Yesterday, I had an interesting discussion on Twitter with @jason_pontin (and a couple of others chimed in, e.g., @TomLevenson and @scootsmoon) about the role of quotes in journalism. Specifically, about the importance of providing a brief quote from sources interviewed for a piece. The difference in mindsets of Old vs. New journalism appeared in sharp relief.
I did not really think hard about this question until now, so this post is just my first provisional stream-of-thought about this and I welcome discussion in the comments.
So, let me try a mental experiment here. You are a journalist. You picked, or are assigned, a topic to write an article about. You may know nothing, little or a lot about the topic. Regardless, you start with a clean slate. What do you do?
First, you conceptualize your article in your mind: decide what the limits are, i.e., what can and what cannot be included due to space restrictions you are given by the editor. Thus, in your mind, you already have a bare skeleton of the story.
Then, you hit the Rolodex and start calling people who may something interesting to say on the topic. You consciously or subconsciously pick people who can provide you with a broad spectrum of opinion on the topic. You ask them for interviews. Many say Yes.
You conduct the interviews for about 30 minutes to an hour with each person. You record or jot down notes or save their e-mail responses.
Then you start writing your article, putting your skeletal version into words. When done with that phase, you start fleshing it out. How?
You have learned, from interviews or before, what the spectrum of opinions is out there. You want to include some or most of them into your article. How do you go about that?
First, you decide that Opinion A is so out of whack it is not worth mentioning. Second, you decide that Opinion B is out of whack, but can be used for comic relief to make your story fun.
Then you are left with a few remaining opinions which are, in your view, “legitimate”. Now you need to find the best quotes that represent those opinions. How do you find them?
You go through all your transcripts/notes/recording and look for them. And you find them – one best wording for each of the opinions. You include them in your article and correctly attribute them to the authors. Your work is done – send to the editor and move on to the next story.
What is wrong with this picture? What is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong with this picture?
There are several layers of wrong. Let me try to dissect them, one at a time.
First wrong: you had the concept of the article in your head before you did the research. This shapes your research, choices of interviewees, choices of “opinions”, choices of quotes.
Second wrong: you picked to interview people with colorful views on the topic instead of people who have the relevant expertise to say something on the topic. Hence the appearance of Creationists, anti-vaccinationists, Global Warming Denialists or Republicans – people who are wrong every time they open their mouths – in the media.
Third wrong: you made decisions, out of your own gut instead of from deep research, which opinions are too wacky to include. How do you know they are wacky? Are you an expert? Are you sure they are just not outside the Overton Window, or outside the “legitimate sphere” as defined by the media itself?
Fourth wrong: you cherry-picked the quotes, looking for specific statements that illustrate the opinions you have decided to include. You are not interested, really, who they come from or if that person stands by it. You are just looking for who put it into words the best, the “best quote”. Journalists love language, but have a very post-modern relationship to facts. They think of themselves more as writers, with a skillful turn of the phrase, than as reporters who are stubbornly looking for the truth.
Even when asked, journalists openly state that their role is not to find the truth, but to register the spectrum of opinions out there. That is stenography at best (not even that, as some opinions are never registered, including some very valid opinions), not journalism.
But that is absolutely NOT what the audience expects. Audience is already aware of the spectrum of opinions out there. They look for you to tell them exactly which one of those opinions is correct, and which ones are bunk. But you never deliver. Which is why people are mad, and the press has an extremely low ranking in popular opinion on trustworthiness.
If you disagree with the above paragraph, think why that is so? Did you hear it from your editors and colleagues? If so, they are dead wrong. If you learned it in J-school, your professors were dead wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!!!
Now think again.
Is everything you ever learned in a professional setting about the role of journalism wrong? Could be. Time for deep introspection.
But let’s go back to the example and look at some other aspects of wrongness in it.
The method of quoting used is deeply unfair to the interviewees. They talked for an hour. You cherry-picked a quote that fits your own narrative, not theirs. They are misrepresented.
For example, I may start the interview by putting up the clearest possible wording of a statement that I deeply disagree with. I spend the rest of the hour explaining in great detail and nuance why that statement is wrong. But I worded it so well, it is just peachy for you to use it and put my name next to it as if I agreed with that statement. That is blatantly dishonest.
You got your pretty quote, but in the process you completely misrepresented my stand on the issue, perhaps 180 degrees from it (yes, this happened to me – not found in Google, in St.Peterburg Times, about Edwards’ concession to Kerry in 2004). In public. Forever associated with my name. I should be able to sue you for this!
Even when the quote is correct, e.g., I do agree with the statement, there is a reason why I talked for an hour: it takes an hour to explain it (this happened to me, too).
Perhaps that sentence was an aside, just a polite way to respond to one of the stupider of your questions, but the main thrust is elsewhere – but that never makes it into print (yes, this also happened to me).
That single sentence you chose is such an oversimplification of my view, that the commenters will rip me to shreds for being so dumb (yes, this also happened to me – the same St.Peterburg Times article). And you did it to me – I did my best trying to explain my position, but you were not listening to what I had to say, you were just hunting for pretty quotes that fit YOUR narrative.
And people know all this. Which is why so many people refuse to give interviews – they know for certain they will be misquoted (sure it’s verbatim, but plucked out of context it is meaningless).
Some people refuse interviews only when they are told they will not be able to check the quotes before publication. The journalists invoke some sacred rule about refusing to do this. I have no idea where the rule comes from, but it is stupid and wrong. It is preventing the person from avoiding slander.
It should be made a right, and written into law, and monitored by the Human Rights Watch, that an interviewee has to be able to see the article in advance, can change one’s own quote, and can remove one’s name and quote from the article if deemed necessary to protect one’s own reputation. I do not want my name associated with statements I do not 100% hold and support and I have a right to remove my name from them. If you interview me as an expert, that is your duty (this may differ if you are playing gotcha journalism with a politician, but that is a different kind of interview and a different kind of quote: extracting facts from an unwilling participant, not an expert who gave time to explain stuff to the public).
But refusing the interviewee this right is the way journalists wield power over the interviewees. And they relish that power. And will relinquish it only if it is taken out of their dead, cold hands. They reserve the right to misquote and thus slander everyone.
As there is no argument that can be correctly summarized with a single sentence to the satisfaction of the interviewed expert, does this mean that quoting someone should be never done?
No, there is a role for a quote – as a hook for the reader to click on the link and read (or listen to or watch) the entire transcript. It makes an interesting story that may pique the interest of a casual reader who will then follow the links to get more information, including, especially, the full treatment by the interviewed expert. Then the reader can see if the person was quoted correctly or not, and will understand that the quote is an oversimplification which the author does not really hold. No reputation is lost that way.
So, when you interview someone, pull out that audio recorder, or camera and record the whole thing. Then pay the transcribing services (or get an intern to do it, or, better still, don’t be lazy and do it yourself: unlike bloggers who have other jobs it is your full time job to do this, so do it). Or better still, conduct the interview by e-mail so all you have to do is copy and paste. Then make sure that every quote in your article links to the complete transcript/podcast/video of the entire interview. Everything less than that is deeply dishonest and no interviewee should ever agree to.
Finally, this way of collecting quotes is a disservice to the reader who is looking for facts and the truth, not the spectrum of well-known opinions. By wasting half the space on meaningless quotes, the journalist has no space left to make the Truth-statement for the readers: the very reason journalism exists. So, not just interviewees are screwed, but so is the audience.
The institution of the quote goes back to the era of printing on paper. There was very little (and expensive) real estate in the newspaper or magazine. The editor told you in advance how many inches you get for your story. Reducing 20 hour-long interviews into 20 single-sentence quotes is a way for you to prove to your editor and to readers that you did your job. To hell with substance or truth – you demonstrated that you put hours into the article and thus deserve your paycheck.
On the Web, real-estate is endless and cheap. Not linking out to complete documentation – including transcripts of all interviews – is deeply unethical in the 21st century journalism unhindered by the limitations of the dead-tree technology.
You can see the full transcript of our Twitter debate on this topic if you search Twitter for BoraZ + jason_pontin (you will have to scroll down and go to the second page to see it all) as well as a couple of side-discussions by searching BoraZ + scootsmoon and BoraZ + TomLevenson.
Here are some articles for which I was interviewed and what I think of them (I skipped several because they are behind paywalls or not available any more), so we can see by example what works and what does not, and why:
This was the worst example. It does not even matter what I said and what was quoted – my name is in a piece that slanders everything I stand for, including my own book. But what does one expect from The New Scientist?
This one is the example where I talked for 65 minutes and all that was quoted was an unimportant aside. Was there really nothing else interesting in what I said? Including things I explained in detail, with passion, clearly indicating what is important? Or just not what the journo had in mind at the outset?
This was radio, so the quote is very brief, and I am OK with it.
This one (also carried by papers in Baltimore, Houston and Charleston SC) was really good – the journalist paid attention, learned, and used her own words to accurately portray what I said on top of a decent quote.
This one was also good, for the same reason.
Caroline McMillan did even better – published two articles side-by-side: one was a profile of me, the other about science blogging learned from interviewing me. Worked great together as a package.
John Dupuis, Klaus Taschwer, Simon Owens, Hsien Hsien Li, Brandon and Caryn Shechtman did the smart thing – posted entire interviews. If you are interested in me as a personality, or in my expertise, or in my opinion, just give me the mike. That’s the best solution for everyone.
Likewise on the radio – several times I was on for entire hour-long shows – see this, this and this for some recorded examples. My panels and lectures were sometimes recorded and posted online as well.
At this day and age, when this technology is easy and cheap – who needs quotes any more?
Update: This is an excellent example of an interview that includes several quotes PLUS provides the entire transcript.
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