Journalistic Quotation License

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Mark Liberman at Language Log wrote an interesting post a few weeks ago on journalistic quotation practices. He gives several examples of the use of direct quotation marks, which most readers assume means they're reading the person's exact words, when in reality the author of the piece has significantly altered what the person being quoted had said. Liberman writes:

These are not isolated errors. They're representative of the normal practice of journalism. The superficial issue is that journalists -- as a culture -- don't act as if they care whether quotes are accurate. The deeper issue, in my opinion, is the role that such quotes play in journalistic rhetoric. They're usually not treated as <i>data</i>, facts about the world in need of explanation, but rather as illustrations or expressions of the writer's opinions and conclusions, put into someone else's mouth because the rhetorical norms of the profession require it.

Often, such quotes are made to order by getting sources to answer leading questions, over and over again, and ignoring all of the answers that don't fit the framework that the writer has in mind. In other cases, bits and pieces of quotation are taken out of context and strung together in order to create a meaning that suits the writer's intent (which may or may not have been the speaker's intent).

I have direct experience being treated in exactly that way when interviewed for a news story by someone who had a particular point she was trying to get me to confirm. She took me out of context, ignored the main emphasis of what I was saying, and used a minor concession I was willing to make as if it was my primary concern. After a discussion of a presentation of the value of waiting until marriage for sex, the reporter asked me a number of questions, most of them leading, and I wasn't biting on most of them. But then she asked me if I thought the discussion might have discouraged some from considering Christianity's broader claims, and I said I thought that might happen but that some issues are worth discussing even if most people would be turned off. She quoted me very plainly and simply as saying that I thought the discussion would turn people off to Christianity. That strikes me as deliberate misquotation and in fact pretending I was saying something that I wasn't saying. I was her mouthpiece.

Even ignoring political bias complaints about mainstream news outlets in the U.S., it's a bit arrogant and completely out of step with the news reality to hear people like Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather saying that they aren't biased but simply report the news. There's no chance that any major news outlet isn't at least to some degree coloring their reports with what they hope to get across, although I imagine some of that comes from less deliberate manipulation than what I experienced. This can easily happen, and I'm sure it does, from journalists of any political stripe. It's not a left or right thing. But once you factor in the fact that most of the people working in the major news outlets indicate political preferences that are considerably to the left on average when compared with how the general poplulace describes themselves, it's a no-brainer why so many people think the mainstream media are biased to the left. That's why I can't help but laugh when I hear so many people on the left acting as if the media is monolithically biased to the right, as if they're trying to help the current president whom the majority of journalists detest so much. But this is a problem that's not on any political side. Immoral reporting is immoral reporting.

1 Comments

You are correct that this problem is not a left or right thing, but part of the fallen human condition. The desire to be important, to have something significant to say, leads all of us down paths we might, if we considered the import, not walk. But many give in to advance their positions, points, careers, or some other agenda.

It is not new, as Diogenes of Sinope argued 2400 years ago. Honesty appears to be the first thing to go when ego meets its challenges.

That is why I think it would have been so utterly unique to have been able to listen to Jesus day in and day out like the his disciples were able to do over the course of three years. To spend that amount of time with an individual who was completely truthful would have been a revelation in itself and at the same time a fearful burden. I imagine the quiet asides Jesus would make from time to time were mind boggling. Oh, to have been a fly on that journey...

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