I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Quote approval

David Carr is against “quote approval”, interviewees who require approval of their quotes before publication as a condition of speaking to a reporter.

Scott Adams responded as a victim of misquoting:

Your jaw would drop if you saw how often quotes are literally manufactured by writers to make a point. Some of it is accidental because reporters try to listen and take notes at the same time. But much of it is obviously intentional. So much so that when I see quotes in any news report I discount them entirely. In the best case, quotes are out of context. In the worst case, the quotes are totally manufactured.

I’ve been a victim of this, too.

David Carr’s argument — roughly, that quote approval is bad for journalism, and therefore bad for society — is based on the assumption that most quotes are accurate and being presented fairly. But as Carr even says, journalists aren’t perfect.

Not every publication is The New York Times, and not every reporter is as responsible and principled as David Carr.

The incentives and pressures pushed on journalists often implicitly encourage them to make their subjects look bad for their own gain. From Carr’s article:

Of course, quotations often serve as furniture in a house that a reporter is free to build as she or he (or their editor) wishes, so it’s not as if sources can control the narrative by controlling what appears between quotation marks. But a great quotation, the kind that P.R. folks love to rub out, in my experience, can make an article sing or the truth resonate.

“I hate that we find ourselves at this pass,” said David Von Drehle, a writer for Time who has covered politics for a long time. “But we are not blameless. Sound-bite journalism that is more interested in reporting isolated ‘gaffes’ than conveying the actual substance of a person’s ideas will naturally cause story subjects to behave defensively.”

Reporters and their bosses aren’t always interested solely in telling the truth, per se. Just as corporations’ core responsibility is to deliver value to their shareholders, most media outlets’ core responsibility is to attract attention to make their ads deliver value to their shareholders. For most, the value of journalism to society is merely a side effect of this goal.

And times eventually get tough. Ad rates go down, the audience shrinks, competition steals pageviews. It’s easy to fall back to what gets attention easily — sensational headlines and tabloid journalism — often combined with reducing expenses by hiring inexperienced, unprofessional writers.

As these pressures filter down in many media outlets, I’ve found it to be the case, more often than not, that the writer (or the writer’s boss) has already decided the angle of the story before consulting any sources. Quotes are then mined from known-talkative sources and shoved into the predetermined narrative, even if they don’t quite fit. And since a sensational narrative is more likely to get attention, this might not be in the sources’ best interest.

By giving quotes here and there, I’ve gotten on a lot of those talkative-sources lists. I try to only respond to high-quality publications, and it usually goes well.

But I’ve certainly been misquoted. It’s usually my own fault for inadvertently giving the writer something that can be used against me if taken out of context, or more often, something I said that the writer plays up into a bigger weapon against someone else. (Apple’s a popular target in recent years.) I make a lot of nuanced arguments, but that doesn’t come across well without a lot of surrounding context. (Sometimes not even then.)

So I’ve learned the hard way, over and over again, that it’s most wise to talk to journalists the way you’d talk to the police: ideally, don’t. You have everything to lose and almost nothing to gain.

And if I’m going to comment publicly about an issue, I’m much better off doing it here, on my site, where I can control what I say. People can (and do) misquote what I write here, but at least responsible readers can look back here for what I actually wrote in those cases.1

Yet I never learn this lesson completely, because I want to be friendly and helpful. As Scott Adams says:

It’s a dangerous situation because humans are wired to want to please, and once you pick up on what a writer wants you to say, it’s hard to resist delivering it.

But a lot of people have more willpower than Scott and me, and they refuse to talk to journalists because they know better than to give arbitrary weapons to be used against them without any say in the matter. It’s certainly not good for journalists if good sources won’t talk to them.

If quote approval results in higher accuracy of what’s published and gets more sources to willingly talk to journalists, that’s probably a net improvement. Journalists can and should mention in their articles that the quotes have been approved, and readers can use that information to evaluate the subjects’ credibility themselves.

  1. Unless it’s a publication that doesn’t link prominently to sources. Sure, your CMS is too old or your editorial flow doesn’t support blah blah blah or you bury the link in the footer where nobody will see it. There are simply no excuses for anyone publishing online in 2012 not to link prominently, inline at the first mention, to all web sources. ↩︎