Should journalists ‘clean up’ quotes from people whose English is poor?

The late Prof George Saitoti

The late Prof George Saitoti, then the Vice-President with other Kanu leaders.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Journalists are often confronted with a quotation that they want to use but it contains bad grammar.

Should they “clean up” the quotation? The opinion is divided. For radio and television journalists, this is not a big issue. All the broadcast journalists need to do is present the audible speech and trust the listeners will figure out the intended meaning.

For print journalists, however, it’s necessary to transcribe the quotation and present it on a page, observing all the rules of good grammar and clear writing. And therein lies a number of issues because every quotation has a purpose, for example, to provide an opinion as well as to reveal the mood or character of the speaker.

So, changing a quotation could raise questions—including whether the journalist is trying to make the speaker look better, falsely portray his personality, or point out he is uneducated or uninformed.

There is also the ethical question of whether one can tamper with a quotation and still present it as a quotation. The quotation marks around a statement mean the statement is exactly what the person said. So is the journalist being dishonest when he changes a quotation?

Let’s take the (in)famous statement, that is often quoted by journalists, that was made by Prof George Saitoti after he was ousted as the Vice-president of Kenya by President Daniel arap Moi. He said: “There come a time when the country is bigger than an individual.”

The statement is ungrammatical. He should have said, “There comes a time....” Journalists, without much ado, routinely correct the statement, giving the impression it is the exact words Prof Saitoti used. That is untruthful and probably unethical too.

Subject-verb agreement

One can then argue that Kabaria Muturi did the right thing when, in a letter to the editor published in the Daily Nation of February 3 this year appealing for calm in the country, he reproduced the exact words Prof Saitoti used. The editor allowed the letter to pass, without tampering with the quotation. He did that deliberately or because he didn’t catch the subject-verb agreement error. 

However, the quotation used by Mr Muturi caught the eye of readers. Githuku Mungai said Prof Saitoti either omitted or swallowed the “s” in “There comes a time...”.

There’s no question Prof Saitoti made a grammatical error. Video clips show him making the statement without the subject-verb agreement. He did not swallow or mumble the “s”; he simply made a grammatical error he wasn’t even aware of. 

Journalists routinely correct the error without letting the reader know. This raises questions of honesty, truthfulness, accuracy and even fairness to readers. John Kamau did the right thing when he reproduced the quotation thus: “There come (sic) a time when the nation is more important than an individual” in his article, “Trying times for George Saitoti under President Moi” in the Daily Nation of March 12, 2020.

Journalists use the adverb “sic” to indicate to the reader that although the word(s) look odd, questionable, erroneous or wrong, the original writer or speaker used the word(s). Example: “My names are (sic) Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta” (Uhuru stated his name at the opening of the hearing of his case at the International Criminal Court at The Hague in 2014).

The adverb indicates the quotation is reproduced exactly as it appeared in the original complete with any errors. It absolves the journalist from any blame for any errors or apparent errors in the quoted material.

Writers, however, also use “sic” to show disapproval, disagreement or dislike of the words used, or to show ridicule, derision or sarcasm. Because of that, some editors and news organizations discourage the use of “sic”.

The AP Stylebook, an internationally acclaimed journalism style guide, says “sic” should be rarely used as it “can come off as snarky, giving a sense of ‘we know better’ at the expense of the original author”.

It advises journalists not to use “sic” to show that quoted material or a person’s words include a misspelling, incorrect grammar or peculiar usage. If it’s necessary to point out a misspelling, incorrect grammar or peculiar usage that should be explained outside the quotation or the writer should just paraphrase the quotation.

The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected]. Call or text 0721989264