Using quotes ethically
September 9, 2010 12:11 PM   Subscribe

Newbie freelance writer with an ethical question about quotations.

I do some freelance feature writing for the local newspaper. I have no real journalism training. Lately, I've started to worry about ethical issues.

I write very soft peices, mostly interior design stuff.

I'm wondering about quotes. Sometimes a person will say something interesting, and then a few sentences later say something else I like. I often will write this as a full quote, and just delete the intervening garbage. Is there an ethical problem with this?

For example, the verbatim quote might be something like "I remember when this house was first built. My Uncle Frank was a plumber at the time, and then my Aunt Jackie was going to beauty school. And that was the winter we had 12 feet of snow. This was the most beautiful house on the block."

I might just publish that as "I remember when this house was first built," he says. "This was the most beautiful house on the block."

Is there anything wrong with doing this?

Here's a slightly different scenario. Sometimes I'll push two quotes together that happened 20 minutes apart. In this case, let's say that one quote happened 10 minutes into the interview and the other quote happened 30 minutes into the interview, but I want to switch their order for editorial reasons. For example, I'll do something like "I want my grandchildren to know the history of this house," he says, adding that "it was really spectular when it was built because this town had never seen that style of architecture before."

So -- what are the ethical rules of when I can delete a bunch of intervening talk that I don't want to use? And is it misrepresenting someone when the quote I'm using didn't actually emerge from someone's mouth in that order?
posted by megancita to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's generally accepted that you use ellipsis to indicate that, isn't it?
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:19 PM on September 9, 2010

Stagger Lee is correct. In case you don't know what he means by ellipsis, it is indicated by three periods, so you could say "I remember when this house was first built...this was the most beautiful house on the block" and the reader will know that there was some intervening material that you deleted. That is the convention.
posted by grizzled at 12:24 PM on September 9, 2010

Reversing the order of two quotes 20 minutes apart and then stitching them together can't really have any purpose other than twisting the context to support the point of your story. Personally I think that would just be a really lazy way of trying to get a point across. Use the quotes separately, use your own words to fill the gaps between.

"I did not mean to mischaracterize others' intentions," said Mrs. Smith, who had previously stated: "I was only doing the best I could at the time."
posted by hermitosis at 12:32 PM on September 9, 2010

NYT writer Deborah Solomon got into a lot of trouble for combining quotes, rearranging answers (so that it looked like the subject was answering a different question than he had during the interview), and so on. She still writes for them, so it obviously wasn't a career-ender...for her. Yet.

So, yeah, ellipses are your friend in cases like the one you gave. IAAEditor, but I am not your editor.
posted by rtha at 12:34 PM on September 9, 2010

Best answer: It's obviously important to be accurate when reporting, but it's also a good idea to glean the best bits of an interview and present them in a way that flows naturally. I personally don't see an ethical issues with your approach, and I tend to think ellipses are somewhat intrusive in this context. Generally speaking, write what you think you can get away with or that you think your interview subject will not object to in print - that's the only ethical issue you have to worry about, I would say.

Obviously, interior design is somewhat low stakes in the grand scheme of things, so your interview subject will probably be happy to see him or herself portrayed intelligently in print. However, if you start reporting on more "serious" issues, then the sort of question you have in this AskMe becomes very important indeed.

The best solution is to be very present during the interview. Take a tape recorder, but don't rely on the tape recorder, take notes. Being present means listening for two quotes that are seperated by something you think is extraneous... listen for them, and then paraphrase to get your ideal quote:

"So you mean to say, XYZ?"

Your interviewer will say yes, or no, or will say something that clarifies his or her position, and hopefully this clarification gives you what you need so you don't have to worry about techniques for mashing together two quotes.

However, the short answer is to seperate the money quotes with an apostrophe:

"XXX," he said. "YYY."

I don't think it is unethical if you can get away with it - if, ultimately, the interview subject feels comfortable with what you have written. Sometimes they may not feel comfortable, but if it is the truth, then it is the truth.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:40 PM on September 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree pretty much with what KokoRyu said.

I write features, and I admit that I've been in the OP's shoes, even after an MA in journalism. I generally shape quotes like this, but I then send the article back to the person quoted to make sure that they are represented as they wish to be represented. Usually I'm pretty much on the money, but more often than not I find that the things that bug them aren't the parts I perceive as potentially controversial.

The person I just heard back from mainly wanted to move some "thems" and "ands" to make it flow better in her eyes, which is something I couldn't have foreseen from what she'd given me. And who doesn't want to have a do-over on the stuff they spewed out in a caffeinated rush? You might not always have a chance to do this, but do it whenever you can. It helps build your reputation as a writer to trust.

This way, they can speak more freely on the subject THEY know about, but I can do the stuff I know about (i.e., editing), and we can both use our strengths to come up with the most accurate and informative piece possible.
posted by Madamina at 12:56 PM on September 9, 2010

And to clarify over Deborah Solomon's dustup: she made up questions after the interviews had already taken place, and she made it appear that her subjects were being evasive.

The key to avoiding that is to always keep the purpose of the article and the speaker's point of view in mind, which you should be doing in the first place.
posted by Madamina at 1:00 PM on September 9, 2010

Best answer: I am a professional journalist. I have worked in newspaper features sections and at a prominent lifestyle magazine.

Ellipses are very, very rarely used in practice in American newspapers and lifestyle magazines.

Separating two quotes with a "he said" is totally acceptable in most newsrooms. It's an implied ellipsis. Ask your editor if it feels squicky to you.

Also, there's no problem with using the last thing a subject says to you as the first quote in a story as long as you're not totally misrepresenting what they said. People say so much bewildering stuff in interviews (half sentences! garbled subjects and verbs!) that if you get a gem and you want to put it at the top of the story, do it. There's no implication that the story happens in chronological order; it should happen in the order that makes most sense to the reader.

Sometimes I'll push two quotes together that happened 20 minutes apart. In this case, let's say that one quote happened 10 minutes into the interview and the other quote happened 30 minutes into the interview, but I want to switch their order for editorial reasons. For example, I'll do something like "I want my grandchildren to know the history of this house," he says, adding that "it was really spectular when it was built because this town had never seen that style of architecture before."

Your example is not okay, because you're explicitly saying that he "added" the second part of the quote to the first part, when, in fact, he said the second part 20 minutes earlier. Don't write in a lie! You don't need to do that! Write a sentence of quote intro between.

Madamina: I generally shape quotes like this, but I then send the article back to the person quoted to make sure that they are represented as they wish to be represented.

Sending the text of the finished article to sources pre-publication has been explicitly forbidden in every newsroom and magazine where I've ever worked. Don't do this without asking your editor about it. I think it's a bad practice anyway; you want the subject to be happy with the story (this is features, after all, not life-or-death), but you don't want them to write the story about themselves. If you're unsure about a quote, call them back and check the quote. (Sample script: "Hi, Subject, I'm writing the story, and I just wanted to make sure I heard you correctly. In my notes, I have that you said, 'Blah, blah, blah' about blah-blah. Do I have that right?") Sending text to subjects brings out diva-like unreasonable demands from even otherwise reasonable subjects. (If you do write about someone who wants to see the story pre-publication, tell him or her that sending pre-pub text is against newsroom policy, apologize, and ask if there's anything they're particularly worried about. The person will often have a specific concern that you can resolve pretty easily.)

Feel free to MeFi mail me if you have any specific questions, but please, please, ask your assigning editor about newsroom policy about questions like this. I can almost assure you that they have a policy, and I'm sure they'd be happy to go over it just to clarify any ambiguities for you. I promise you, your editor won't mind your asking.
posted by purpleclover at 1:19 PM on September 9, 2010 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the responses. It confirms my owns thoughts that doing this is ok as long as there is intervening text that I place in between quotes and I don't write it in such a way that it implies the quotes happened chronologically.

I will certainly ask for the newsroom's ethics policies!

posted by megancita at 1:23 PM on September 9, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, and I will often do a fact and quote review with subjects, just because I think it makes for more accurate copy, but I don't ever show someone the full article.
posted by megancita at 1:26 PM on September 9, 2010

Best answer: Purpleclover, to clarify: I don't work in a newsroom. I would not do that if I did. I work for a university, where we have two kinds of products: news releases and feature pieces (for, say, our alumni magazine and faculty/staff newspaper). Yes, do go with whatever your newsroom or office policy dictates. Every newsroom will have its little quirks of style, from local terms to unusual punctuation. When in doubt, ask. If you're still in doubt, use a different quote or paraphrase without quoting. If it feels weird, avoid it altogether.

In a PR news release, it is VERY important that we have confirmation that the source is being represented as they wish to be represented, because the quotes can be reprinted anywhere. My editors are crystal-clear on this. But that's PR.

For an enjoyably fluffy feature piece, as megancita has said she'd likely be writing, it's similar. You don't want to do "gotcha" journalism; you want to showcase the knowledge and skill of your source. But it's a PR coup for them to get the publicity, even for people at the university for whom I work. Some people in a field are better sources than others. Even if they're the experts, you still need to check your facts and crosscheck them with someone else.

You're correct in saying that they should not be writing it themselves. The articles in question (fresh on my mind because of the ones I did most recently) are typically brief, and mostly quotes/descriptions of, say, the faculty book I'm spotlighting. These kinds of things are often scholarly works with a description that's difficult to condense without knowledge of the subject (which is the whole reason I'm trying to write a piece in the first place). So sending them the quote blocks is good, and I'd add in any technical descriptions or terms with which you're unfamiliar. Try repeating what they've said while you're still doing the interview, so they can say, "Yes, that's correct," or "Actually, I'd like to expand on that a little more."

You still want to choose a source just as carefully as you would with a hard news piece, because getting something wrong would make both them and you look bad. But any editorializing, turns of phrase, anything other than the quotes are yours. You're the writer, and it's your point of view.

Megancita, because I started out more like you (freelancing without a background in the field), it was often hard for me to check in with my superiors. I didn't want to let on that I didn't know something that was potentially covered on the first day of a reporting class I hadn't taken. Hell, I couldn't even tell you what enterprise reporting actually was! So I didn't take a lot of risks, and my writing wasn't as lively. Being able to go to grad school (my undergrad was in a completely different field) was a godsend to make sure I was doing things right.

I would suggest finding some mentors who can answer some of your questions privately, at least until you are more comfortable with your surroundings. DO NOT AVOID ASKING QUESTIONS. THEY ARE NOT STUPID. Once you've gotten a good relationship with your editors and other mentors, you'll have the confidence to take bigger risks. I have always benefited from having some writerly friends, particularly those who know nothing about my surroundings, available on IM during the day; they're great when I want to bounce a paragraph or phrasing off of someone and see how an audience might respond.
posted by Madamina at 2:46 PM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Magazine editor here, just wanted to say ditto to what purpleclover and KokuRyu said.

I generally shape quotes like this, but I then send the article back to the person quoted to make sure that they are represented as they wish to be represented.

And yes, don't do this.
posted by limeonaire at 2:52 PM on September 9, 2010

As a freelance who has written for top national magazines and newspapers, I'll add my voice to purpleclover's. He/she is exactly right. In fact, so right that I'd suggest any writers reading this post re-read his/her reply.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 2:55 PM on September 9, 2010

For an enjoyably fluffy feature piece, as megancita has said she'd likely be writing, it's similar.

Similar, sure. But not the same. In a fluffy feature piece, I can see shaping quotes in small ways to get the intended effect (it's not a matter of national security if, say, the interview subject in a piece about gardening said "was" instead of "were," but it would sound better in context as "were")—but I still wouldn't let the person who was originally interviewed hack away at what they said or the surrounding text themselves. That way lies madness.
posted by limeonaire at 2:59 PM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Carry on! Make it work!
posted by Madamina at 4:03 PM on September 9, 2010

Former professional journo here. To answer your questions:

Yes, it happens all the time
One of your examples is problematic, as already highlighted; the other is okay
PurpleClover is right on the money

Also, fyi as a newbie freelancer it took me longer than it should have to figure this out: If you use the industry or your journalistic peers as some kind of ethical or moral guideline, you will be selling crack to toddlers before you know it.

Plagiarism, miss-attribution, fabrication, and a zillion other sins are widespread and tacitly - if not actively - condoned in many, many publications. Don't ever justify to yourself ethical compromises based on:

a) Consequentialism ("It doesn't actually change/affect anything, it just reads better")
b) Prevalence ("Everyone is doing it, someone is telling me to do it, it's nowhere near as bad as what so-and-so did")
c) Desperation ("I will have to can this piece unless I do this little thing. I don't have time to do the right thing and meet deadline. They are not giving me enough money to justify proper whatever.")

It's very easy to do, and trust me from someone who's been there, it will leave you feeling like shit, distrustful of your own abilities, disillusioned with your grand job title of "writer", and will eventually start to really exact a toll on your writing. Stick to the high road - you might need an additional job to supplement initially, but let me tell you: nothing can beat the feeling of knowing you would stand behind everything you've written. And once you lose that feeling, it's hard to get it back.
posted by smoke at 4:56 PM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

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