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The Do's and Don't Of Changing Quotes

We got an email this morning from John B., pointing out the following:

On…11/28/05 your website had the following quote:
"Just because men were dressed in suits and ties, it doesn't mean that all black men who are dressed in a suit and ties are gang members, thugs," said Tony Muhammad, a Nation of Islam representative.
He actually used the word "don't." I suggest you go back to using (sic).
First off, here's the story in question. And John's right: If you watch the video on the right side of the page, a report from John Blackstone on which the story is based, it's clear that Muhammad said "…it don't mean that all black men who are dressed in a suit and ties are gang members, thugs."

Elsewhere in the story, the grammar of another man, the son of a store owner, isn't corrected. Here's the passage in question – note the "ain't":

"They said that we were Muslims and we were selling liquor to the community and we ain't supposed to be doing that," said Khalid Saleh, son of the San Pablo's owner.
I asked Michael Sims, Director of News and Operations for CBS Digital Media, about the changed quote. He told me it was a "transcription error."

"[D]irect quotes should reflect exactly what was said," he wrote in an email. "They should not be changed."

According to the AP style guide, which is considered standard in many newsrooms around the country, reporters should "[n]ever alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage. Casual minor tongue slips may be removed by using ellipses but even that should be done with extreme caution."

In a 1991 story called "The Great Quote Question" posted on the Web site of the University of Indiana journalism school, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Doreen Carvajal asked the question: "How much tampering with quotations can journalists ethically do?" The story's subhead claims that "Most reporters and editors see no harm in 'cleaning up' quotes" – changing a cry of "we wuz robbed" to "we were robbed," for example.

Chicago Tribune public editor Don Wycliff wrote in June of last year that issue of how to handle quotes had come up regularly at his paper's meetings on ethics. "White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, if he were quoted literally, would be all but unintelligible most of the time, because his command of English is minimal," he wrote in a piece that is no longer available online. "Is our purpose in quoting Guillen to demonstrate his abilities as a wordsmith or to present his knowledge of the game of baseball? And what does this mean for a reporter who must decide whether and how to 'clean up' Guillen's quotations?"

What indeed? The example involving Muhammad is particularly difficult, since he isn't an athlete speaking off the top of his head but a representative making a statement – one who may or may not have used the word "don't" deliberately.

A quick side note: John also wrote that while a Congressman who admitted taking bribes named "Randy Cunningham was identified on your website as Republican," "[t]hat fact was omitted from the TV broadcast." Our review shows that Cunningham was identified as a Republican both online and on the Early Show and Evening News.

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