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Bill Bennett

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When journalists quote

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.

The best quotes come from interviews

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.

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