John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Friday, August 21, 2009

May I quote you on that?

Thirty years in the business, you think you’ve seen it all, and then this:

Rebecca Maitland, a freelancer for an edition of the Houston Chronicle, has some quotes from volunteers about the problem of abandoned animals. She sends a form story to an official incorporating those quotes and invites the official to agree to being quoted thus. It’s a fill-in-the-blanks story.

Her editor, Karen Zurawski, has to be prodded to say that sending a story to a source with prefabricated quotations is maybe “not an acceptable practice.”

My Twitter colleague @dougfisher comments only, “Unreal.”

If this is a standard of practice that mainstream newspaper journalism can accept —doing coverage on the cheap, with untrained writers lacking adequate supervision by editors — then just turn out the lights and send everybody home.

10 comments:

  1. This reminds me of a similar practice with letters to the editor.

    An activist group writes letters and then asks the people who volunteer for them to rewrite them in their own hand and then sign them.

    They get identical talking points published in newspapers around the country, mostly without the knowledge of the newspapers so used.

    Now, here's the kicker -- Maitland is a volunteer at the very animal shelter she's reporting on. The quotes she got are from fellow volunteers who didn't want to have their names attached to their comments.

    So maybe she's already familiar with the practice.

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  2. How is providing the quotes and asking people to lend their names to them different from restaging an event or pretending to do something for a news photo?

    It isn't unusual for people to request the newspaper take a photo and for those requesters to assume a staged photo is appropriate.

    Compare and contrast.

    Barbara Phillips Long

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  3. A government official that's willing to do such thing should also turn out the lights and go home.

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  4. Anonymous, no one who sees a picture of someone shaking hands with a pol thinks it's not staged. These quotes are an entirely different matter.

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  5. Patricia the TerseAugust 22, 2009 at 1:03 AM

    Amesty International used to do the same thing: then the letters were to be directed at a government official in the country where someone was alledgedly being held without trial,lawyer, Red Cross, etc. Now they just rant and rail, usually at Western countries when terrorists have been arrested, and ignore the most blatant offenses: Iran comes to mind.

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  6. For better or worse, this is pretty much pro forma for in-house corporate or government agency PR. Which doesn't, of course, make it OK for a newspaper story. But for a lot of people, Maitland likely included, this is how they understand things are done.

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  7. Another one newspaper reporters and editors would never conscience (but many of whom will need to cozy up to very soon, as they transition into PR, corporate, and government writing jobs) is the practice of sending (fax, e-mail, etc.) the interview questions to the subject in advance of the interview. Yes, I kid you not. Get used to it.

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  8. I believe all journalism horror stories. When my paper was on a no-jumps kick, I wrote a Valentine's Day piece on the post office at tiny Valentine, Va. The office doubled as a general store and even had a pot-bellied stove that locals gathered around to chat. My story as submitted was only about 13 column inches but too long to avoid a jump. An editor solved the problem by taking out everything I described in the story that appeared in the accompanying photo. Presto! The stove and many other items were gone from my copy, which shrank to maybe nine unjumped inches. I despaired for journalism, but it turns out my despair was too optimistic. It isn't just that newspapers were accustomed to making money. They were used to earning obscene amounts of money, enough to make oil companies' return on investment seem paltry. I used to think the answer to all of journalism's problems was higher quality. I used to lose sleep because my stories were cut or words were changed, not appreciating that I still had a paycheck. Sometimes the future is worse that we could ever imagine. (I should have been grateful that you can't photograph quotes.)

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  9. I think there have been reporters, mostly of the tabloid variety, who would ask a subject, "Would you say the tornado sounded like a locomotive?" "Yup."

    In the story it becomes, "It sounded like a locomotive," Smith said.

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  10. In my country, many government spokespeople refuse to speak to you on the phone at all. They ask you to email the question to them first. Then they'll either ask you to call them, or mail you a response.

    Or what they do is get their secretary to tell you "He's in a meeting, email him the questions and he'll get back to you." Then they tell you they need a week to answer your questions.

    When you get the answers, it's pulled off a website, or it's something obscure like "We are investigating this" or "We observe the highest standards". It's complete claptrap.

    Seems spokespeople these days are just there to deflect attention from the company/government.

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