Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Don't "quote" me

Michael Lewis's disclosure that he gave the White House "quote approval" for his new book 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 isn't): 
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. [Emphasis mine.] 
Mark has amply documented this sorry fact in earlier posts at Language Log (which he links to). But of course, many of us know it from experience. Here's Ann Blackerby, commenting on a post at the New York Times in which the new public editor addresses the question:
30 years ago, as a pediatric resident, I was called by a reporter from a respected daily paper to add to a story on ... a near-drowning case in which I'd been involved. The quotations published were made up out of whole cloth, but I was still rebuked by the director of the residency program. I wish I'd had veto power over my quotations then! 
Even David Carr, the Times journalist whose column yesterday denounced the granting of quote approval, seems concerned mainly with political and business sources -- those most likely to be in adversarial relationships with reporters. When that's not the case -- in science reporting, say -- is quote approval a problem, or just free expert advice?

I'm wondering, too, how Carr handles quotes in the real world. In an interview today on NPR's "Morning Edition," he described the traditional rules of journalistic engagement this way:
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," as Mark Liberman's work reveals, is often nowhere near carefully enough.


John Cowan said...

I was once interviewed over the phone by a reporter on the subject of whether IBM mainframes were going to survive or not. I said that they would, and explained why as clearly as I could.

I had requested a "check quotes" level of attribution (that is, on the record, but I get to verify any direct quotations). The quotes duly came back to me in an email. Alas, they had a large number of typical oral-transcription errors and outright missing passages, and overall made very little sense. So I rewrote them into a prose approximation of what I had said, and got a very nice thank-you note from the journalist for the assistance.

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