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Q: Should a journalist use direct quotations with someone whose English is poor, or should they “clean up” the quotes?

Should a reporter have cleaned up comments by Houston Astros player Carlos Gomez, or let 'em slide by quoting them verbatim?

A:

Two important policies collide in these questions. On the one hand, major print newspapers and news websites have guidelines suggesting that in order not to embarrass or belittle sources when they use imperfect grammar, reporters should avoid quoting blatantly “broken” English at any length. They can do this by paraphrasing (that is, using indirect quotation), or by using partial quotations, or, in extreme cases, by relying on a translation (which of course must be identified as such). On the other hand, most print news organizations also subscribe to the AP (Associated Press) Stylebook, which firmly dictates, “Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage.”

For radio and TV reporters, this isn’t an issue. They present recorded interviews only, and listeners can adjust easily to quirks of usage and pronunciation in audible speech. But for text journalists, who have to transcribe sources’ comments into type on a page, honoring strict accuracy while not offending can get tricky. Any attempt at replicating an accent or a dialect, for instance, can read in print like the equivalent of an offensive ethnic caricature, as can faithfully replicating dropped articles or verb disagreements. It’s a unique challenge in covering sports, since many U.S.-team athletes—particularly in baseball—come from Spanish-speaking countries. English is not their native language, so reporters routinely clean up small errors as a courtesy. But that practice went out the window in a memorable 2016 dust-up between a white male reporter and a Latino ballplayer. Brian T. Smith, a columnist for the The Houston Chronicle, wrote a piece chiding Houston Astros center fielder Carlos Gomez for poor performance. (Clearly labeled “opinion,” the piece was titled “Carlos Gomez knows he’s a disappointment to fans.”) In that piece, Smith quotes Gomez saying, “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”

Gomez, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, reacted angrily. He told ESPN interviewers, speaking in Spanish, that he felt singled out. He tweeted, “@ChronBrianSmith your intentions in your article were of real poor taste and had no affect [sic] on me. I am confident and proud of who I am.” The Chronicle’s editor, Nancy Barnes, responded by essentially throwing the AP Stylebook under the bus. She wrote to a concerned blogger, “Our writers are encouraged to adhere to AP style rules… I reviewed the rules myself after this arose and found the guidelines on quotes to be less than adequate for a community like ours, full of immigrants from all over the world, and for whom English is often a second language. I’ve asked some top editors to review this policy, research best practices, and recommend guidance for all of our writers in the future. We always want to be respectful of those we are interviewing.”

Clearly the Smith column was not received as respectful. It remains an unusual case, but the next time you catch up with sports reporting in text form, keep an eye out for who’s quoted directly and who’s paraphrased. Chances are the journalist is working hard to honor two conflicting imperatives at once: accuracy and civility.