Ethics Questions: To Quote the Person or the Statement?

A recent post on Margaret Sullivan’s Public Editor blog for The New York Times talked about how sometimes people are quoted through a statement, instead of quoting words they actually spoke. A reader who wrote to the Times wanted to “be able to distinguish between ‘what people say’ with ‘sayings people buy,'” according to the post.

“It’s an interesting question in an era in which the subjects of news stories try, in all sorts of ways, to control the message,” writes Sullivan. This is especially true when a subject is using a PR firm to control how they are being perceived.

A journalist’s job is to seek and report the truth to their audience, but when the subject of your story is controlling the way you get information, the truth you report may not really be the truth, or at least not all of it. So, like this reader wants, letting your audience know what kind of information you are giving them should be a consideration.

This is a problem journalists face often. High profile subjects want to control to coverage around them, and even people who are less used to dealing with the media may be nervous about being quoted. The job of the journalist is to be fair and accurate, but since loyalty goes to the reader and the truth of the story, sometimes these principles come in conflict with the demands a source is making.

Is it ever acceptable to allow a source to have some control over how they are presented?

The reader who wrote to the Times compared its coverage of an event with that of the Associated Press. AP explicitly said that the statement, also quoted by the Times, came from  a PR firm.

Philip B. Corbett, standards editor of The Times, responded about their use of the statement, writing, “More broadly, we don’t have a hard and fast rule, but I agree that we should provide readers whatever information or context might help them best understand someone’s remarks.”

It’s most important that readers understand the context of a quote to understand the bigger picture of the story. Especially when a story is big news, so clarifying that the quote is coming from a prepared statement never hurts.

Is it better to quote a prepared statement when that is all the comment you can get from the subject of a story? It may be better than nothing, but at least make it clear for your readers and let them decide how valid they think it to be.

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3 thoughts on “Ethics Questions: To Quote the Person or the Statement?

  1. Bill Mitchell says:

    Good issue, Jess. More context almost always better than less. As a reader, I’d very much appreciate knowing whether someone actually said something or if a statement were provided on their behalf by a spokesperson. In cases where the subject of coverage is actually doing the talking, I appreciate knowing whether it was in an interview, in a phone call, by email or by whatever other means.

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  2. Audrey Adam says:

    Very good topic Jess. It also make me think of the issue of email interviews. They are not as spontaneous and the interviewee has time to think of the answer he or she wants to provide. The more transparent, the better. I think that in the cases you mentionned and the latter, it is important to let the audience know how the quotes were provided.

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  3. ksmajed says:

    I definitely thing some kind of statement is better than nothing if it is absolutely crucial to your story.

    I’ve wondered this as well, because whether it be celebrity news or politics or random book authors – everyone wants to control their image in the news. Everyone wants to make sure they look as good as possible, and by giving a prepared statement – they can keep everything in check. I think a statement is better than nothing, if it is absolutely crucial, but then maybe (like you said) it’s best to give the readers all the facts of the situation.

    The more information you can provide, the better. It’s my belief that the more information you provide, the more trustworthy you come off as a reporter. Simply because you are trying your best to cover your bases, and ensure that they are getting the story from every possible aspect. If all you can get out of someone is a statement, there might even be a reason behind that – for example, when the whole Billy Cosby case was in the early stages of unfolding. By addressing that his statements were statements curated from his PR person, etc. it made it appear kind of shady.

    The more information the better, if it helps the audience trust you more as a news source then I think its better to provide that information.

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