What happens when a public official misspeaks? Should a news outlet edit the quotation, paraphrase it, or just leave it be?
This happens every day, of course, and news outlets often edit quotations by inserting ellipses in them, or by inserting something in brackets or parentheses as explanation or substitution.
Here’s one example, from the controversy over the nomination of Cathleen Black, a Hearst executive, as chancellor of the New York City school system.
Charles Barron, a city councilman, has been among the most vocal opponents.
“And Cathie Black is unqualified to teach in a classroom, nevertheless run the largest education system in the country,” Barron said at a protest over the weekend.
If it doesn’t make any sense to you when you read that, you’re right. “Nevertheless” means “despite that,” but, as an adverb, it needs a verb to modify. “Run” is a verb, but the syntax is off: “And Cathie Black is unqualified to teach in a classroom, despite that run the largest education system in the country” doesn’t make sense, either.
If you hear him say it, it makes more sense. But in its text version, posted on the same page as its video, NY1 edited the quote: “And Cathie Black is unqualified to teach in a classroom, nevertheless [will] run the largest education system in the country.” Gothamist, a Manhattan-centric blog, also edited the quote, linking to NY1’s video.
If you hadn’t heard Barron speak, you might wonder whether NY1 added the word “will” or paraphrased something longer in the quotation—since brackets in quotations are used for both. That second assumption might make for interesting discussion among readers, such as whether Barron said something disparaging (and we’re making this up) like “nevertheless this unqualified buffoon will run the largest education system in the country” or long-winded (again, we’re making this up) “nevertheless, in a move that is sure to raise hackles throughout this great metropolis of ours, she will be allowed to run the largest education system in the country.” That first option could lead people to believe NY1 was softening Barron’s remarks to go easy on Black; the second could lead people to believe NY1 wants Barron to look less verbose. Instant, but unintended, spin!
In addition, the edit of the quotation makes the assumption of what Barron attempted to say, and in so doing can alter readers’ perceptions of what he did say. It’s a dangerous assumption to make, especially in these days when nearly everything a public official says or does is posted on YouTube or captured in an audio file. Who is the reader going to believe: Her own ears or your print version?
If you heard him say it, you probably would have realized that he probably meant to say “And Cathie Black is unqualified to teach in a classroom, much less run the largest education system in the country.” CBS News, which also posted an audio file of Barron, did not edit the quotation in its text.
The confusion of “nevertheless” for “much less” is not common, and occurs almost exclusively in spoken English rather than written. More common is the addition of “but” before “nevertheless,” which is simply redundant.
So back to the original question: What to do when the misspeaking happens?
We’re strongly in favor of confusing or misleading the reader as little as possible. If it appears that a written something will make less sense than a spoken something, either paraphrase—outside the quotation marks—or use only the parts of the quotation that you don’t need to “edit.” In this case, a fix is easy: “And Cathie Black is unqualified to teach in a classroom,” Barron said, much less “run the largest education system in the country.”
Nevertheless, remember that a reader’s understanding, much less your reputation, is sometimes at stake when you put different words in people’s mouths.