Portis saying: "I don't know how nobody feel, I don't know what nobody think, I don't know what nobody doing, the only thing I know is what's going on in Clinton Portis's life."

When readers wrote in to ask how a man could speak in grammatical, standard English in one version when in the other he did not, the paper investigated and came back with the obvious explanation: the reporter had tidied up Portis's English for the printed page, while the columnist published it verbatim.

Who was right? The Post's policy is clear: "When we put a source's words inside quotation marks, those exact words should have been uttered in precisely that form." But the reporter, Howard Bryant, had another view. "For me, having covered athletes for 15 years, I've always felt conscious and uncomfortable about the differences in class, background and race--I'm an African American--and in terms of the people who are doing the speaking and the people who are doing the writing. I really don't like to make people look stupid, especially when I understand what they're saying."

It is a dilemma. Quotation marks, if they have any point and if readers are to trust them, must surely indicate that the words they enclose were the words that were actually spoken. On the other hand, there is a risk of holding up to ridicule people with educational disadvantages that are no fault of their own.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I repeat this story, which was reported in some detail by the Washington Post ombudsman, because it shows just how wide the Atlantic can be, culturally. Ask British journalists which is right, the Post or Bryant, and the most common response will be a snort of derision.

Over here we tidy up quotations without a second thought, and not for Bryant's delicate reasons. For years the words of John Prescott were routinely doctored so that it appeared he spoke like most other politicians; it was only after the public became familiar with his special style of speech, through television, that journalists began to reproduce his remarks as spoken.

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Our World of Rough-and-Ready Ethics: Journalists in the US Agonise about the Smallest Details, but Here We Prefer to Use the Broad Brush, Telling Ourselves That's How the Readers like It. Soon We Will Have to Change
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