Quotations and “Unquotations” in Journalism and Ethnography

Mark Liberman at LanguageLog has produced some fascinating commentary and analysis surrounding the Jonah Lehrer affair, and the role played by fake quotes (i.e., language use) in his downfall. Liberman raises issues of representation, integrity, and judgment by others, and how all that plays into how we assess writerly intent and whether “quotes” from informants are close enough to “the truth.” He points out how other writers have gotten away with the same sort of misrepresentation and fabrication as Jonah Lehrer, yet still remain on the staff of The New Yorker (Janet Malcolm) or never had their writing repudiated (Jared Diamond, yes, that Jared Diamond) in the same way.

I bring attention to these posts because they raise a common issue that inevitably appears in ethnography, in writing about a specific place and time. When we use direct quotes from people in the field, are they really “direct quotes”? And how much does it matter if “direct quotes” aren’t actually a verbatim representation? Is “substantive content” enough, as the law suit discussed by Liberman indicates?

The two posts are:

Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan, and journalistic unquotations

More unquotations from the New Yorker

As Liberman points out, the experience of not getting quoted right by journalists is pretty typical. So, how much is that a problem?

In the first essay, Liberman highlights judgments of “substantive content” rather than literal representation as key to what US law has determined in cases like these. Here are some relevant pieces from the US Court of Appeals in the Malcolm/Masson case:

Malcolm quoted Masson as stating that he changed his middle name from Lloyd to Moussaieff because “it sounded better.” This statement does not appear in tape-recorded interviews. On the tape recordings, Masson states that he changed his middle name to Moussaieff because, inter alia, he “just liked it”…

We agree with the district court’s observation. We cannot perceive any substantive difference between the phrases “it sounded better” and “[I] just liked it.” Thus, although Malcolm did not quote Masson verbatum, the words attributed to him did not alter the substantive content of his statement…

We believe that the district court accurately assessed Malcolm’s interpretation of Masson’s characterization of the views of Eissler and Anna Freud. While it may be true that Masson did not use the words “intellectual gigolo,” Malcolm’s interpretation did not alter the substantive content of Masson’s description of himself as a “private asset but a public liability” to Eissler and Anna Freud.

Thus, the ruling in this case appears to give considerable leeway in how we interpret other people’s language, as long as we aim for “the substantive content.” For ethnography, often written years after, drawing many times on informal interaction, do writers get the same leeway? My sense is that yes, many anthropologists do the same.

In discussing Jared Diamond and the lawsuit brought against him and The New Yorker for how he portrayed people in Papua New Guinea, the issues do take on considerable urgency. Diamond is quoting informants and presenting ethnographic materials to drive an argument forward. Many anthropologists might not like it, but certainly he is engaging in a basic trait of the field – reasoning from ethnographic material, and trying to answer questions that emerge during fieldwork.

In the piece on Diamond, Liberman examines how different “academic language” is from natural language. I think the same point can be made about most any writing that involves dialogue – we smooth out what was really said, we cut extraneous sounds and phrases, we massage the grammar, we choose to start or end with dramatic quotes to fit our own narrative, and so forth. When does this become a problem?

Liberman draws on Douglas Biber’s comparison of direct quotes from Diamond’s informant and what is known statistically from analysis of recordings of real-life conversations. Liberman quotes Biber:

Quantitative analyses of the New Yorker quotes and the Daniel Wemp (DW) transcripts were carried out, to identify grammatical features that were frequent or rare.

Then, those quantitative findings were compared to previous large-scale corpus analyses of conversation and academic writing, to determine whether the New Yorker quotes were typical of the language normally used in conversation. The results were surprising: in many respects, the New Yorker quotes are much more similar to the language typically used in academic writing than to normal conversation.

How big a deal is this? How big a deal is it that academics write like academics, even when we are representing what other people said? What leeway do we get as writers to try for “substantive content” over literal representation?

I found Liberman’s whole discussion fascinating as I write now on my own life as a young man and then an academic, on my research in Colombia and my training in graduate school. I often find myself considering this question, did someone really say that? The words might sound like what I remember, and aim for “substantive content” that matches with what I know of that person. But is it really “the truth”? And how much does that matter?

Liberman gets at these conflicting dimensions in his ending on the Lehrer affair:

My conclusion? When you see a passage in quotation marks in a New Yorker article, you should not expect it to be a truthful representation of anything that the alleged speaker ever actually said. Rather, you should take it as the author’s expression of what they want you to believe that the speaker meant.

In some cases, these unquotations are “poetically true”, that is, they give an insightful impression of the speaker’s feelings and attitudes, although the writer knows that the words are not original. In other cases, the unquotations are an honest misrepresentation, in the sense that they’re genuinely what the author understood (or at least, remembers) the speaker to have meant to say. And sometimes, the unquotations are completely fictional, in the sense that the author doesn’t care at all what the alleged speaker either said or meant, but puts words in their mouth in order to advance the narrative.

So, what are your conclusions and thoughts about how writers, ethnographers included, tackle the words of others in their own writing?

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7 Responses to Quotations and “Unquotations” in Journalism and Ethnography

  1. The only time I quote someone using “” marks when reporting what someone said is when I am translating from a written source and have had the translation double-checked for accuracy. I find it hard to believe that non-native anthropologists’ have enough fluency in the languages in which we do field research to accurately quote speech. (There may, of course, be rare exceptions.)

    • Kathrin says:

      I think that those exceptions should not be rare at all. I believe that it is essential to be absolutely fluent in the language of the group where I do my research. If you are not fluent enough to accurately quote speech then you are probably much less fluent to truly grasp the meaning of what people tell you, to understand why an informant used one expression rather then another and to understand things expressed in situations where the people you are interested in don’t speak directly to you. I honestly disapprove of the tendency to do fieldwork in groups whose language you don’t speak.

  2. daniel.lende says:

    I found this response/comment over at LanguageLog by a journalist/editor particularly interesting. It highlights how interviewees/informants’ expectations matter, and that part of the journalist’s job is listening, not simply recording. Here’s the beginning to her extended comment:

    As a long-time journalist and editor myself, I can confirm that quotations are routinely adjusted for readability and length in print when it does no damage to the perceived sense of the utterance. Writers and editors clean up pauses, stumbles, repairs, repetitions, grammatical infelicities, and erroneous word substitutions within quotations as well as without. We do it because such things are all easily and routinely adjusted through interaction in conversation, but are perceived as final-form in print.

    To do otherwise is to abdicate the interviewer’s responsibility to listen. There is no easier way to destroy the reputation of an interviewee than to quote what they say word for word, error for error. As a general rule, interviewees expect to be listened to rather than recorded, and a journalist must respect that expectation if the sense of the interview is to be accurately conveyed to a reader.

  3. Pingback: Anthropology Update - 6 August 2012 | Anthropology Report

  4. What the journalist/editor says is familiar territory. We occasionally are asked to transcribe—and edit—conversations. Best practice here is to allow the participants a look at the transcript to sign off on its accuracy before it goes to print. But this is in a professional setting in which everyone is familiar with what is going on, and delicate decisions may be involved if a participant wants something changed radically, e.g., to eliminate a newsworthy Freudian slip or gaffe.

    It is still hard for me to imagine how this would have worked when I was doing my first fieldwork. Should I have handed my field notes to my neighbors? Especially since few if any were literate in English, the language in which I was writing the notes? Should I have engaged someone to do a back translation (which sometimes happens, e.g., when corporations are spending large sums of money on advertising copy used in several languages)?

  5. Just another set of data points—from Washington Monthly
    One of the sillier contretemps of this political year has been the accusation that the presidential campaigns—particularly the Obama Campaign—a.k.a. the Thugs of Chicago—have been engaging in the practice of “quote approval”—asking reporters for the right to adjust quotes from interview material. Some of the commentary has treated this practice as a Dire Threat to the Fourth Estate, and a growing number of news organizations have indignantly banned it.

    Even as he piously condemns quote approval, Bush flack Ari Fleischer did semi-accurately describe how it evolved in a CNN column today, though in an act of corporate self-inflation, he wrongly attributes its origins to the administration he served:

    Reporters covering Bush’s second term, under pressure from editors not to use unnamed sources in their stories, started asking their sources if a background quote, attributed to a senior aide, could instead be turned into an on-the-record quote, with the aide’s name in print. I e-mailed last week with several former Bush staffers and many confirmed they engaged in that practice.
    The trouble, quoth Ari, began when Less Important People got into the act and made quote approval a standard practice rather than an exception from the usual rules.

    I hate to tell him, but from my own experience quote approval was common before the second, or even the first Bush term. In my own years as a low-to-mid-level Washington Political Source, when I had to remain constantly on guard against media conversations turning into one of those “Disarray in the Democratic Party” stories, I typically offered reporters answers “on background” (no by name attribution) or in some cases “deep background” (no traceable quotes), take it or leave it. We’d usually agree on a “quote approval” option in case I happened to say something they considered directly quotable. The right of approval was mainly a matter of ensuring there were no misquotes or a serious alteration of context.

    Believe me, no reporter I talked to was under the illusion I had any sort of power over them, beyond the enchantment associated with my sparkling personality. More often than not, interviews began and ended “on background,” with no quotes to “approve.” The one reporter I can recall rejecting this sort of arrangement was Ron Brownstein (then with the L.A. Times), who not only eschewed “quote approval,” but insisted that every word of every conservation had to be on the record.

  6. GTChristie says:

    Any article that purports to be factual should observe what every professional journalist is taught in school: quotation marks denote exact words — full stop. There are plenty of ways to report conversations outside of quotation marks which make clear the difference between the author’s interpretation of what was said, and the speaker’s actual phrasing. A quotation-marked phrase or sentence is the writer’s guarantee that the words are reported as spoken; if the writer wants to give it any other way, the proper form is paraphrase.

    So it’s a real shame when a close analyst must conclude that a magazine (or any other published venue) gives no such guarantees by neglecting to insist on the standard. It’s a simple standard. Anyone can understand it. It saves a lot of trouble such as the kerfuffle above. Use it.