Reporters who quote ums and ahs only make themselves look bad

Here's an interesting example of how journalists sometimes use a version of the facts to support faleshoods. Check out the following, posted by Daily Mail reporter David Martosko, quoting a teenager on Trump's use of the racist "Pocahontas" slur.

At the Elizabeth Warren rally I asked a 17-year-old supporter who will vote next year to comment on Trump's "Pocahontas" nickname for the senator. This is a verbatim transcript of her answer.

"I think that it's really hypocritical because not only is he making fun of someone for like, something that she didn't really like, say, um, but I do feel like he says so many like, racial slurs against like, and she just like presents themselves to be like, so like negative towards like minorities and stuff like that, that the fact that he is mocking her and calling her Pocahontas when he does nothing for Native American rights is really freaking dumb.

What Martosko wanted to establish here was that the teen—and perhaps by implication young Warren supporters in general—is confused and foolish. He did this by including all the ums and ahs of speech, filler terms such as "like", and extraneous commas.

Most people saw this "verbatim" text for what it was, and Martosko was thoroughly ratioed by readers.

But what, like, is going here?

The fact is that most of us talk just as the teen did, when challenged to speak extemporaneously. This can be true of even polished and well-prepared speakers. Listen to politicans and pundits on cable news panels, with an ear for the fillers, and you might be surprised. Pro public speakers are well-trained enough to avoid terms like "y'know", "well" and the dreaded "like", but the basic ums and ahs are difficult to skip, especially when things get heated.

We don't usually notice it (or at least we don't usually judge speakers for it) because our brains correctly interpret it as meaningless filler and disregard it.

Moreover, in print, reporters usually remove speech disfluency when they quote subjects. In fact, it is generally considered unethical and unprofessional for editors not to remove the ums and ahs and filler terms, though there's a usually a hard line against changing words or paraphrasing within quotes.

Here's Terry Gross, the NPR host, explaining her interview policy:

"With the exception of the occasional John Updike, no one speaks readable, perfectly grammatical sentences. So we've edited the answers my questions elicited for clarity and concision, while sticking as closely as possible to each interviewee's actual speaking style."

The 2015 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is similarly clear:

The writer should, of course, omit extraneous syllables like “um” and may judiciously delete false starts. If any further omission is necessary, close the quotation, insert new attribution and begin another quotation. (The Times does adjust spelling, punctuation, capitalization and abbreviations within a quotation for consistent style.) In every case, writer and editor must both be satisfied that theintent of the speaker has bee npreserved.

The Associated Press Stylebook is rather vague: it says not to "alter" quotes to correct word usage or grammar, but has nothing to say on filler talk specifically.

If a quotation is flawed because of grammar or lack of clarity, the writer must be able to paraphrase in a way that is completely true to the original quote. If a quote's meaning is too murky to be paraphrased accurately, it should not be used.

In practice, though, the AP removes it. This is a fact easy to demonstrate by comparing its quotes of Olympic-class filler-talkers Barack Obama and Donald Trump to the transcripts.

The New Yorker's Katy Waldman recently covered a story that shows how in practice, reporters tend to directly clean up grammar in quotes. The topical controversy was over a Dominican-born sportsman whose fluid but ungrammatical English is hard to render in text without reading like a questionable effort at characterization. Every outlet quoted him slightly differently.

On Deadspin, Tom Ley suggested that [Carlos] Gómez “has a right to be annoyed” that a reporter “went off and made him look dumb by not extending him a courtesy that most people quoted by reporters get”: that of subtly tweaked sentences. ... It’s common practice in journalism for writers quoting sources to remove filler words—like, ah, um—and correct tiny grammatical violations. (Slate’s policy is to handle such issues on a case-by-case basis, but many writers at the magazine I spoke to told me they make such elisions and alterations all the time.)

Waldman adds: "the role of journalists is ... to deliver information as clearly and truthfully as possible. To include a grammatical error in a news story is to hint that such error is somehow significant, rather than something most of us do when we are asked to extemporize aloud."

When transcribed, filler speech a listener would subconsciously ignore turns into text the reader cannot.

So here is how a reporter might usually render what the Warren-supporting teen said, removing both the ums and ahs and not bothing to include the abortive sentence in the middle:

I think that it's really hypocritical, because not only is he making fun of someone for something that she didn't really say, but I do feel like he says so many racial slurs, " said the teen. "... The fact that he is mocking her and calling her Pocahontas when he does nothing for Native American rights is really freaking dumb."

This serves the reader better than the intentionally confusing "verbatim" transcript. It gives an accurate, fair representation of what the teen belives and what a listener would have understood to them say had they heard them talking in person.

Here it is with a stricter adherence to the (obviously unenforced) AP Stylebook rules suggesting mutterances be kept while allowing "murky" parts to be removed:

"I think that it's really hypocritical, because not only is he making fun of someone for, like, something that she didn't really, like, say, but I do feel like he says so many, like, racial slurs. ... The fact that he is mocking her and calling her Pocahontas when he does nothing for Native American rights is really freaking dumb."

An unfair quoting of filler, I think, but still much fairer than the Daily Mail reporter's rendering of the quote.

The same courtesy should should be extended to MAGA teens too—and anyone else who might blather a bit.