This section addresses these ethical issues:
- Why should all journalists be concerned, ethically, with accurate quotations?
- Is it ethical to change, modify or “improve” a quote?
- What is the ethical basis for selecting quotations?
- What ethical standards should guide the use of partial quotes?
- How should a quote be supported by explanatory paragraphs?
Proper use of quotations is a matter of being accurate and fair, and not misleading the public about the views of the person quoted. All responsible journalists should care about accurate quotations.
However, getting quotations “right” is not as simple as it may seem. Why not simply provide the full quote, as the person said it? But what is a complete quote? What if the person talks without stopping for an hour? Reporters must select the quotes to use and often “extract” the best quote from a long press conference or interview.
Selection and extraction can be subjective affairs. But bias or unfairness can be reduced by being aware of the danger zones when quoting anyone and by developing a policy for dealing with problems that arise.
The danger zones
“Fixing” quotes: People being quoted will make mistakes in grammar, garble their words, sometimes speak barely recognizably, or say “ah” after every phrase. Should journalists fix such quotes to eliminate imperfections? Some broadcasters routinely edit video and audio quotations. But when do “fixing” and “editing” amount to changing what a person meant, or actually said, and how she said it?
Using partial quotes: Some people speak in a long-winded manner. Or they place unimportant comments between important comments. Should journalists cope with these facts by using parts of what was said, so as to focus on the newsworthy comments? One way to create a partial quote is to use an ellipsis to connect two parts of a long sentence — e.g., “I will go to war … but only if necessary.” But partial quotes are notoriously subject to the accusation of being incomplete or taking someone’s remarks “out of context.” Consider, in the above example, if I only reported a president saying: “I will go to war.”
Quotes and explanatory paragraph(s): Often, reporters combine a newsworthy quote with a succinct and supporting paragraph (or paraphrase) of what the person said. Someone might quote a city mayor as saying, “Not on my life will I let that happen in my town,” and then follow with a paragraph that explains that the mayor was opposing attempts to unionize the town’s police force. Making sure the quote and accompanying paragraph fit together to give a fair and complete idea of what the speaker was saying can be difficult and contentious.
Here are several possible building blocks for a policy on accurate quotations:
- Adopt a conservative approach: Ideally, journalists should prefer “non-partial” and “unfixed” quotes. Therefore, resist changes unless necessary. If some change is thought necessary, seek to make a minimum of changes. This strategy prevents reporters from getting in the habit of playing looser and looser with quotes.
- Accountability for changes: Be ready to provide a good reason for any changes.
- Pick another quote: If a quote needs a lot of editing, consider using another quote or paraphrasing.
Reasons for editing a quote can include:
- Editing for meaning and comprehension: Editing of what was said or changing grammar may be necessary for the listener to understand what was said. But don’t make changes that alter the meaning of the quote or give the audience a different understanding of what was actually said or intended.
- Editing to focus on the news: Editing may be necessary to get the most essential newsworthy comments into a report and to focus public attention on the most important statements.
The essential questions to ask are:
- Is a change really required?
- Why am I making this change?
- Does the change alter the meaning of what was said in any way?
- Am I accurate and fair in the quotes I select and the way I present the quotes?
The main author of this section is Stephen J.A. Ward of the University of British Columbia.
See also the modules on “Interviewing” and “Plagiarism and Attribution.”