College Media Teachable Moment: What did Michael Phelps *Really* Say?

The video does not lie.  In video of a post-race interview with uber-Olympian Michael Phelps streaming at ESPN.com, Phelps offers a brief assessment of his performance.  The most interesting part of the video: The words uttered by Phelps on video and the words attributed to him in quotes in the story beneath it are not exactly the same.

Check out the video for yourself.  When he starts to talk, listen but look simultaneously at the sixth paragraph in the story, the first featuring a quoted statement from Phelps.  You’ll notice that the differences between what Phelps actually says and what is quoted to him in the piece are small and do not impact the meaning of his statement, but they are there nonetheless.

And that is OK.  The CMM Teachable Moment: Recognize as a j-student extraordinaire that it is NOT your job to capture every utterance and inflection exactly as a source provides it.  Doing so, especially without a recorder, would be murderous and leave you focusing on the insignificant details at the expense of the bigger picture i.e. what he/she is trying to say.  

No reasonable reader or editor expects every-single-syllable perfection in a published quote.  In fact, in many cases, cleaning up a source’s comments HELP.  If we printed every ‘like’, ‘umm,’ ‘you know’ and the Obama ‘uhh’ readers would want to shoot us.  (After finishing this blog post, ask a friend a question and listen to him/her talk.  Believe me, all of us are flawed speakers, in many ways.)  

The basic rules of thumb with quoting sources: Recant it as close as possible to the original.  Focus on key words or unique turns of phrase.  Do not put words into anyone’s mouth.  Feel OK with dropping the *small* extraneous speech pattern stuff.  But never never never change the meaning of what someone is saying.

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