If there is one thing that should matter to reporters – online or elsewhere – it is the sacredness of the quote.
The quotation marks and what falls between them are the blood and guts of any article. They set the tone of the story and give life to what could otherwise be a plain statement of facts. A good quote means you found the right source, you know how to ask the right questions and you are a competent note-taker. And it’s no exaggeration to say where quotes are placed and how they move the narrative along can be the difference between the Pulitzer Prize and what lines the bottom of a bird cage.
How you use quotes in a modern context also determines something else – whether you are a hack or a professional. Because in this new age of texts, blogs, chat rooms, Facebook walls and everything else in between, there needs to be guidelines as to how people’s words are found, shared and conveyed within the written word, virtual or not.
The questions for today’s reporter are many. If you write for a blog, how do you know what is appropriate to use and what shouldn’t be mentioned? If you write for a newspaper, do you have to tell the reader that your quotes are from an email and not through a face-to-face conversation? Can you use a quote from a chat room without someone's permission?
The answers, once clear and definite, are now clouded by gray areas that bear discussion. With so many new places to write – and so many new writers – there needs to be a new conversation about how we talk to sources, how we write what these sources say and whether quotations still carry the weight they once did, given how first-person posts are considered newsworthy and relevant.
Is blogging or writing for online news sources less serious or less requiring ethical standards than traditional reporting? The apparent answer is a resounding, “No.” But a variety of news-gathering experts agree that there needs to be more disclosure of how quotes are gained, where the conversation took place and whether the source agrees that the statement was communicated to the reader correctly. And the digital world actually gives reporters more leeway to fix mistakes and make the record of someone’s statements correct if there was an error when first published.
Reporters are taught from their first newspaper class in high school that quotes spice up a story. In an ideal world, you meet with a source in person and have an in-depth conversation about the topic. Wide-ranging questions are asked and answered honestly and thoroughly. The conversation is taken down in notes or recorded. Those words are then translated, edited and included in the story. Boom – you have journalism in a nutshell.
The rules really haven’t changed. But these days, people are emailing their questions in advance and using written answers in their stories. A reporter might text a source during a deadline or on a breaking story to have their comment faster than the competition. A chat room for ex-employees might glean new insights or conversations that a reporter might otherwise not be privy to in traditional reporting. All these are fair ways to gain information.
Bonnie Caprara, a Metro Detroit freelance writer who works for daily newspapers and online blogs told me via a chat session that she once did the rounds at cop shops and the like. Now, she follows her sources on Twitter and Facebook. She uses their comments there as launching points for stories – but she feels the ethical thing to do is follow up with an email to set up interviews for her articles. Some reporters, however, take those comments straight from Facebook without informing the reader where they came from.
As Caprara argues, that reporter should disclose where they gained the quotes and why. I’ve noticed that many newspapers and blogs are starting to do this. For example, a reporter might note that they talked to a source on the phone You see this particularly in exchanges between an entertainment writer and a Hollywood-based celebrity. It seems fair that all reporters do the same, especially when the conversation takes place on a telephone texting exchange, where information might come fast and furious (and misspelled or auto-corrected, but that’s a problem for another time).
Meeting in person also gives a story one more bonus, points out Paul Bradshaw, publisher of the Online Journalism Blog and founder of Help Me Investigate. He also is co-author of “The Online Journalism Handbook: Skills to Survive and Thrive in the Digital Age” and leads the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University and is Visiting Professor at City University.
“As always I think there are subtleties here that are often missed: in-person interviews are generally better because you get more color (if you're a good writer) and the interviewee has less time to prepare their answer,” Bradshaw told me during an email exchange on Facebook. “I think it's often too easy for a journalism student to hide behind email and easily copy and paste the Q&A format into a piece.”
While there is space within journalism for experts to write first-person or original blog posts, Bradshaw does believe in traditional standards when it comes to good journalism.
“I do, however, every year urge students not to rely on email for interviews, but instead to use it as a last resort (it's too easily ignored or put off). In fact, this year, I had one session where the students had two hours to get a story and were not allowed to use email!” he wrote.
On the other hand, some bloggers may find their editors do not require quotes at all. These exchanges between the reader and writer are more intimate in a way; you know all of the information is coming from what is presumably an expert in their field. One such writer is Melissa Preddy, who does a daily blog for the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, a part of the Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix.
“I have relaxed my standards about email interviews a bit – haven't really done any but I would if need be due to time constraints – and I think it is good to say ‘wrote in an email,’” Preddy told me via an email exchange between us.
She does have issue with bloggers that fail to do what insiders call primary-source reporting. That’s where a reporter gains the information on their own rather than through other reporters, sources or materials.
“It seems certain ‘factoids’ get picked up and repeated, rinse and repeat so many times, that they become gospel and no one bothers to check them out. Like ‘agriculture is Michigan's second-largest industry’ (it's not) or ‘it's cheaper to buy fast food than fruits and vegetables.’ (NYT just did a piece attempting to debunk that.) I think many bloggers rely too much on links and the written word of others,” Preddy wrote.
This essay did lead me to talk to one source on the phone – that was Jack Lessenberry, a full-time member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University. He also is WUOM-FM's senior political analyst as well as a writer for many national and regional publications, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, George, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. (I would have talked to him in person because he does live and work by me; but the poor man’s schedule has him too busy to chat…our phone conversation took place in part as he navigated a parking garage.)
What are quotation ethics for today’s digital journalist? Lessenberry made his thoughts plain: “They are no different than those for print, broadcast, radio or television journalists. You don’t steal stuff. You don’t plagiarize. You find the facts and you report them.”
Reporters have one primary job, Lessenberry added. That is to make the significant interesting, and a lot of the interest takes place between quotation marks. No typical Joe on the Street understands the national debt. But if he reads great articles about it in the Wall Street Journal, chances are he walks away better informed that he previous was. And he might have enjoyed the education in the process.
“If democracy is going to work, we need an informed citizenry,” and good journalistic ethics are an important part of that, Lessenberry said.
Sloppier reporting is so much easier to find in the digital age, Lessenberry said. There are more ethical breaches because there are more people (trained and untrained) writing. Having a journalism degree isn’t necessary to have a blog that people follow religiously. You don’t need to have aced your ethics class to get a gig on the Huffington Post. All you have to do is have a few fired up rants on the latest celebrity scandal and you’re an overnight sensation in the reporting world. Or, at least, you have a blog that can be monetized for personal gain. And when you blog to get attention or write to get ads on your site, you’re probably not going to be that concerned about whether what you write is true or right or even has two or more sources.
“We have an obligation (as journalists) to be fair and responsible,” Lessenberry said. “You’ve got to filter out the significant from the trivial. … If aliens came to Earth, they would think we’re all homicidal sex perverts who steal money. Everything is about Jennifer Aniston or the Kardashians. It’s easier and sexier to write about the latest blond woman lost in Aruba than the debate over affordable education. And the missing blond has no impact on my life or the lives of my children.”
The other side of the coin for digital reporting is that everything is under the microscope. If you do make a mistake, then it’s there for the public’s massive consumption. “Everybody hears it, everybody sees it and everybody reads it,” Lessenberry said. “Everything is recorded. … I’m convinced that what happened to Don Imus would have been forgotten if it had happened before everything was recorded and replayed over and over again.”
Good quotes, as is true for good ethics, take time to develop. If you’ve been counting, you’ll notice I talked to pretty much everyone for this essay via phone, chat room, email or Facebook. And that’s how I’ve written for the past six years as a freelance writer. Perhaps this is the way I’ll continue to do it. But I do appreciate the difference between in person conversations and those that that place in other ways. What I do – and how I write it – does indeed matter to me as a writer and to the reader. And that can never get lost in translation.
Karen Dybis is a Detroit-based freelance writer who has blogged for Time magazine, worked the business desk for The Detroit News and jumped on breaking stories for publications including City’s Best, CORP! magazine and Agence France-Presse newswire.