Quotes in football journalism: Insight from an expert

You try transcribing a Roberto di Matteo interview while he's drinking

Ed Note: Those who follow Chelsea closely will recognise Dan Levene as the single most important journalist to pay attention to if you want to keep up to date with goings-on at the club. He's also a good guy as well, and when he noticed a conversation in our comments last week regarding inconsistencies in direct quotes, he offered to give the readers (that's you!) some insight into just how it all works.

I noticed an interesting forum discussion on apparent inconsistencies in reporting supposedly 'verbatim' quotes, and thought it might help explain the context in which such quotes are gathered.

At QPR, Roberto Di Matteo gave a post-match press conference in the media room at Loftus Road. These quotes are for immediate use, and go out on the web and in Sunday's papers.

He then moved on to speak to radio in the 'flash interview room': a soundproofed booth intended to give broadcast quality conditions.

Finally, he gave an on-the-record briefing for daily newspapers. This was conducted on the main concourse of the South Africa Road stand: just outside the press room door, and underneath the rake of the seats. There was no amplification.

Around a dozen journalists huddled around him in an arc: some almost face to face, some behind two or even three others. There was a lot of background noise: stewards and catering staff packing away and clearing up; the tinny tannoy playing music; at one stage a helicopter went over at low-level.

This set-up and conditions are quite normal. Other potential hazards to the interviewer (not on this occasion, but in the past) include: police sirens, dogs barking, lawnmowers doing the pitch, and David Luiz screaming 'awwwriiight geezer' at top volume when you're interviewing someone else.

Di Matteo speaks excellent, native-standard, English. He has lived and worked here almost 20 years, his wife and children speak English as their first language, and being Swiss he grew-up in a household where multiple languages were spoken.

However, he does sometimes mutter. Even when miked-up, it can sometimes be tricky to pick up everything he says, and he does have a habit of trailing off his sentences.

Different journalists use different means of recording quotes. Some use shorthand and a notebook (yes, even in 2012). Others use recording equipment of varying degrees of quality: from the old M-425 Sony Microcassette Recorder that was once almost standard-issue for reporters, to more modern digital devices.

I use the voice recorder on my Blackberry, as I find it gives good reproduction, and is easy to pause and go forward and back through when transcribing.

Different journalists have differing approaches to transcription. All cut out at least something.
For some that means removing the odd 'err' or 'um'. For others it means reordering sentences completely. The sole driving factor here is to ensure things make sense.

Now. I'm sure at this stage a few eyebrows will be raised: surely we switch things to change the meaning? Well, if we do: we all know the club will be down on us like a ton of bricks.

Changing the meaning of quotes in not acceptable, and when it happens (which is extremely infrequently) there are a number of ways a club can respond: people have been taken to the Press Complaints Commission, had their access to players/matches removed, or even sued. Journalists have been sacked for changing the meaning of quotes.

Journalists, to varying degrees, clean up quotes to iron-out the nonsense football people speak.

There are bizarre mixes of tenses that make no sense ("so, John knocks the ball up and I heads it in - it was a special goal"), plain poor English (often from first-language English speakers), and that most frustrating thing of all - the footballers' clause.

The footballers clause occurs when a player starts talking about one thing, and like, then goes into a sub-clause about how that very thing is something else, which might, like, then diversify, if you know what I mean, into a third thing, that leaves the sentence without an...

So you see the problems.

I tend to produce quotes as close to verbatim as possible. Some others clean things up a bit more than I do. Its a matter of judgement.

There is also stuff you are blind to as a listener. When AVB first came to Chelsea we all tended to automatically ignore his manglification of English managementisation terminography, and replace it with actual words that really exist.

Perhaps we were (subconsciously or not) doing a new manager a bit of a favour. Eventually, when we clocked that this was a bizarre tic of his, and when he started being more than a bit moody towards us, every last perspectivated and accultured effication made it into print.

One final reason for the disparity in verbatim quotes is good old-fashioned human error.

Journalists are busy people: gone are the days when we sit down the pub all day doing nothing but lift a glass.

The internet has made deadlines constant: and we are all under pressure to get stuff out around the clock, and to be first with it.

I transcribed the quote in question with my laptop propped on the food-service counter of QPR's press box, with others tapping away in the background. Often I do it on the train or tube home.

For the purposes of your understanding, I have gone back and compared what I reported with what the tape actually reflects. This took 17 attempts and 20 minutes to transcribe fully, and even then only worked in some places because I know from other sources what Di Matteo had said.

That's for a 20-second excerpt of an 8min 12sec interview - the whole of which will need transcribing accurately as quickly as possible.

As it happens, I'm pretty impressed how accurate my reported quote reflects what is on the tape.

Hope this all sheds some light on the pressures we're under. Its not written to garner sympathy, simply understanding.

For the record: here is the quote as reported by me and, in square brackets, what's been cut.

Q. (Mat Barlow, Daily Mail). You were talking to us about Danny (sic) Sturridge. England needs strikers, and I'm sure Chelsea need the maximum. For him to call for his potential, what does he need to do to do that?

A. [Yeh] of course [erm], the help for him is that he can maybe [transposed to 'maybe he can' in copy] play more minutes, [sure, erm] and show his qualities. [Erm. Well, you know] as long as he keeps training well [and when] he has the opportunities [er] to show his qualities [er] that's the way forward and he will get chances to play [as well].

Q. (Another journalist - can't quite hear who it is). He's said he wants to play central. Will he get chances in the middle?

A. I think so yes. [I mean] at the moment [er, you know] I've played him wide [er, er, again]. [And today] I put him on [in - reported as 'I' in my copy, a typo from me] the middle, [and er] he will get more chances.

We all give certain journalists some grief for the nonsense they put out, but Dan's one of the proper ones, and it's great to see this sort of window into how the profession actually works. If you're on Twitter, you can -- and should -- follow him: @BluesChronicle; if not his work appears at the Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle.

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