Dialect in Reporting: Racist or Just Accurate

By Kylie Rush

Photo By Pete Souza

Within politics, journalists are the gatekeepers. We are there to make sure that everything a politician or presidential candidate says gets out to the public so they can make an informed decision later in the election. But to what extent does the reporting go?

President Barack Obama spoke to the Congressional Black Caucus this past Saturday and now the Associated Press is being targeted as racist. Watching the speech, it’s obvious that Obama is using a different tone than he would whilst giving a national address, but is it right or is it wrong to show that in print.

Politico felt that it should be printed without the inference of dialect. Politico’s transcript ran as follows:

“You have to stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We have work to do.”

The Associated Press, however, ran it a little differently:

“Stop complainin’. Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’. We are going to press on. We have work to do.”

Which is correct? As journalists, is it our duty to make sure the public has the correct dialect from a speech? Or do we, like African-American author Karen Hunter said, “fix people’s grammar, because you don’t want them to sound ignorant”?

In my personal opinion, I feel that it’s okay to show dialect in this instance. Through reviewing the speech twice, I have come to the conclusion that it was a purposeful dialect that Obama was using in his speech. I tend to side more with John McWhorter, a noted linguist, who stated that he believes that the lack of Gs was intentional. He felt that the fact that he can switch back and forth between the two dialects is part of the reason he got elected in 2008 and believes it is a good idea to do the same again this election. His intentional use of dialect leads me to believe that AP was not wrong in its transcription.

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7 responses to “Dialect in Reporting: Racist or Just Accurate

  1. I was in a similar situation involving a story, although before publication. A quote in my piece contained an improper grammatical phrase. When I sat down with my editor, he suggested that I do one of two things: remove the phrase and replace with brackets or paraphrase the quote. Because I felt adding brackets would be putting words in my source’s mouth, I deleted the quote and paraphrased.
    Depending on the contents the quote (like the one from Obama’s speech) it might have more impact if left as-is, in direct quotation form.

  2. I am torn on this issue. As for dialect, our country is very diverse and to hide that diversity would be dishonest. I do not like to clean up grammar just for the sake of it, but there are times when doing so will make the quote clearer, which is what I am torn about. In those cases I would rather paraphrase than add material using brackets, as I do think that changes how a reader will interpret the quote. As for any type of racism, there is sensitivity in coverage and approaching the story from all angles, and then there is over-sensitivity.

  3. I think this is an awesome question to pose to us as future journalists. The dialect that Obama was using had a purpose. He spoke in that form because he thought it would be the most affective for the audience. Although some publications choose to publish quotes using proper grammar, others use the dialect to prove a point or more accurately describe the speech. In this case, I completely agree with what you say in your last paragraph, Kylie. Obama is obviously an extremely talented man and is noted for his public speaking. If he said the quote in that manner, it was purposeful. If Obama was personally offended by the report, then there would be more of a case for racism, but I highly doubt that is what the Associated Press meant by their quote.

  4. I agree with Megan that, unless Obama has come forward to denounce the AP’s decision, (has he? I need to look that up) the industry should mostly overlook the issue. I don’t think the Associated Press would risk a lawsuit or public outcry if he didn’t actually speak that way.

    Besides, Cutting off our g’s is something that a lot of us do, even if we don’t notice it. Would there be such a dilemma if the AP quoted a white politician in the same manner? Is it “dialect” simply because the speaker is black? These are interesting questions to consider, especially for us as future reporters.

    • I think it’s interesting that you bring up considering how many people “cut off their g’s.” It has become a fairly normal way to speak and it is our duty to report exactly how things are. If Obama was dropping his g’s, then AP as not wrong in reporting as such. Additionally, if Obama is not upset, if he thinks AP reported correctly, then why a fuss?

  5. I think that because Obama was clearly speaking in a different dialect, the AP was not in the wrong in its decision to drop the -gs. If anything, I think it made the president more personable, as most people don’t speak correctly all the time, anyway.

  6. I agree with Jeff. I might have added that he had put on a dialect for that part of the speech, but other than that, I feel like the way the AP reported it was totally fine.

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