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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: This is an exact quote. Kinda.

By Tom Warhover
October 14, 2011 | 7:11 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

I kinda agree with the use of a colloquial version of a quote in a story earlier this month. We shoulda used it, and I'm glad we did.

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But there's plenty of argument on that point.

Here's the quote:

"I really appreciate the ones who are doing a good job," he said. "Because there are older people, elderly people ... who really can't protect themselves. And when police come in and do that kinda work, I think that's really great.”

With the information you have now, there's no way to judge whether to change "kinda" to "kind of."

What the source said was "kinda." It's inside quotation marks, so it should be exactly what a person said, right?

Well... Here's my barometer: Does the use of the colloquialism add to the meaning and context of the story or the source? Put another way: Is it true to the essence of that person?

The story in question was a feature about a young man who started "Citizens for Justice," a local group that films police as they make auto stops or arrest people.

Reporter Brad Racino used the informal words in quotes in sections describing Matthew Akins. The piece got behind the positions of the group; it took the reader inside Akins' life and explained what led him to this particular path as either watchdog for the public or video busybody, depending on your point of view.

As the story moved through editing stages, there was a discussion on the copy desk about whether the standards at your newspaper were inconsistent. After all, lots of quotes are cleaned up.

Part of the reason is practical — taking notes leads to personal shorthand that doesn't always capture nuance. Then there's the way the human brain fills in its own blanks. What we hear, in other words, isn't always what was said. One train of thought says that colloquialisms make people sound silly or stupid.

My view: It depends.

Let's say Akins was quoted at a City Council meeting. Quotes at official events rarely contain slang or other informal speech, even though that kind of speech occurs. (Public officials are people, too.)

If Akins was quoted using the shouldas and wouldas, and all officials' quotes used the king's English, then I might suspect a not-so-subtle bias.

But in Racino's feature, the informal felt completely natural.

The degrees to which quotes are cleaned vary by publication and even media type. I'm happy to report I've never seen the "ummms" that I use in every other sentence. But in a newspaper, I expect my quotes to be pretty close to what I actually said.

Many magazines do Q&As, which contain the words of a source, but they are heavily edited.

You would imagine radio and television contains actual speech. But editing occurs even there.

One radio news program I visited in New York last summer went so far as to splice words — a practice explicitly forbidden at NPR, for instance. The producer I spoke with said the program never had a source complain, which he attributed to knowing the essence of the interview subject so intimately. That's one explanation.

The Missourian's policy of accuracy checks comes into play here. Reporters read back quotes (and other information) to sources after an article has been completed and ask whether that's what they said.

While I can't remember exact words when I say them, I can tell if a quote attributed to me sounds like a completely different person. I can tell if the reporter captured the intent in my quote.

But few quotes, even when a reporter uses an audio recorder, are exact. There's a little wobble, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not.

You can quote me on that.

Tom