In journalism quotes tell readers information isn’t made up by a reporter, but is someone’s account or opinion.

Not all quotes are equal. The best come directly from an interviewee’s speech and faithfully reproduced. In electronic media these are obvious – you see or hear the person in question saying their own words.

With written media, quotes are either direct or indirect. Direct quotes are shown inside speech marks and are more or less exactly the interviewee’s words.

I say “more or less exactly” because many journalists, myself included, tidy up, taking out the hesitations, the ums and the ahs. This is perfectly OK. What isn’t acceptable is putting words in someone’s mouth – words they didn’t use.

We edit – often the reader only sees part of an interview. It wouldn’t be practical to include every word.

Journalists use indirect quotes to simplify and summarise an interviewee’s words, they improve readability.

Most quotes you see in written media come from interviews. Some come from prepared statements.

Organisations use prepared statements to control their message rather than answering pesky questions from nosey journalists whose job is to extract the truth not parrot propaganda.

Prepared statements don’t read like human speech. For some reason people think robotic English makes them sound more sincere or knowledgeable. Often the reverse is true.

Journalists don’t always make it clear when they repeat prepared statements. This isn’t dishonesty. It happens because constantly telling readers where information comes from quickly gets boring.

On the other hand, journalists shouldn’t pull the wool over reader’s eyes.

I tell my readers when a quote is from a statement when I’m writing a news story or feature, but not if I’m writing a two paragraph snippet. Most of the time I also tell readers if a quote is from an emailed response – which may have been written by committee.

There’s a fine line between full disclosure and boring readers. But if the story is controversial or important, take the risk and be candid.

3 thoughts on “When journalists quote

  1. There are journalists and there are journalists. The majority that I know focus on facts and many record interviews to make sure they get it right, but occasionally they colour the interview to suit their story, which has happened to me only a few times over the years, but I got to learn early.

    When I was 13 I got interviewed for a magazine story on music and the generation gap. The cool thing was that I got to keep a whole lot of great albums. I remember saying that I really liked Led Zeppelin. The story quoted me as saying “Led Zep turns me on”, which the journalist obviously thought would make the story more interesting and potentially through the language try to create more of a generation gap. A 13 year old boy wouldn’t talk like that and I got a lot of stick from my mates. That gave me a good warning at an early age.

  2. are quotes subject to copyright. Presumably quotes are facts e.g. John key said “all cats are green” so this is a fact that he said that. There fore if quotes are subject to copyright how can I say that John key said “all cats are green” with out with out violating the copyright of of the person that reported this fact.

    • Quotes are definitely not subject to copyright if you’re the journalist who got them. It’s another matter entirely if you pinch them from another journalist’s interview.

      Having said that, there are fair use rules, but they’re not precise.

      The best approach would be to write:

      The Daily Newspaper reported John Key said “all cats are green”.

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