Journalistic quotation accuracy

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Here's Dowd's original version in text form:

She's not accessible. She's not the kind of person I feel I can go up to and talk to about issues like taking care of children at a young age and paid sick leave.

And here's what McCray actually said. I've put in bold face the segments that Dowd paraphrased and connected up in reversed order.

Well, I'm a woman, and she's not speaking to the issues that I care about, and I think a lot of women feel the same way. I don't see her speaking to the- the concerns of women who have to take care of  (you know) children at a young age, and send them to school and after school, paid sick days, ((I mean)) issues in the workplace — she's not speaking to any of those issues.

It's- and- um- uh what can I say?  She's- and she's not- she's not accessible. ((and)) she's not the kind of person that you know I feel you can go up and talk to and have a conversation with about those things. And um I suspect that other women feel the same thing that I'm feeling.

Someone on the NYT editorial staff has a sense of integrity, or at least a fear of the consequences of misquoting local politicians, because here's how Dowd's column now reads on line:

Asked why Quinn was not rallying women, McCray, a mother of two, replied: “Well I am a woman, and she is not speaking to the issues I care about and I think a lot of women feel the same way. I don’t see her speaking to the concerns of women who have to take care of children at a young age or send them to school and after school, paid sick days, workplace, she is not speaking to any of those issues.  What can I say?  And she is not accessible, she is not the kind of person who you can talk to and go up to and have a conversation with about those things, and I suspect that other women feel the same thing I’m feeling.”

And at the bottom, there's the correction notice:

Correction: August 21, 2013

An earlier version of this column incorrectly quoted a response by Chirlane McCray, the wife of Bill de Blasio to a question about Christine Quinn. The column has  been updated to reflect the full response.

But MoDo's original paraphrase-as-quotation is the normal journalistic practice, including at the NYT, and corrections are rare, even when independent audio recordings exist. For a notable example, see "'Approximate' quotations can undermine readers' trust in the Times" 8/27/2005.

Journalists' cavalier way with "quotations" is a topic that I've written about more than once — a sample of other past posts:

"What did Rasheed say?", 6/23/2005
"Ipsissima vox Rasheedi", 6/24/2005
"Ritual questions, ritual answers", 6/25/2005
"Down with journalists!", 6/27/2005
"Bringing journalism into the 21st century", 6/30/2005
"More comments on quotes", 7/1/2005
"Ethnograpy, journalism and interview rituals", 7/2/2005
"Quotes from journalistic sources: Unsafe at any speed", 7/9/2005
"'Quotations' with a word error rate of 40-60% and more", 7/30/2005
"This time it matters", 8/13/2005
"News and entertainment", 9/11/2006
"Journalists' quotations: Unsafe in any mood", 5/24/2007
"Audio photoshopping at NPR", 5/31/2007
"Standardizing non-standard language vs. careless misquotation", 8/12/2007
"In president, out president, fake president", 12/5/2008
"Filled pauses and faked audio", 12/28/2008
"Egregious fabrication of quotes at the Sunday Times", 1/29/2010
"Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan, and journalistic unquotations", 8/3/2012
"More unquotations from the New Yorker", 8/4/2012
"Approximate quotations", 8/11/2012
"Quote approval and accurate quotation", 9/18/2012

A graphical summary of the revision is here.

Update — According to Dylan Byers:

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd says she "screwed up" by misquoting the wife of New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio in her recent column and attributed the mistake to a "noisy" coffee shop.

"I screwed up. The coffee shop was so noisy, my tape recorder didn't pick up everything. I thought I had that one quote from her in my notes, but I garbled the end with a bit from her previous sentence," Dowd told POLITICO on Wednesday.

Color me skeptical. The original version didn't just leave things out, it had a phrase from later in the recording preceding a phrase from earlier in the recording. Unless the coffeeshop noise was strong enough create a trans-temporal wormhole, Dowd's excuse is transparent nonsense — even less convincing than the last time we looked at Maureen Dowd's excuse for a violation of journalistic ethics.

And in any case, what she did in this case has always been common journalistic practice, including in more serious reporting at the New York Times: she created a "quotation" expressing what she wanted to represent McCray as saying, combining some fragments from her notes and her memory into a coherent sequence.

What's different this time? Two things: First, vigorous complaints from several powerful local politicians; and second, the existence of the Twitterverse, which allows Dowd's paraphrase-as-quotation to be widely condemned and ridiculed.

For some additional background, see Dan Amira, "A Brief History of Maureen Dowd Quoting People Inaccurately", New York Magazine, 8/21/2013. The rapidity and intensity of piling-on in this case must tell us something about Dowd's relations with other journalists, because this sort of "approximate quotation" happens a dozen times a day in the pages of every newspaper in the country. Nor are magazines any different.

If you doubt this, take a look at "Approximate quotations", 8/11/2012, in which I pick a random political speech — Mitt Romney in Iowa — and demonstrate that no two journalists quoted him the same way, and none of them were accurate.


  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

    It seems to me that if Dowd's paragraph had been written as an indirect quotation, it would have been a fair summary of McCray's views. In both versions I detect a veiled allusion to Quinn's personal life, as in, What can you expect from a childless lesbian?

  2. John said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

    Doesn't even have to be an indirect quotation, just break the quote up.

    She's "not the kind of person you can just go up and talk to" about issues like "tak[ing] care of children at a young age, […] paid sick leave, issues in the workplace".

  3. Yerushalmi said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

    James Taranto of the WSJ quite some years ago coined the term "Dowdification", meaning "to paraphrase a quote such that it significantly changes its meaning". Dowd has had a habit of this particular problem for a long time.

  4. Jason said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

    This is minor for Maureen Dowd. During the 2004 campaign she attributed a completely fabricated quote to John Kerry in a column attempting to portray him (as is her standard spin when covering Democrats) as an out of touch elitist. Summary from the (admittedly highly partisan Bob Somerby) <a href=";)here and here.

    Even when he puts on that barn jacket over his expensive suit to look less lockjaw—and says things like, “Who among us doesn't like Nascar?”—he can come across like Mr. Collins, Elizabeth Bennet’s pretentious cousin in “Pride and Prejudice.” — Dowd's NY Times Column, 3/18/04

    The "who among us does not love NASCAR" quote, so perfectly summing up the effete, out of touch aristocrat caricature that Down was going for, went viral, dogging Kerry like the equally fake "I invented the Internet" quote attributed to Al Gore — also championed by Dowd.

    MARK RICH (9/5/04): Mr. Kerry, having joined the macho game with Mr. Bush on the president's own cheesy terms, is hardly innocent in his own diminishment. From the get-go he’s tried to match his opponent in stupid male tricks. If Mr. Bush clears brush in Crawford, then Mr. Kerry rides a Harley-Davidson onto Jay Leno’s set. When the Democrat asks “Who among us does not love Nascar?”…he is asking to be ridiculed as an "International Man of Mystery.”

    When called on it, Dowd blamed chinese whispers for her fake Kerry quote, getting colleague Sheryl Gay Stolberg to take the fall, claiming that she misheard the quote at a union rally and passed it on to Dowd in casual conversation. Dowd doesn't view her handling of quotes as lies, she just "enhances" them, using the blurry line between editing and fabrication.

    This quote doctoring is minor by comparison. It's possible that McCray was seeking to exploit her opponent's childlessness — it's a standard line of attack. However, it's clear that, by restructuring McCray's point about "child care", and extracting it from inter alia remarks, Maureen has greatly "enhanced" the quote and promoted it from debatable attack to a blatant one.

    Once again, Dowd has an exuse — and a priceless one which makes the whole incident look worse, not better. If she'd simply owned up to restructuring the quote for clarity, and acknowledged the unintended implication she'd created, things would be much better. Instead, she unintentially reveals culpability by saying:

    "I screwed up. The coffee shop was so noisy, my tape recorder didn't pick up everything. I thought I had that one quote from her in my notes, but I garbled the end with a bit from her previous sentence," Dowd told POLITICO on Wednesday.

    I simply don't believe either of Dowd's alibis, or her other excuses for misconduct over the years. How? Let's just say I knew high school girls like Dowd. After a while, you learn to spot the bullshit.

    The wider issue is of course that newspapers play games with quotes. As with Orwell, "early on I learned that nothing is ever correctly reported in a newspaper." With regard to quotes specifically, I have learned that just about every quote you read in the paper has been selected, edited, restructured and ripped out of its original context in such a way that it conveys a misleading impression even when it isn't outright false. But Dowd is a particularly blatant serial abuser of the phony quote. She knows what she's doing.

  5. Theophylact said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

    Taranto is not exactly a paragon of journalistic rectitude. He may be better at quoting correctly, but otherwise he's a major distorter and cherry-picker.

  6. Rubrick said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

    I'd love to see how things work in the alternate universe where there's a distinct typographic symbol paraphrased quotes. (Or are there in fact languages which have both such a symbol and an established journalistic tradition?)

  7. exackerly said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 11:04 pm

    Indirect quotes, or breaking up quotes, are a good way to get the reader to stop reading. This is a newspaper, not an academic journal. And actually it's a column, where a little more stylistic latitude is usually granted. Can anybody tell me what is misleading about Dowd's original version, other than not being verbatim?

  8. Jason said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 11:24 pm


    Because Dowd's version is a blatant dogwhistle, and McCay's actual quote is a far more subtle and nuanced statement, if indeed it is a dogwhistle.

  9. Terry Hunt said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 7:14 am

    As a disinterested foreigner who has never heard of any of these people before, I myself noticed no veiled allusions in either the summarised, indirect quote (which seems to me, as a former non-fiction Editor, reasonable paraphrasing for concision) or the full quote.

    Having learned from others' comments about a possible issue over Quinn's sexuality, I went back and read both again several times: I'm still not seeing anything. The only impression I can read into either is that that Quinn might seem standoffish – admittedly not a good trait in someone seeking personal office (and one reason I myself wouldn't, because I am).

    I realise context (in this case, direct exposure to the ongoing situation) is important, particularly when dogwhistling may be involved, but I still suspect that in this case some over-interpretation may be operating.

  10. Mark P said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 7:30 am

    @Terry Hunt – The quoted words may be a reasonable paraphrase, but a paraphrase is not enclosed in quotation marks. When I was a reporter close to 40 years ago, I knew the difference and tried to conform to what I assumed were ethical journalistic practices. I think those included being careful to quote people accurately. That meant that anything enclosed in quotation marks was a direct quote, and that did not include moving the order of the words around to achieve the writer's goal.

  11. Treesong said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 5:16 pm

    @Rubrick – some science fiction fans used to use 'quasi-quotemarks' (quotation marks overtyped with hyphens) for that purpose. See . I don't know if anyone's used them in recent decades.

  12. S D said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 9:01 am

    When it comes to journalists taking liberties with interviews, I'm more familiar with invented quotations than edited ones.

  13. Terry Hunt said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 9:05 am

    @ Mark P – Fair point about the " "s. A line must be drawn at some point between cleaning up the mumbles and stumbles of real unrehearsed speech, and rearrangements that distort meaning (although in this case I don't think the locutor's meaning was materially affected).

    Presumably professional journalist are taught where to draw the line [to clarify, I mostly edited historical technology articles and science textbooks where the issue would rarely arise]. I imagine US journalists are usually more rigorous about this: in a UK context where, to my impression as an aged and cynical Brit, our hack's standards are rather poorer, this particular instance would seem to me unremarkable.

  14. The Language Log scolds journalists for "approximate quotation" (again) | said,

    August 23, 2013 @ 9:13 pm

    […] of the spouse of a New York City mayoral candidate gives the Language Log's Mark Liberman another chance to take journalists to task for "approximate quotation," which he says "happens a dozen times a day in the pages of every newspaper in the […]

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