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Why shouldn't journalists run quotes by sources?

  • Article by: BOB LEWIS
  • September 26, 2012 - 7:00 PM

Counterpoint

A recent Mitt Romney campaign ad snipped sentences from a lengthy Obama explanation, completely changing its meaning (the notorious "You didn't build that" ad that made it appear Obama was talking about entrepreneurs and their businesses, rather than the infrastructure and social milieu their businesses rely on).

Not to be outdone, the Obama campaign has repeated Romney's incautious "I like to fire people" quote over and over again, even though Romney was talking about the advantages of competition, not the experience of terminating employees.

By the standards of Dick Polman's recent commentary ("These days, it's all the news that sources say is fit to print," Sept. 25), both campaigns engaged in ethical journalism. They quoted their sources accurately, and allowed none of the vetting that would have meant they were submitting to censorship.

Except it isn't that simple.

First things first: I'm not much of a journalist, as these things go. In my Clark Kent guise, I'm a mild-mannered management consultant; wearing my cape and spandex, I write for the business and information technology trade press.

Still, I often interview sources, many of whom turn me down. A common reason is their experience -- corporate or personal -- with journalists who either misquoted them or who took quotes out of context in ways that distorted the interviewee's meaning.

Journalists, that is, sometimes present quotes that are, while word-for-word accurate, used to mislead readers, not to inform them.

Understand, what I do isn't investigative journalism. One of my more inquisitorial questions might be as inflammatory as, "Does your IT organization function more like a supplier with internal customers, or as a business partner that collaborates as an equal?" (If you don't care, you're in the majority. Don't worry about it.)

And it's hard to get business executives to go on the record about even something this innocuous. Unless, that is, I offer them one of two apparently Faustian bargains. One is to interview the executive off the record, and then, at the end of the interview, ask for quotable quotes that make points consistent with the individual's intended meaning.

I get the quote, read it back, ask if I got it right, and we're good to go.

But even with all of that, were I untrustworthy I might still use their exact words in a misleading way, and so many executives still make vetting their quotes in their print context a condition of use.

And so I stray over Polman's ethical line: I offer a preread. If I got the executive's meaning wrong, he or she can explain what would be more accurate.

There have also been a few occasions when a source explained, apologetically, that going on the record with something could get them into trouble, potentially costing them their job or landing them in court. When this concern has been raised, I've allowed these individuals to (gasp!) change their minds and be quoted off the record instead. Apparently, I should be ashamed of myself.

In the 16 years I've been writing and publishing, it never once occurred to me that working with sources to make sure my articles are honest and informative might constitute a breach of professional ethics, or that letting someone change their mind might constitute a moral failure.

Now that I know, I'm left with the nagging sense that my lack of professionalism isn't the problem. It's a journalistic code of ethics that prizes accurate quotes more than accurate meaning.

And why should you believe someone as biased as Polman anyway -- a journalist who said, "Romney is a tin-eared fathead?"

Yes, he wrote those exact words. Only, what he really said was: "no Romney aide has ever said, 'My candidate is a tin-eared fathead.' "

It's easy to get the words right and the meaning wrong. All it takes is a bit of creative editing and juxtaposition.

No, most journalists aren't this blatant. But given a choice between reporting a misleading but attention-getting, out-of-context quote on the one hand, and an explanation that's duller but more informative on the other, which do you think most modern journalists would choose?

Me, too.

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Bob Lewis, of Eden Prairie, is a management consultant.

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