Quote approval and accurate quotation

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David Carr, “The Puppetry of Quotation Approval“, NYT 9/16/2012:

In July, my colleague Jeremy Peters pulled back the blanket on the growing practice of allowing political sources to read and approve quotations as a precondition for an interview. His story got attention inside and outside the Beltway, in part because the quotation is the last refuge of spontaneity in an age of endlessly managed messages. When quotations can be unilaterally taken back, the Kabuki is all but complete. […]

Good thing those of us who cover business don’t have to deal with the same self-preserving press policies. Except we do. In an anecdotal survey of 20 reporters, it was clear that on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and at some of the big media companies I cover, subjects of coverage are asking for, and sometimes receiving, the kind of consideration that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

Peters’ article has been very widely discussed, mostly by journalists bewailing their loss of autonomy. And it’s certainly true that quotation approval removes an element of spontaneity from reporting, and can be used by public figures to try to shape and control stories dealing with them.

But I haven’t seen anyone connect the dots between this discussion and another recent topic much masticated by the pundit class, namely the problem of fabricated, misleading, or incompetently approximate quotations. Most direct quotes in newspaper or magazine articles are approximate at best, representing a writer’s reconstruction from fragmentary notes and from memory of what he or she thinks the source meant to say, as excerpted and adapted to the needs of the story. There’s a spectrum of approximation, from accurate paraphrase though muddled and confused paraphrase to outright fabrication; but accurate quotation is the exception, not the rule.

So even if a journalist can be relied on not to go beyond muddled paraphrase — and there are plenty of big-time journalists who have gone way beyond that point —  any sane and prudent sources will want to check quotes, not to avoid self-revelation, but avoid misrepresentation of their views.

I’d be much more sympathetic to journalists’ hand-wringing about quote approval if they cleaned up their collective act and started quoting sources accurately. With every smartphone doubling as a digital recorder, it’s not hard to do.



18 Comments

  1. Jason said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 6:40 am

    Digital recorders have their limitations, but as someone who knows Teeline shorthand, I simply can’t understand inexact quotation. I’m not a journalist but I use Teeline to take notes in constantly, and while I occasionally scrawl an illegible word or two when I’m really having to write fast, it really is possible to get very close to what the source is saying. The mistakes you make are usually revealed with the surrounding context. And Teeline at around 100 WPM is supposedly required to be credentialled as a journalist in the UK, so there’s no excuse for UK journalists, at least, not to get quotations exact. So why the paraphrases?

  2. ajay said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 6:40 am

    I’d be much more sympathetic to journalists’ hand-wringing about quote approval if they cleaned up their collective act and started quoting sources accurately

    My own rules:
    if the subject won’t talk otherwise, we’ll send quotes for approval. But we make it clear in advance that it’s approval for factual accuracy only. So if he comes back and says “I said we did this in June 2009, but thinking about it I was wrong, we did it in July 2010”, I’ll make the change. People misspeak, they misremember things.
    If he comes back and says “I know I said I was worried about the SEC, but I want to change that to say we are ‘continuing to monitor all relevant regulatory developments'” – sorry, pal. You said what you said.

    We’ll never offer to send quotes for approval unless asked first.

    We record all interviews and work off the recordings.

    A lot of the time people come back and say “We’ve decided that we’re not going to approve the quotes because we don’t want the article going ahead” – in those cases I go ahead and print anyway.

  3. Mark F. said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 10:33 am

    Credentialed as a journalist?

  4. Jason said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    @Mark F. I’m talking about the UK’s national press card:

    http://cioj.co.uk/press-cards/the-national-press-card/

    Of course you can do journalism in the UK without a press pass. But having one gives you better access. And my understanding is a mandatory part of the national training standards for print journalists at least, who would qualify for the pass, is shorthand.

  5. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 11:44 am

    There’s no shorthand requirement for a press card. The only fundamental requirement is to be an eligible newsgatherer, viz: “An Eligible Newsgatherer is anyone working in the UK whose employment or self-employment is wholly or significantly concerned with the gathering, transport or processing of information or images for publication in broadcast electronic or written media including TV, radio, internet-based services, newspapers and periodicals; and who needs in the course of those duties to identify themselves in public or other to official services”

  6. Andy Averill said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    @ajay, I don’t think it necessarily works like that. When Obama agreed to allow Michael Lewis to hang out with him in return for quote approval, I’m pretty sure that didn’t mean fact-checking only. It clearly meant that if Obama didn’t like something he’d said on re-reading it, it wouldn’t be in the article. No doubt there can be different levels of approval, depending on the power relationship between the interviewer and the subject.

  7. Sid Smith said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

    I’m glad you raised this, Mark. I saw a piece on the subject in the NYT and immediately thought of your piece on The Misquoting of Mitt – a killer rejoinder to journalists who get too pious about their profession.

    PS: Ginger is right: I had a UK press card for years but don’t have shorthand.

    PPS: I like what Ajay says.

    PPPS: Worth noting The Paris Review’s interviews with writers – who are given written questions to which they give written answers. This is a vastly different genre from news reporting, of course, but it has made for an unrivalled and invaluable archive. Sometimes it’s good for the interviewee to have the final cut.
    Here’s the PR archive – and you may now bid farewell to the rest of your day:
    http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews

  8. Jan Freeman said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    Yes, journalists are in no position to be self-righteous about this. And here’s what David Carr said on “Morning Edition” today about the old way of quoting:

    “You ask them a question, they answer it, you write it down as carefully as you can, and should it be useful, you stick it in the newspaper.”

    “As carefully as you can” — ay, there’s the rub.

  9. Carrington Dixon said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

    I am sure that Charles Wilson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Erwin_Wilson) would have been glad to have this ‘power’ back in 1953. Perhaps then he would not be so often misquoted as saying, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    A quote can be verbatim but still misleadingly taken out of context. A few interview subjects have taken the precaution of keeping their own audio recordings of intereviews given to the press and as warranted putting them up on the web in an attempt to show that inflammatory-sounding snippets quoted in the story misrepresent what was actually conveyed in context. That doesn’t detract from myl’s point. Even if you’re going to make an interview subject look bad by selectively quoting out of context, the words you print inside quotation marks really ought to be at least some of the words that actually came out of the interview subject’s mouth, in the same order they came out in. With ellipses or some other clear indication as to when intervening words have been omitted.

  11. bfwebster said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

    Back in the late 1990s, I unexpectedly found myself as a “go-to” expert regarding the Y2K issue in computer software and hardware and ended up being interviewed a number of periodicals. I quickly learned just how easily I could be misquoted by a journalist on the other end of the phone line and so began requesting approval of quotes. When it wasn’t forthcoming, I took care to speak in short, self-contained,and hard-to-misconstrue answers. I will note that the biggest publications (Newsweek, WSJ, National Journal) did the best job of accurately representing what I said.

  12. Joe said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

    Carr did connect the dots in an NPR interview I heard this morning, though it wasn’t real satisfactory. He acknowledged that “the amount of misquoting that goes on is breathtaking” though he dismissed it as not being the point. He ends with “I don’t think the people who are making history should be allowed to rewrite it” but, perhaps, journalists shouldn’t either.

  13. Theodore said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    Why is this a journalists vs. subjects issue? What about the readers?

    If minor technology bloggers can be compelled by law to disclose that they received a free product sample for review, then journalists could be required by law to disclose when they are (or more importantly aren’t) transcribing audio, and to disclose when the subject only spoke on condition of quotation approval.

    Of course that would never happen.

  14. Rubrick said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

    The article itself mentions, but then fails to take up, the issue of recording: “Reporters don’t generally record most interviews and can’t always type or write as quickly as a subject is speaking.”

    Left unsaid is the obvious question, *Why* don’t reporters record most interviews? Why in the world would they try to keep up via typing or writing? Do they think it’s 1940?

  15. H Klang said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 9:45 pm

    I don’t think the people who are making history should be allowed to rewrite it

    If they only could !

  16. ajay said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 4:38 am

    ajay, I don’t think it necessarily works like that. When Obama agreed to allow Michael Lewis to hang out with him in return for quote approval, I’m pretty sure that didn’t mean fact-checking only…

    I am sure you’re right. I was just explaining the way it works in my shop.

    Paraphrasing is a separate issue.
    You can do it for reasons of style: it makes an article less monotonous to read if some of the quotes are indirect rather than direct.
    You can do it for brevity: people don’t always speak in short soundbites and space is valuable.
    You can do it for clarity: “So you actually saw the ship run aground?” “Yes, I did” – best to report that as “Smith says he saw the ship run aground” rather than “when asked whether he saw the ship run aground, Smith replied ‘Yes, I did'”.

    “Left unsaid is the obvious question, *Why* don’t reporters record most interviews? Why in the world would they try to keep up via typing or writing? Do they think it’s 1940?”

    Noise. Convenience. Speed (transcription takes a long time). And I’m not sure if that’s right anyway – in my experience journalists do record most interviews. Maybe US journalists don’t, the US is a bit technically backward in a lot of ways.

  17. guest890 said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    I’m not an important figure, but at one point I did get quoted seriously out of context in a major US newspaper. (This is in the sense J.W. Brewer refers to–I did say the words, but they were selectively quoted in order to emphasize the narrative the reporter was pushing with their story, which happened to be a narrative that ran strongly against my views. A complete quotation, or even a mildly-accurate paraphrase of my statement, would have made this clear.)

    Particularly after that experience, I think it’s entirely natural for people to want to double-check not only that the quotations are themselves accurate, but present an accurate statement of their views. I certainly understand the point of view that one doesn’t want, say, a political party to have the power to prevent a news outlet from accurately reporting an egregious statement made by one of its members–but I don’t trust the media to portray the quotations accurately.

    [(myl) Your experience is a typical one, I’m afraid. In the case of domain experts of various kinds — probably including political ones, but that’s not an area where I have much experience — there are at least two sources of difficulty. One is that a writer often comes into the interview with a narrative pretty well mapped out, and is just looking for quotes to slot into particular places in the outline. Here‘s an case where a journalist found himself on the receiving end of this treatment. And another typical problem is that the writer may not understand the topic very well, or even at all, and furthermore may not care very much about it, and just looks for something shiny in the flotsam littering the beach of their memory when they review their notes before writing the story. That’s presumably what happened, for instance, here.]

  18. Don’t "quote" me said,

    December 29, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

    […] on Obama has reignited the debate about the ethics of the practice. At Language Log, Mark Liberman weighs in, reminding us of the central fact that ought to be driving the discussion (but […]

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