Quoting the president in style

It’s not often that the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar gets a mention on the front pages of U.S. newspapers, especially those regional papers that increasingly focus on local news.

But the protests in Myanmar percolated from the back pages to 1A in The News & Observer today. The centerpiece package includes this promo to a related story inside. Look closely, and you will see that President Bush’s quote has been altered. An editor has placed “Myanmar” in place of “Burma,” the country’s former name.

Certainly, some readers may know “Burma” better than “Myanmar.” Stories should reflect that the country’s name has changed and that some people continue to resist that change. A Wikipedia entry is dedicated to the naming controversy. The AP Stylebook, however, recommends “Myanmar.” As posted here, I had to deal with the Burma/Myanmar question before the AP got around to it.

Here’s the problem with inserting brackets into this direct quote: Bush almost certainly used “Burma” for a reason. He is using the word that opponents of the government prefer, and by saying “Burma” before an audience at the United Nations, he’s making his allegiance clear. To splice in “Myanmar” alters the meaning of what Bush said in significant way.

Editors should not impose AP style on direct quotes in a manner that warps meaning, even in the interest providing clarity to the reader. Keep the quote as is, pick another one or paraphrase it.