Sunday, 13 July 2008

Off the record.

Recently, when reading articles, both on blogs and in newspapers, online or off, I've started to get annoyed about the manner in which quotations and interviews are dealt with.

Using quotations is a vital part of reporting, since it provides a factual and accountable basis for the story being reported, ensuring that it is grounded in something more than rumour and hearsay. Without some sort of an official quote or statement, there would be no way of distinguishing a reputable, investigated, story, from something potentially biased, or simply fictional.

However, the presence of quotations alone, is not enough to guarantee reliability of message or truthfulness of reporting. More and more, it seems that people are concerned about their words being taken out of context, twisted, or otherwise used to make a point other than that which they were trying to make. Whether or not this is something interviewees genuinely need to be afraid of, it seems to me that the way in which quotations are used in articles could be a factor in this fear.

Often quotes are scattered throughout a piece, with no sense of coherence or thread. There is no indication of the order of the statements, and in the case of an interview, often no indication of the question asked. Sometimes single words are used as quotes, so-and-so was "disappointed" with the reaction, or "frustrated" about the process. These single word quotes may be useful to back up a point as valid, but they really offer no guarantee of reliability without an idea of the original context of the word.

As an example (and the example that prompted me to want to write this post), take this article on the f-word about their reaction to recent changes in the mayoral offices. The f-word post in this instance is fine - there is a link to the source, and the quote is long, accurate and contextual. The Evening Standard piece to which they link, however, presents more problems.

Firstly, it follows the pattern I mentioned earlier, with quotes from at least two sources scattered around, often short, even single words. There is no indication as to whether the quotes were gained from a press conference, an interview, or simply in the normal business of the London Assembly. Finally, the headline contains a quote which doesn't appear in the article and doesn't appear to be attributed to anyone.

I'm not an expert on journalism or any of the processes involved in producing an article of this kind, but as a reader I have encountered situations more and more frequently where I would like to read the original transcripts of press conferences or interviews in order to gauge for myself whether or not I feel the reporting is accurate and faithful. I don't know the law surrounding ownership of transcripts, and accept that for print publications it might be more difficult, but on the internet I would really and genuinely like to see at least a link to the original source of a quote in full wherever possible.

I feel personally that this would make me feel more comfortable that the journalist and the publication were confident that they were not misrepresenting the people they were quoting, and would allow me to argue more efficiently if I wanted to further investigate or disagree with the interpretation presented by an article.

Anyone with any more experience (*ahem* Hannah *ahem*), or just their own opinion, want to comment on any of that?

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