Friday, July 25, 2008

How is righting formed?

While I plow through my collection of end-of-term assignments to grade, the New York Times came out with a related article.

One of the assignments the 519 students get is to conduct an e-mail interview and write up an article based on the result.

Virginia Heffernan last weekend had a column in the New York Times on how to quote text you find online, primarily in message boards rather than e-mail, but the concepts carry over. The first example Heffernan uses is:

pornography if for the ruling classes and their violent vulgar all consuming appetites. Or their slaves.

As a writer or editor, do you correct issues of punctuation and capitalization? What about grammar? What do you do with a piece of text that's irreplaceably salient yet so riddled with mistakes that it makes the author seem like an idiot? If you do correct it, do you lose the flavour?

Daniel Okrent, the first public editor for The Times, who is now at work on a book about the history of Prohibition, e-mailed me further thoughts: “The minute you start trying to replicate someone’s accent or diction, you run the risk of appearing to be patronizing or worse. When the Mississippi State football coach said something like, ‘There ain’t but one color that matters here,’ the paper was wrong to recast it as ‘There is only one color....’ - he didn’t say that.”

The article leaves us with no answers, and I don't think there can be a single definite solution. But it is a point to ponder.


Blogger Naila J. said...

I think it depends on the situation. I mean, this applies to print media in general... even to broadcast media when the original quote is in a different language.

The objective is to be accurate and keep the same tone and point. But at the same time, you don't want to embarrass your source or cause any discomfort.

If, say, Guy Carbonneau juggled with his words a bit during his presser, you would definitely eliminate the extra "the", for example.

Or if a francophone is giving an quote in English, you would correct the blatant unintentional grammatical errors. Unless, of course, that was the point of the article.

As for message boards, text messages, etc, I think you would correct caps if it doesn't change the message or the point (ie, changing "i" to "I"), but punctuation should basically be left the same, since it's an indication of how the person would deliver the line.

And if all else fails, there are always quotation marks, which save you from embarrassment and keep the quote accurate.

July 25, 2008 4:39 PM  
Blogger Wendy Smith said...

E-mail interviewing is lame.
It's even more ideal as a tool to propagate systematically distorted strategic communication than prepackaged press kits and the staged announcement. I'm sure politicians and their media handlers are thrilled about this new "development" in online journalism.

July 25, 2008 10:19 PM  
Blogger Webs said...

Wendy, you might be surprised hoe many regular folk prefer e-mail interviews, particularly for research-related info.

You should have taken 319. :)

E-mail isn't the source of "systematically distorted strategic communication". It's been standard practice to hand out copies of speeches for how long? Those texts are rarely verbatim copies of what was said and how it was said.

The subjects/topics of my assignment are entirely up to the students, and I've never once had a student receive a PR approved groomed text. It's one on one and it works. Sure, face to face is better, but that's an ideal often unreachable.

July 26, 2008 12:49 AM  
Blogger Wendy Smith said...

Hey, any form of mediated communication is going to be distorted to some extent.{/wankery}
I understand that e-mail might be more preferable for the "civilian" interviewee, since it's one of the predominant ways people communicate now. It might help people who aren't used to contact with the press get their thoughts out in a clearer, less disjointed manner.
But for the professional interviewee (who, let's face it, is a seasoned spin doctor), all it does is give him a chance to manipulate the conversation to his ends.
I'm not saying that doesn't go on in tv interviews, phone and even face-to-face. But the medium of e-mail is so perfect for spin, because the journalist is not in the vicinity while the answers are being prepared. At least by phone, said journalist can press the politician/magnate, listen for inflection changes, throat-clearings, etc. I suppose you could have an e-mail sparring match, but I can foresee that taking a very long time and ending up being more time-consuming and inconvenient than another method. (Now, participating in a live online discussion forum with a large audience posing questions on a theme of public interest - that's a place where new media can really facilitate democracy, I think.)
During my time at j-school, each one of my profs drilled it into us that we should never give a copy of our interview questions to our interviewees in advance of the interview. I guess I just have a hard time differentiating between that and an entire interview that takes place via email.

July 26, 2008 9:39 AM  
Blogger Wendy Smith said...

Also, you have no way of confirming that the person answering your questions is the person you are actually addressing.
But, speaking as an archivist, it's a lot easier to preserve and index (not to mention fact-check) because there's a written record.

July 26, 2008 10:53 AM  

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