5 things to know about people’s quotes

By · Wednesday, February 13th, 2019

not teaching,
still THINKING …

People’s voices — their own words — bring life to a story, but beware of trouble spots with quotes and know how to respond. Here are five issues to watch for when dealing with quotes:

  1. Facts and assertion of fact. When someone states a fact in a quote, be confident it is right. Is this really the first time something has happened? Did that state senator really vote against the bill last year? Have there really been four fatal accidents on this curve? The idea is not to check everything in every quote, but to be aware that a lot of people say a lot of things that are not accurate. Ask questions because the errors that can lurk in quotes range from simple facts to major misstatements.
  2. Sources quoting other sources. Sometimes people will represent the opinions of others as fact or something they know. But they don’t. When a source quotes another source, don’t let the quote run unchallenged.
  3. Criticism and attacks. The targeted person of an outright criticism or attack by another person should get a chance to respond. But, really, we need to ask: Should we publish this at all? Do not default to the “each side gets a say” approach. That is a legitimate response at times, but it also can be a way to avoid the real issue. If the initial quote is not worthy of publication, don’t publish it. No decision can be more difficult than withholding these “great quotes,” but sometimes not publishing is simply the right thing to do.
  4. Not available for comment. What does this mean? It means different things at different times. It could be that a journalist tried to reach someone once, 10 minutes before deadline. Or it could mean the journalist tried six times over an entire day and also left messages. What did those messages say? Were they detailed? We need to be transparent.
  5. Quotes that aren’t quotes. Did someone speak this quote? Write it in an email? There’s a difference, and we need to be clear about how the quotes were obtained. Personal interviews will yield unscripted responses with an opportunity for a journalist to ask follow questions. Email interviews allow a source to write and rewrite. And how can we know who actually wrote the email response — the source or a surrogate?

People’s quotes humanize our work. We just must be sure that problems do not escape us in our quest for ample quotes and in our enthusiasm for good ones.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

Comments are closed.