Quote Approval

Our platonic media guardians worry about the increasingly common practice of giving sources “quote approval”.  At the NYT’s public editor explains,

“Some parts of the practice, I believe, do fall into a black-and-white realm. The idea that a reporter must send a written version of a quotation to a source or his press representation for approval or tweaking is the extreme version of the “quote approval” practice and it ought to be banned in a written rule.”

This is nonsense.  There’s a simple reason that most sources (including me) ask for quote approval: we don’t trust reporters to avoid making a hash out of our comments, pulling quotes selectively to fit a pre-existing narrative, and consequently turning the source into the reporter’s sock puppet.  It’s a no brainer that anyone who has to regularly deal with the press should try to get quote approval. You’ll succeed with some reporters – generally the better ones, in my experience. If you fail to get quote approval, you should remember to think three times before saying anything, including your name.

Why?  Well, most reporters who call me have a particular thing they’d like me to say.  Sometimes they’ve told me what that thing is: I can then proceed to either say it or not.  Other times they ask a ton of questions, but it’s quite obvious that it’s all just filler time until I can manage to produce the right words in response to the right stimuli. (Foolishly, when I began my career, I foolishly thought that these conversations were a preface to the real question that they were going to ask!)  Often reporters will pastiche quotes from different parts of the interview to create a comment which bears no relationship to what you think.  Basically: reporters aren’t writing the first draft of an objective narrative (“history”): they have already written that narrative, and your role is to be the footnotes locking it all down.  Don’t be a sucker.  Ensure that your name is attached to things you actually think.

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19 Responses

  1. That’s a little harsh.

    In my experience, reporters are just trying to get the story straight. There are usually two parts to the conversation. The first part, which is usually lengthy, is where the reporter is trying to discover new information and understand the information that’s out there. The conversation is a lot like teaching, which is probably why the reporter is calling you in the first place. You are an expert in the field, and they write for a general audience. If you are really uncomfortable speaking on the record, then you can ask to speak on background or not-for-attribution.

    The second part of the conversation is fishing for quotes. It’s appropriate to be careful with your words, and to speak more slowly and clearly. Even better, you can figure out beforehand what you want to say — why is the issue important? What should readers remember?

    Of course, it helps to be selective in which reporters you talk to. If I’m talking to a reporter I don’t know, I’ll be more careful with my words, decline the interview, or just refer them to someone else.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    I dunno, maybe it’s not so harsh. Back when I first lived in Manhattan after college, I called the NYT to alert them to some guys with jackhammers breaking up some sidewalk on Madison Avenue that had been designed by Alexander Calder. They hadn’t known about it, and got right on it. They called me for an interview, and I told them how delightful it was to be walking down the street and hit Calder’s wonderfully-pattered patch, how even if you’d been looking at the ground while walking, it brightened your mood, and how it was disconcerting to see a work by a famous artist that added so much to urban life being destroyed. (Actually, the Times learned that it was being restored, though this was more than 30 years ago, so I have no idea if it’s still there: between 78th and 79th, west side of Madison. To see the story and a photo of Calder’s work, search NYT archive for “Calder Sidewalk Being Restored”, 1979/09/17, but digital subscription is required.) The upshot: in the story, which wouldn’t have even been in the Times if not for me, they quoted me at the very end: “‘It breaks up the scenery,’ said one Manhattan resident, Andrew Sutter.”

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    PS: just checked Google Earth and it seems the sidewalk is still there, though the neighborhood looks far more retail, and the sidewalk itself less sparkling, than I remember them. I guess that’s the law of entropy.

  4. Brett Bellmore says:

    No, I can’t agree with quote approval. Sometimes a source will genuinely say something they regret having said, but they did say it. Rather, both parties to the interview should retain recordings of it, to serve as a check on the others’ dishonesty.

    Of course, a lot of journalists will refuse this condition, too, which will tell you that you shouldn’t trust them.

  5. Mac Day says:

    Dave makes an excellent point in this piece. Considering how often the wool gets pulled over the eyes of all these cable TV news shows these days, it’s refreshing to see that at least some reporters are still making sure their reporting is solid. Which is way more than can be said for Wells Fargo in terms of their ability to check their work: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2012/09/12/wells-fargo-forecloses-wrong-house/

  6. Dave Hoffman says:


    I agree that some reporters are trying to get the story straight. But not all are – rather, they are often trying to fit a narrative. (It’s quite different when I’m asked to comment on an off-the-presses court decision.)

  7. Joe says:

    It’s a good idea to get quote approval & you can only go “on the record” if it is provided. It is not mandatory for the reporters to obtain it, especially when the source actually DID say something, but wants to for whatever reason now wants to deny it. But, the media also shouldn’t abuse the privilege — as a norm, it is perfectly legitimate, especially if the person’s honesty is not really at issue.

  8. AF says:

    Professor Hoffman: I think the situation is different for people such as yourself who are quoted as experts or commentators on the news, and people such as politicians whose quotes are themselves news. Quote approval may make sense for the former, but not the latter.

  9. Shag from Brookline says:

    Even when a quote is accurate, consider this from Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland”:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”

    Recall Richard Nixon to compare with R-MONEY’s inelegance on his 47%. No apology.

  10. Brett Bellmore says:

    Recall Richard Nixon’s tapes to compare with the strategically located two minute gap in the media’s “complete” recording of Romney on the 47%. It’s beginning to look like it’s not just Media Matters directly working for the Obama administration.

  11. Shag from Brookline says:

    Brett’s efforts to make lemonade are a tad sour. Perhaps R-MONEY or his $50K luncheon guests have a recording of the let them eat cake lunch talk that they might release with the not quite 2 minutes, unless, of course, that might be even more embarrassing.

    As for the Nixon comparison, is Brett suggesting that the not quite 2 minutes were erased, intentionally or by accident, and by whom? Let’s wait for the proof. But the Nixon situation gap had to do with critical context, involving a whole series of tapes. Can Brett, with his imagination suggest what gem of wisdom, in context, might have been contained in the not quite 2 missing minutes on China? Might Mitt have condemned Nixon for his China policy? Stayed tunes as Brett looks for some sugar, perhaps from R-MONEY’s sugar daddies.

  12. Brett Bellmore says:

    What, isn’t it bad enough, from a journalistic standpoint, that they had the nerve to describe a tape with a conspicuous gap in it right in mid-sentence in the controversial part as a “complete” recording? Isn’t that kind of like describing the product of Photoshopping as “uncropped”? A Reader’s Digest novel as “unexpurgated”?

    And I’ll grant you, there’s no reason to suppose there’s anything in the 2 minute gap to make Romney look good… Except for the fact that the tape was recorded covertly by a political foe, and that Romney has demanded that they release the whole thing. But, aside from that, maybe they just cut out something particularly embarrassing to Romney, and lied about it being complete to shield Romney’s reputation…

    Sorry, I’m from the generation who grew up on the back page of Mad Magazine. Gaps generated by foes of the people recorded are inherently suspect. Use of ellipsis tells me to suspend all trust. Tell me a tape is complete when there’s a gap in it? I know you’re up to no good.

    Release the whole damn tape, or don’t expect me to believe you’re being honest.

  13. Unfortunately, quote approval does not prevent journalists from “pulling quotes selectively to fit a pre-existing narrative, and consequently turning the source into the reporter’s sock puppet.” They’re still plugging your comments into a predetermined narrative in 95% of stories, and just because you’re quoted accurately doesn’t mean the context the quote is used in doesn’t fit that description. It’s not like they’re going to let you approve the entire story (certainly the big-leaguers like the Times, etc..) If you don’t want to be used that way, don’t talk to the press.

    In any event, IMO quoted sources are much overused by journalists too lazy to do their own documentary research. The practice lends itself to pandering to sources for “access” because editors won’t print certain stories if they can’t “get a quote” from those involved, even if their views are readily available through public comments, written materials, or other public sources.

    Sometimes interviews are the only way to get certain types of information, and then it’s appropriate. More often, though, reporters know what they want to write and call you to “get a quote” to fill in their predetermined narrative, and nowhere is that more true than in political campaigns. The journalistic model of “balance,” “quoting both sides,” etc. is tailor-made for that kind of manipulation, and in my experience is much more the rule than the exception.

    BTW, if anything probative is missing from the recent Romney video, it can’t be much worse than the selective quotations of “you didn’t build that” from Obama’s comments this summer. Both sides play that game.

  14. Brett Bellmore says:

    Yeah, they do. Not necessarily with criminally obtained footage, but they do.

    I’m just saying, don’t complain when the other side does it, and expect it to pass when your side does. In the context, the presumption must be this was a hostile edit, not an accident.

    And the next time you’re interviewed, have a recorder out and running. If the reporter objects, you know he was planning on screwing you.

  15. Shag from Brookline says:

    I am reserving Brett’s mea culpa:

    “Sorry, I’m from the generation who grew up on the back page of Mad Magazine.”

    for further commentary on Brett’s comments at this and other blogs, as it has opened the door to a mind that perhaps skipped over Playboy.

    Perhaps Brett may be soothed over Mitt’s missteps by listening to Randy Newman’s “I’m Dreaming” as the “R-MONEY/R-AYN 2012” campaign “progresses” and he searches for the missing less than 2 minutes, where perhaps Mitt says he was joking about the 47%.

  16. Brett Bellmore says:

    The “we’re assured are less than two minutes” by the people who earlier assured us the tape was complete. If they’ll lie about the latter, why believe the former?

    It’s a strict rule, you ought to adopt it, too: Edits by hostiles must be assumed to be hostile edits. If somebody won’t show you the pre-edit, complete recording, you have to assume it hurts their case. That includes edits by your own side of the other side’s words.

    What I think is interesting, Shag, is the lack of context here. The context being, what does Obama say to big donors when HE thinks he’s not being recorded?

    Oh, but we don’t know, because that’s something the media have no interest in finding out. Even when they have open mike accidents and tapes, they embargo them. If the Obama/Khalidi recording were a Romney/Khalidi recording, we’d know what was on it. We’d be sick of hearing it by now.

    Yeah, reporters have a “narrative” they force everything into. And it’s not a remotely non-partisan narrative, either.

  17. Shag from Brookline says:

    Brett, our oracle without a follicle, retorts:

    “What I think is interesting, Shag, is the lack of context here. The context being, what does Obama say to big donors when HE thinks he’s not being recorded?”

    So our oracle without a follicle opines that context in deciphering what Mitt says requires what Obama says to big donors that is not disclosed. Perhaps this should be expanded to conversations – pillow talk – between spouses of the candidates, or even Bishop Mitt’s unreported preaching/proselytizing.

    This is a stretch even for Brett, but I won’t lose any hair over it.

    Also, Brett accuses hostiles of editing the tapes but fails to provide proof. Perhaps he knows the “R-MONEY/R-AYN 2012” position on the missing not quite 2 minutes. MAD magazine [is it still published?] could hold a contest on what was omitted, with the winner getting a one year subscription to MAD and second place a two year subscription to MAD. As for me, I go by the MA political creed: “Don’t get MAD, get even.”

  18. Joe says:

    The last link is to some 2003 event. Getting a bit closer to as relevant as a presidential candidate running a few months back. Brett has a “narrative” too in which he “forces” things too. See, e.g., his use of the KKK for affirmative action, gun regulation and so forth.

    BTW, MAD is still published.

  19. Shag from Brookline says:

    Recent events suggest my new bumper sticker:

    “R-MONEY/R-AYN 2012:
    In Galt We Trust”


    “R-MONEY/R-AYN 2012:
    In GO(L)D We Trust”