July 01, 2005

More comments on quotes

Several others have written in with comments on recent Language Log posts about journalists' use of quotes.

Liam Gerard Moran wrote:

On June 20th, a beat reporter covering the Reds for the Cincinnati Post blogged everything that he'd done during that day to give his readers an idea of what his job is like. It's interesting stuff in its own right, but has relevance for your recent series of posts on reporters and their quoting issues.

These posts are indexed here, and of particular interest is an excerpt from part two:

"6:05 p.m. -- Done with the meal, I'm back in the press box, theoretically to get started on transcribing. Today, though, I'm typing out this monstrosity, so I'm running a bit behind. But anyway, I use a digital voice recorder for every interview, if possible, in addition to taking notes the traditional way. Plenty of guys go strictly with a notebook and pen, but I don't feel comfortable relying strictly on that. I don't write fast enough, and considering I work for a paper with later deadlines than anyone else, I'd rather have my quotes be as accurate as possible. So I don't mind the extra time transcribing. But that explains why you'll see variations on the same quote in different papers the next day -- if you're taking notes, you're not getting every single word verbatim, and even when I record, sometimes I just am not able to hear clearly everything that is being said."

Thus some reporters -- those with enough time and enough interest -- do use digital recording technology to get accurate quotes. As my own experience shows, this is easy enough to do with current technology. After a small amount of thought, I'd like to amend my previous suggestions about possible next-generation technologies in this area. It would be nice to have a network-accessible backend for recordings, transcriptions and annotations, with user-defined control over shared access: something like Flickr or Google Video, especially oriented towards transcription and annotation of audio or of the audio tracks of video streams, with random access through convenient APIs that could be used by anybody's transcription, annotation, browsing and search tools. The front-end inputs could be fed in from pre-recorded files, real-time media streams, individual "wireless recorders", telephone calls or whatever (all consistent with the laws on audio recording, of course).

Ray Girvan (a free-lance journalist himself) wrote:

I would have commented earlier, but was in the middle of a serious deadline.

Guilty as charged over the ritual status of quotes - with qualifications. But I think it's also a matter of genre. In the area where I write (scientific computing) there's what I might call the "interview article" and the "technical article".

The former requires extensive quotes - so I'd ask permission, stick a portable recorder on the phone, and transcribe. I hate speaking to people by phone, so I don't write this kind of thing much.

For the latter, personal contact is not the primary source of information in the article. Nearly all the content comes from published texts (quite often those reporting the work of people I'd choose to quote) so an interview isn't going to add much. It's true, as you say, that the article's thrust will be the same whether the quotes are there or not.

However, the role of quotes isn't merely ritual: they serve as a vehicle for emphasis, colour, and for further background detail that I wouldn't find in the published material. Maybe Dr X has an extra unpublished anecdote, or a well-polished soundbite summarising the work, or a hint of work forthcoming.

In many kinds of reporting, the quotes really do add some extra content that the reporter could not easily present in his or her own voice. But it seems to me that the main function of quotes is usually to create at least a minimal sort of human connection between the reader and the people involved in the story, while at the same time bearing some of the weight of the exposition and giving an appearance of objectivity and factual grounding.

Richard Hershberger wrote:

The process of editing for length and clarity only works if the journalist is both unbiased and competent to judge what changes don't affect the meaning. While I expect a sports reporter quoting a post-game interview to be able to to this, any interview discussing specialized knowledge (linguistics, for example) is likely to be unintentionally butchered. And even unintentional bias is a problem. We all know that selective quoting can change the meaning of the utterance. Even if the reporter isn't setting out to do a hatchet job, a bit of editing to make the interviewee say what the reporter thought he should have, or meant to, or might have, and what is left is unrecognizable. I long ago learned that any general news story on a topic where I have particular knowledge will be wrong, often absurdly so.

A current sports story illustrates this well. Craig Biggio, of the Houston Astros, recently broke the modern (i.e. post-1900) major league record for being hit by pitches. There is a blog, http://www.plunkbiggio.blogspot.com/, that has been chronicling his bid for eternal fame, and this in turn has brought the matter to the attention of the mainstream sports media. The blogger is quite clear that this is the modern record, and the all-time record from the 1890s is still out there (though attainable). Check out the various newspapers and see how many report Biggio as simply having broken the record.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 1, 2005 03:35 AM