Journalist Defends Misquoting Her Sources

I'm running this quote from syndicated newspaper columnist Penelope Trunk to make my wife -- and every other journalist I know -- cringe:

As a journalist I hear all the time from people in business that they are misquoted. And you know what? People need to get over that, and I'm going to tell you why. ...

If you do an interview with a journalist, don't expect the journalist to be there to tell your story. The journalist gets paid to tell her own stories which you might or might not be a part of. And journalists, don't be so arrogant to think you are not "one of those" who misquotes everyone. Because that is to say that your story is the right story. But it's not. We each have a story. And whether or not someone actually said what you said they said, they will probably still feel misquoted.

Trunk doesn't appear to have a formal journalism background -- her bio and a puff-piece Wikipedia entry reveal that she's a former dot-com exec and pro beach volleyball player who became a successful pundit on career-related subjects.

I'm not clear on how the existence of subjective truth makes it OK to put quote marks around something an interview subject did not say. The best way a reporter can win someone's confidence is to take the time to quote the person accurately, even if it means a follow-up call just to recheck the quotes. I developed a much stronger appreciation for this fact when I switched from being an interviewer to an interviewee.


At least she's honest, in a twisted way.

The very best journalists know only to "interview" sources who will say what the journalist wants as a quote, for their (the journalist's) story.

Hi, Seth. In the piece I wrote I do not say that it's okay to put quote marks around somethign someone did not say. Luckily, you did not interview me -- I wrote my own piece -- so there is no question of who was misquoted :)


I agree that it is unethical to ever deliberately misquote someone. All the same, I think it must be common to do some mild editing of the words that people actually speak.

Just curious, but have you ever interviewed someone for an hour and then transcribed the interview? It is an amazingly educational experience. One thing you learn is that verbal communication often fails to resolve to sentences. There are a lot of "ahs" and "oohs" and pauses. There is also, to a very large extent, partial fragments of ideas. Please consider this informal interview I did with Martha Mendenhall about a theater production she did in the town where I live. Nearly all of the sentences are, in a sense, imposed by me on her spoken words. No one doubts that Mendenhall has a lot of brilliant things to say. And she writes well. But verbal communication is different than written communication.

People I interview will often start a sentence and begin to follow its idea, then pause, begin again, pursue another idea, similar to the first, but using slightly different words to alter the connotation, then pause, begin again, begin perhaps a 4th time or a 5th or even a 6th. Words are spoken but not sentences. When I transcribe these 6 sentence fragments they need to become a single sentence.

When I began my current project (interviewing all the principals of the Wunderkammer) I thought that I would interview them and then put the raw, unedited transcription up on the web. It turned out this is impossible. First of all, the smartest people in the world sound like raving idiots when you write down exactly what they say and publish the transcript. Secondly, a suprising amount of information gets lost when you can't see the body language and you can't hear the pauses. Thirdly, it would bore the reader to death if I faithfully recreated every "uh", "um" and "ah".

The transcriptions have to be edited.

I don't believe I've ever misquoted someone, but I am (now) tolerant of those who insist that most published quotes are a little bit different from what people actually say.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but a whole lot less obliging when there's a "story" to sell....sorry I misspoke myself...."tell".


Penelope, I assume you were addressing Rogers, not me.

But I still think you're wrong and worse.

The sleaziest journalist I personally know operates by taking words out of context or mischaracterizing them. When called on this tactic, he'll say the quote is accurate word-for-word, and the rest is just partisan disagreement. Glurge like "We each have our own truth" simply becomes an excuse for fabrication of meaning.

Journalism 101 sez, somewhere in the front of the first book, that ya gotta respect the sanctity of the quotation mark. That sed, people rarely speak as coherently as they print and sometimes needed subtext is lost in translation. Isn't it important for both sides of an important interview to put the entire thing on tape with copies or full transcripts available to protect both sides? As a blogger Spud occasionally avails himself of the practice of quoting folk out of context and deliberately misconstruing their positions in order to make a point, score irony points, highlight an underlying hypocrisy or, sometimes, simply to crack wise. Hollywood, Spud notes, seems to do this kind of thing a lot. You can always tell the stinker movies cos they generally have these ridiculous one or two word reviews based on out of context quotes. A reviewer could write "the movie compelled me to want to gouge my eyes with knitting needles" and the review would simply say X sez the movie is "Compelling". Beyond that Spud would note that the line And whether or not someone actually said what you said they said, they will probably still feel misquoted. is worrisome. What they feel is irrelevant to whether or not a quote was accurate or not. If you stop respcting the sanctity of the quotation mark you begin to enter Truthiness territory which, if yer not careful leads directly to Jayson Blairland, which oddly enuff is where Karl Rove keeps a vacation home. But Spud is digress ...suffice it to say that there is a fine line between poetic licence and journalistic standards and that line should never be crossed or blurred. That it is, all too often, is one of those sad but true things.

Be Well.

Story to sell? Story to tell? Good 'un, Stormy!
Art and commerce are forever locked in an uneasy marriage of neccessity and it's always good to note this.

Be Well.

As one of the dwindling masses who still consume news from mainstream media, I depend on journalists to present people's statements and views accurately, not to take their words out of context or to put words in their mouths. Penelope may think she's only speaking the pragmatic truth, the reality of the situation, and that all journalists do this. But she's flat wrong to suggest it's right. Ideally, if you got a string of sentence frags that add up to a decent direct quote, you'd revisit that part of the interview during it or afterwards and ask the interviewee, is this what you intend to say, or you'd paraphrase the interviewee -- accurately -- if you can't revisit the statement because of deadline pressure or whatever. Maybe bloggers, pundits, columnists and others think they can and do operate by different, less stringent rules. I guess that is the case, but it's a damn shame.

"If you stop respcting the sanctity of the quotation mark you begin to enter Truthiness territory which, if yer not careful leads directly to Jayson Blairland"

You can make slippery-slope arguments out of the core concerns of any white color profession, which is exactly why those professions tend to require years of study and often have an established body of semi-official ethics. Doctors can not do surgery in a germ free environent but we expect them to take very strong measures to minimize a patients exposure to germs. Computer programmers have to balance the speed of coding with the speed of code execution. Defense lawyers need to be passionate advocates for their clients yet never violate any guideline of the court, especially regarding perjury. Journalists must rewrite the jumble of words that people actually speak so that legitimate sentences are printed, yet the reconstructed sentences should stay close to the speaker's intent.

You can make slippery slope arguments against any of these professional concerns, but no working professional can actually take any of these legitimate concerns to an absolute extreme. Doctors can't create surgery rooms that are wholly germ free since their own bodies radiate germs all during a surgery. Computer programmers can't write perfect code since costs and time considerations interfere.

As to quotes that you see in a newspaper, just ask yourself if you are reading a gramatically correct sentence. If you are, then it's likely that the journalist reworded what the person actually said. Only trained spokespeople actually speak in grammatically correct sentences. Everyone else speaks in a verbal dialect that is distinct from written communication.

As an issue, this is a canard.

A good journalist, and particularly a columnist or feature writer, never hears from people that they have been misquoted. In fact, just the opposite is true.

As to "Gotcha" quotes -- how often do you really see that come up?

Leave bloggers off the list, Concerned. Lots of us--as shining examples, Digby and Greenwald and Somersby--write daily essays about what various journalists have screwed up. And we attach corrections to the article itself when we get things wrong, not issue a fine-print correction on an inside page sometime later, maybe.

As far as pundits and columnists, do they go by any journalistic rules, however unstringent?

Please provide a list of the newspapers that her column is syndicated to so that we can begin a campaign boycotting those papers until they drop this unethical woman!

Trunk, and anyone else who does the job for more than a week, knows perfectly well that despite uhs, ums, and fractured structure of the average speaker's speech, it's easy enough to understand what the subject of the interview is trying to say, and to represent that honestly. Journalists can do their jobs perfectly well while not betraying the subject of an interview, and the profession of journalism, to shade it one way or another by lying about what was said. When you put quotes around what you're saying your subject said, or represent their position without them, you most definitely are "there to tell [their] story."

The real question is why journalists think they and their opinions have any place in a news story in the first place. It's literally the first thing they teach you: you're not the story. Remove yourself, your opinions, your biases, your experiences, and listen to the subject. Subjugate yourself for a little while to the discipline of being a reporter and do your job, which has nothing to do with hipping the rest of us to your wisdom. You're a reporter, not an expert, anyone's moral authority, or even a particularly interesting person, or you'd be the one being interviewed. We don't want your take on it, we want the news.

There's no excuse for this behavior, despite the many monomaniacal ninnies working in journalism today. How charming of Penelope to drop in just long enough to insult, but not long enough to explain. But hey - it's not about you, it's about her, don't you idiots get that?

Excellent post Uncle Mikey. Wish I'd said it "myself".


Very kind of you

Dear Penelope Trunk:

Here's the opening lines from the piece referenced, above, in its entirety:

"As a journalist I hear all the time from people in business that they are misquoted. And you know what? People need to get over that, and I'm going to tell you why."

Maybe the writer of the piece to which you're reacting was "not clear on how the existence of subjective truth makes it OK to put quote marks around something an interview subject did not say," but you clearly are.

Own it. Live with it. "Deal."

Sincerely, er, "verily,"

Russ Kuykendall

As a journalist who breaks my tail to quote people accurately, and in context, reading this makes me sick to my stomach. I have been thanked on many occasions by sources for quoting them accurately. "I sounded like me," one source told me recently. I take pride in those comments, because I know that quoting people accurately -- on both sides of the issue -- strengthens any piece I am writing and lends credibility to my opinions when I express them in my columns.

I guess you spent too much time cooking your brain in the sun and snorting beach sand, because you obviously missed the fact that the stories aren't about you, Penelope. Get over yourself and do all of us a favor and get the hell out of the business. We don't need people like you passing yourselves off as journalists.

I operate a niche Web site that publishes a rather widely distributed news feed (a blog, which Google News, Moreover, and others index). I function mostly as editor, but I have written for it and have done interviews, and I have called sources for quotes. I have no formal journalism training. I've read just about everything out there on the subject though.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says, "Readers have a right to assume that _every word_ between quotation marks is what the speaker or writer said. The Times does not 'clean up' quotations." Then they tell you to rephrase without quotation marks if the guy does something like use a singular verb with a plural object or whatever.

In my experience, I find it hard to believe that any newspaper could quote anything that is a full sentence or longer without "cleaning up." I tape every single interview I do, and people just don't talk that cleanly. _Every_ sentence has a flub or two in it. You don't notice it in regular conversation, but when you listen to a tape, the interview subject (and you) are making mistakes, changing the train of thought midsentence, inserting noise words like "uh," and whatever.

The Times manual also talks about how detailed a reporter's notes should be. Notes? They're allowing quotes from written notes? I can pretty much guarantee that even if a reporter takes shorthand, he is unconsciously editing out some of these verbal mistakes. It would be educational for such reporters to tape something as they do shorthand, and then compare it later.

At any rate, my policy is to rewrite and correct quotes to what I honestly feel the person meant to say. This usually involves very minor grammatical corrections and the like. I think that is more "true" than reporting precisely what is said, or adding "distance" by paraphrasing.

In many cases I do let the interview subject review the text before putting it online, but I don't feel that is necessary or even a good idea in every instance.

Amazing story. Another good read..Thanks!

Oh -- get over yourselves!!

Journalists take liberties with the "facts" and "misquote" all the time. An intelligent reader will believe half of what they read and cross/check the remaining.

"Me thinks thou doth protest -- tooooo much!"

MissInWi's pal

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