You Can Quote Me

OMBUDSMAN

July 18, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Sports quotes are often fun, even three different versions ofthe same one.

For instance, The Sun reported June 7 that Oriole pitcher Todd Frohwirth (6-4, 205 pounds) fought with Jeff Nelson (6-8, 235 pounds) in a Mariners-Orioles free-for-all at Camden Yards. The Oriole was quoted as saying, "I told him, 'You ain't nothing. I've been thrown to the ground by guys a lot smaller than you.' "

Same day, in a Sun column, he said: "I've been beat up by guys smaller than you."

Same day, in a Washington Post story, he said: "I got up and told him, 'You're nothing. I've been thrown to the ground by a lot smaller guys than you.' "

Frohwirth told the story three different ways or was quoted three different ways. Anyway, his words came out differently each time. No big deal, but it shows that quotes are fragile things; it's not easy quoting someone exactly.

When reporters don't get it the way it was said, it may be because they heard it wrong, are sloppy in transcribing notes or tape, quoted a source who got it wrong, borrowed another writer's quote, cleaned it up to avoid profanity, wanted to make ++ sense out of scrambled syntax or tried to save ungrammatical speakers from embarrassment.

Some of this is bad (sloppiness), some is good (eliminating most swear words with ellipses). Sun editors may disagree on others (cleaning up bad grammar). Editor John S. Carroll says the paper should be consistent; he recalled George Wallace complained the press quoted his "ain'ts" exactly, but tidied up his liberal opponents' words.

A real no-no is making up quotes. A minor problem is a quote so mundane or filled with bracketed intended words, it is better paraphrased. Some quotes are more crucial than others; court transcripts or reading quotes back to sources are useful backups.

Quotes let readers know reporters are talking with people who breathe, let subjects say their own thing, liven up boring gray type, provide much-needed humor or show drama, such as transcripts from doomed airplanes. "Mayday, mayday, mayday. Six Sierra Delta. We're going down here". Minutes later, April 19, all eight died in South Dakota.

Few subjects claim here they've been misquoted or quoted out of context, but it happens. At the same time, subjects can panic and blame the press when they see their own words in print or get criticized.

Tampering with quotes can be a serious breach of journalism ethics. In early June, a San Francisco jury said New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm made up five quotes attributed to her psychoanalyst subject, Jeffrey Masson, and that two of them defamed him and were written with "reckless disregard" for their truth. The jury disagreed on damages.

Ms. Malcolm denied making up quotes, but was not reassuring when she explained her writing habits. She said she took different quotes from different interviews, left out a lot and combined quotes for long smooth-flowing quotations to make rambling talks read better. Some of her quotes were from notes, some from memory, some from tape.

Ms. Malcolm is not alone in making adjustments. When you read question-answer pieces each Tuesday on Page 2 in the Maryland section of The Sun, you're seeing a condensed version of a longer conversation. The idea is to explore or focus on a few issues. Related data from different parts of the interview are sometimes combined or compressed; duplicative or extraneous material is edited out.

This is acceptable as long as quotations are accurate and in the proper context, and writers use notes and tape, not their memory.

Quotes can be accurate but piled up to give a story a slant, though this is more a general reporting/editing matter. On July 1, The Sun ran a Page 1 news story weighted toward abortion-rights forces who clearly lost a vote 255-178 to uphold the Hyde Amendment banning federally-financed abortions for poor women. Seven angry pro-abortion-rights House members were quoted or paraphrased and only one anti-abortion member was quoted.

Quotes in sports can be as pompous as elsewhere. Thursday, The Sun was filled with yakking, yakking, yakking in an overblown flap over manager Cito Gaston not playing Mike Mussina in the All-Star Game. I think of baseball as a nice simple game of checkers in a lovely setting. Adoring writers, announcers and fans dress it up to be chess, quantum mechanics, elegiac poetry or the ultimate meaning of life.

Quotes restore reality. When pitcher Don Drysdale died July 3, hitter Orlando Cepeda put his former adversary into perspective by noting Drysdale's record of hitting 154 batters: "The trick against Drysdale is to hit him before he hits you."

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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