I’m [sic] Of How the Claremont Independent Belittles Its Sources

The Claremont Independent, described on its website as “dedicated to using journalism and reasoned discourse to advance its ongoing mission of Upholding Truth and Excellence,” operates as one of the few conservative-aimed publications on the predominantly liberal campuses of the Claremont Colleges.

It’s always refreshing to see a publication take a stance that is, at least in some ways, counter to the prevailing culture it resides in. However, a lone-wolf stance doesn’t guarantee journalistic excellence.

Let me be clear: I’m not going to attack the Independent for its political lean, even if it’s in stark contrast to my own. I’m also going to dance around the content of its articles, even if it’s easy to find them offensive, nearsighted, or narrow-minded. Instead, I want to focus on a single stylistic choice that pops up over and over again in the Independent: the use of ‘[sic]’.

In written journalism, the word ‘sic’ in brackets after a quoted phrase or passage indicates that, among other things, any typos and grammatical mistakes are presented in their original form. (If you care about this stuff, sic is Latin for ‘thus,’ a shortening of sic erat scriptum, ‘thus it was written.’)

In this case, you’d expect a relatively even usage of ‘[sic]’ across other Claremont Colleges publications, seeing as they all report on similar news and employ basic journalistic devices like quotes.

To test it out, I built a simple script that scrapes each publication’s website and counts the number of times ‘[sic]’ appears in its articles.

Out of the most recent 50 news articles, there were zero instances of ‘[sic]’ in The Student Life, the Forum, or the Scripps Voice. Historically, there have been a total of 25 instances in The Student Life and two in the Forum. (Historical data for the Scripps Voice was unavailable.)

On the other side of the spectrum, the Independent boasted 13 instances in its 50 most recent articles alone.

If all of the publications are using ‘[sic]’ in the same way—to account for typos in quoted material—why would the Independent use them at such a high rate compared to the rest?

Of course, writers and editors do have some leeway when it comes to cleaning up typos and grammatical errors, especially when they’re transcribing spoken interviews. Using ‘[sic]’ is most often seen when a written text is quoted, in which case correcting the language could be more easily seen as a misquote (presenting inaccurate information).

This use of ‘[sic]’ for quoting written matter explains a lot about why its use is so common in the Independent. The Independent relies heavily on social media, especially Facebook, to find posts to draw quotes from for people involved in stories. Facebook is a relatively casual forum, so it’s not surprising that these posts would have typos and grammatical errors, and that ‘[sic]’ would therefore need to be tacked on.

In comparison, The Student Life relies more on in-person interviews, where corrections can be made during transcription, and email interviews, where the interviewee has a chance to carefully choose their words and pay attention to their spelling and grammar.

Admittedly, the Independent has a much smaller staff, so in-person interviews may be difficult to schedule. But surely email interviews wouldn’t be too hard? What’s going on here?

Understanding the answer to this question requires a more thorough examination of where and why the Independent chooses to use ‘[sic]’.

A few weeks ago, a slate of vandalisms struck the Pitzer campus, with pro-Trump messages painted on the clocktower and a student mural. In an article about the vandalism in the Independent, two voices are set up to represent the two sides of the issue. First, that of Sarah Roschdi PZ ’17, who wrote in an email to a campus-wide thread that the lack of serious administrative response to the vandalism was an example of a consistent lack of support for students of color. Second, that of Haylee Sindt PZ ’18, who wrote in an email in the same thread that the vandalism shouldn’t be construed as a hate crime, and that students shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

Here is how the Independent quoted Roschdi:

“Students of color are being directly targeted by pro­trump messages and their [sic] has been zero steps taken to secure the safety and wellbeing of students of color on this campus.”

By comparing this quote to the original email, it’s easy to see that the quote was pulled without modification, therefore requiring the use of ‘[sic]’.

And how was Sindt quoted in the article?

“The second that someone with opposing views, [whose] ideals are vastly out numbered, expresses their opinions, people shut them down, tell them they are wrong, and that they are making them feel ‘unsafe.’”

Compare the quote to the original email, shown below:

The second that someone with opposing views, whom which their ideals are vastly out numbered, expresses their opinions people shut them down, tell them they are wrong, and that they are making them feel “unsafe.”

Why didn’t the Independent use a word-for-word quote here and then pop in a ‘[sic]’ to indicate a grammatical error, like they did with Rodschi, rather than taking the liberty of correcting Sindt to ‘whose’ and even adding a comma after ‘opinions’?

The answer lies in another reason to use ‘[sic]’: calling attention to the errors it references. In this case, ‘[sic]’ can be used to subtly belittle, scoff at, or poke fun at what a source is saying or writing. By using ‘[sic]’ consistently on some sources and not others, a writer can set up a power structure that places the sources on uneven footing — exactly what the Independent is doing in the vandalism article.

If the Independent is employing ‘[sic]’ in this way, one can go back and look at their first potential excuse with fresh eyes — why are so many quotes drawn from Facebook? The answer now becomes clear. The Independent actually wants to use ‘[sic]’. It’s a tool that furthers the aim of the publication not to uphold “Truth and Excellence” but to delegitimize and bury specific voices. It’s an attempt to hide the fact that, while both sides of the story are being quoted, only one side is being given any footing.

Full disclosure: I currently work as a photographer for The Student Life, another student publication at the Claremont Colleges.