Darren Richardson

Jan. 8, 2013

When you say something, does it matter to you if other people hear you correctly?

If you order a cheeseburger with extra onions, for example, but you get one with no onions instead, would you think it didn’t really matter? You might, but if the same restaurant kept botching your order, you’d probably find somewhere else to eat.

By the same token, people quoted in the press like to read an accurate accounting of what they said, and readers deserve to be able to trust the accuracy of what they read. As a senior editor told a colleague of mine at our college newspaper back in the 1980s, you can’t just make things up. Notice that I did not use quotation marks, because I can’t remember the editor’s exact words. But what I wrote summed up his sentiments precisely.

Getting a quote wrong is not exactly just making things up, but depending on the degree of the misquoting, speakers could have good reason to feel reporters are literally putting words in their mouths. And, more importantly, readers might have a good reason to stop reading what you write.

Like so many long-established print media outlets and reliable Internet sources, Allvoices puts a premium on accuracy in reporting quotations. And thanks to search engines, this is much easier to do in the Internet age than ever before.

Search engines are your friends

Suppose President Obama held a news conference and spoke out on proposed gun control legislation. An Allvoices writer might take notes while watching the news conference on television, but that doesn’t mean those notes will be accurate or easy to read when it comes time to write the report.

In cases like this, writers can go to a search engine of their choice and enter terms like “Obama gun control news conference transcript.” That will return links to transcripts from reliable sources, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and CNN. It’s also a good idea to link to the site that verifies your quote, either in the text itself or as a source at the end of the report.

Frequently, transcripts of news conferences featuring prominent individuals other than the president will be available online, too. Just enter the word “transcript” along with other relevant names and keywords. Many television news programs, such as “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press,” also publish transcripts online.

In cases where transcripts are not available, enter the quote or a portion of the quote you think was spoken and see if it matches what you find on reliable sites like those mentioned earlier. If you see multiple sources with a slightly different quote than what you had written, chances are you have it wrong. Unless you are 100 percent certain you have it right and The New York Times has it wrong, you should probably amend what you have to match what the more high-profile site has. But if you are certain and can prove it, by all means stay with your version of the quote, no matter what the other sources have. Just be prepared to prove it.

If you are getting your quotes from video, verify the accuracy of what you intend to report as a quote by reviewing the spoken words at least twice. Why twice? Just in case: an “a” could be mistaken for a “the” on first listen.

The power of paraphrasing

Some writers might scoff at the idea that substituting “a” for “the” matters very much, and, in most instances, it wouldn’t matter at all apart from a handful of readers noticing you’d misquoted someone. But that’s what paraphrasing is for. If you are not absolutely sure of the exact words someone said, you can paraphrase them without losing anything of relevance in the process.

Suppose Obama said the following at his hypothetical news conference on gun control: “It’s time that we get serious about practical gun control legislation that makes sense, makes us all safer and still guarantees Second Amendment rights.”

If you tried to keep up with what the president was saying but missed a word or two, you could either verify the quote online or paraphrase it by writing that the president said it was time to get serious about sensible gun control laws that make us safer while still protecting Second Amendment rights. There were no quotation marks in what you just read, but it was still an accurate accounting of the original quote.

Why does it even matter?

Internet-based citizen journalism is still in its infancy, but if it is to continue to grow in impact and relevance, readers must confident they’re getting accurate information along with the individualized viewpoints that can make this form of reporting so vital and compelling.

In particular, the accuracy of quotes in Select Media reports is something the site takes very seriously. Writers submitting to Select Media should take the time to ensure the accuracy of all quoted material. Getting the quote right could prove just as important, or more so, than whether your cheeseburger has extra onions or none at all.

Additional Allvoices Writers’ Resources reports:

First references, titles and names, Dec. 5, 2012

How to handle excerpts, Nov. 30, 2012

Select Media guidelines help writers maintain high editorial standards, July 25, 2012

Ideas, topics and surfing the beat, May 31, 2012

When citing information from TV, specificity and accuracy are crucial, April 24, 2012

Better tags for better page views, Feb. 12, 2012

5 tips for American Pundit writers, Jan. 20, 2012

Commenting on other reports builds community, leads to additional interest in your work, Dec. 31, 2011

Linking to sources improves reliability of your reports, Nov. 30, 2011

Write better headlines, get more readers for your reports, Nov. 22, 2011