What your staff doesn’t know about quotes could hurt you
David Carr of The New York Times shared a dirty little secret about quotes last week: Reporters often get them wrong.
That should frighten you as a student media leader, and here’s another little goblin I’ll trot out way too early for Halloween: Not everyone on your staff even agrees how “right” a quote has to be in the first place.
Don’t believe me? True or false: In your newsroom, it is permissible in a direct quote to:
- Omit “uh” and “ah.”
- “Clean up” the speaker’s grammar.
- Omit “I mean” and “like” if the omission doesn’t change the meaning.
- Omit irrelevant material without an ellipsis.
- Put together two sentences spoken five minutes apart if the meaning is clearer that way.
Everybody in your newsroom engages in the first tactic on the list, of course. And no matter what you may think, I’d bet I could find at least one person in most of your newsrooms who does each of the others.
So while all the big names are talking about whether sources should ever get to approve quotes, I encourage you to talk in your newsroom about getting quotes right.
That means making sure everyone has the same answers on that true-false quiz above. My answers would be “true” on the first one and “false” on everything else. Yes, there could be some exceptions on cleaning up grammar. But mainly my rule would be, “Either it’s verbatim correct or you can’t use it as a direct quote.”
A lax attitude toward quotes never was smart. These days, with digital recorders in almost everyone’s phone, it’s an invitation to disaster.
But back to Carr’s point. You can’t do justice to a quote if it’s not properly recorded in your notebook or screen in the first place. Carr predicts we’re not too far from the day when we can get real-time transcription of every conversation we record. Until then, it’s just not practical to transcribe every word. And you’re kidding yourself if you think your notes capture every word spoken.
So your note-taking has to move into a different gear when you may want to quote the words being spoken. Your notes must reflect the beginning and end of the quote. You may need to ask the source to slow down so you can be sure to get it right.
You may be thinking, “I know.” But does everyone in your newsroom understand the extra care required to get a quote right? Everyone has been told it’s OK, even great, to ask a source to slow down? Everyone has been told that it’s never OK to be “pretty sure” of a quote?
It’s not as exciting as debating quote approval (which you definitely should do), but spend time talking and thinking about quote accuracy.