Should journalists clean up the language of the people they're quoting? No, I don't mean "clean up" like Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich might need his language cleaned up. But if someone has verbal tics, do you include them in your written story? Countless Americans, myself included, overuse the word "uh" and yet I rarely see "uhs" in print. Many of the people I interview use the word "uh" a lot and I remove them when writing up their quotes.
What if someone just plain misspoke and you know it? How do you handle that? Do you publicize their inadvertent gaffe for all to see or do you downplay or ignore their error?
It is my experience that publishing verbal tics or obvious misstatements are some of the most subtle but obvious ways that reporters betray bias for or against a source or person being quoted.
This weekend, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright gave a sermon that mentioned Dec. 7, a date that may or may not live in infamy. Here's what he said:
"Today is December 7 -- the day that this government killed over 80,000 Japanese civilians at Hiroshima in 1941 -- two days before killing an additional 64,000 Japanese civilians at Nagasaki by dropping nuclear bombs on innocent people."
Now this is clearly wrong. December 7 marks the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, when Japanese airmen attacked an American Naval base and killed over 2,400 men in a surprise raid. It was in response to this action that the United States entered World War II, eventually dropping the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here's a Baltimore Sun story about commemorations of the day.
Now let's look at this story from the Chicago Tribune's Manya A. Brachear about the Wright sermon, which was given in his former pulpit at Trinity United Church of Christ. Here are the concluding paragraphs:
At the 11 a.m. service, Wright belittled "baby milk believers," who, he said, suffer a delusion that politics don't belong in the pulpit. He noted that "Luke the evangelist, not Wright the radical" lambasted the oppressive policies of the Roman government in the Gospel story that recounts Jesus' life.
"Any preacher who dares to point out the simple ugly facts found in every field imaginable is demonized as volatile, controversial, incendiary, inflammatory, anti-American and radical," Wright said.
Noting the date, Dec. 7, which marks the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Wright instead chose to focus on the thousands of Japanese civilians who died four years later when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Please look at that last paragraph. Is such a charitable rewrite of the sermon appropriate? I think it makes sense that Brachear's story doesn't focus on Wright's history mistake but should it, well, rewrite history?