Cap J: ‘I was misquoted!’
Newspapers correct errors promptly and humbly. At least mine does. The trick, though, is there has to actually be a mistake. In the name of accuracy, it must be noted that not all claims of error are true. It’s a funny world journalists cover.
Reporters, with rare exception, are intelligent lay people trained to ask questions of experts and report the answers reliably in stories that other intelligent lay people will take enough interest in to read, hear or view.
No one knows your story like you do. It’s impossible for the journalist to understand your business, life’s work and so on as well as you do and then put it into a nuanced context that captures the essence perfectly for other people who do not understand it, either. This is where journalism makes its most mistakes, and it’s not hard to see why.
Tab A folds first into Tab C, not Tab B as we reported. That would be the gist of most corrections. We run ours on page one, incidentally, so there’s no weaseling around the fact we erred. That also helps me when I score the day’s paper and record the corrections on my handy spreadsheet of a scorecard.
But when it comes to quotes, the whole thing turns on its head. The source almost never remembers exactly what they said. But the reporter recording the source’s words in a notebook and/or with a recording device does.
This also falls squarely into where the journalist excells. The reporter may not understand the details of your expertise, but he or she has by far the better handle on what you actually said.
Still, misquotes do happen. A recording is unlear. A scribbled word is mistaken for another. The reporter didn’t check notes to memory and relied too much on memory when writing the story, typically racing a deadline and frowning editor with his or her own deadlines.
If there’s a question, we correct. It’s that simple.
But there’s another side to the misquote puzzle, which we’ve dealt with twice in the past month, with different reporters and different sources, both with a reason to regret their words after they appeared in print and on the Web.
I won’t go into any detail. I don’t want to embarrass the sources any more than they’ve frankly embarrassed themselves.
Occasionally, a source regrets what they said, or maybe truly doesn’t remember their words as they expressed themselves, or whose words didn’t match what they meant, or they got some flak from their peers and so decided they didn’t really say that after all.
Who knows? We can sympathize. But we’re not mind readers. You speak. We record. We report. It’s a pretty straightforward process.
If a source calls saying they were misquoted, we go to the reporter, check the notes for any ambiguity, discuss it and see if we could possibly have gotten the quote wrong. Sometimes the reporter remembers distinctly and the notes and/or recording are not clear. In that case we publish a correction explaining that. Sometimes the reporter does not remember distinctly but the notes or recording is clear. Depending on the discussion that follows, we may correct or clarify.
And sometimes, as in the past two cases, the reporter’s memory is very clear and the notes are precise. It’s crystal clear that the source said exactly what they later claimed they did not. Oh boy, what then?
In these cases the source, if anything, gets even madder, throws out more claims about context, accusations about sensationalizing and every manner of journalistic sin they can conjure.
We feel for them, to a point. But our One Thing is accuracy. If we are less than certain of our accuracy, we correct. But if the demanded “correction” would render the report inaccurate, then we don’t. Nothing personal, no matter how the source hollers and insinuates about our motives.
It’s rare that this comes up. I can remember three claims of misquote in the past year, not counting a quote with the wrong attribution, which is a different error altogether and which with egg on our face we corrected right away.
Twice in a month, that’s a first for me in 20 years at papers ranging from 3,000 to nearly 100,000 circulation.
There was enough question in one of the three misquote claims that we corrected. I even wrote a column about that incident, as I recall.
These past two, though, in both cases we had them precisely. One was discussed as soon as the reporter got off the phone with the source. It was weird enough that it merited a conversation about the ethics of sanitizing the dumb things public figures say, whether the quote fit the article ,and the various pros and cons of using it. We used it, and the source went so far as to submit anonymous comments claiming those words were not uttered; at least we recognized the IP address as coming from that source in the past with their name attached. Given that the quote came in a phone conversation with the reporter, who else would be in position to say anything?
The other sources’ words were precisely noted in the notes during an interview all about the subject and following the same tone as the quote chosen for the story throughout the whole interview. It also lined up with what others involved in the same thing have told us quite precisely.
In each case, we told the source that we knew their words were correct. Needless to say, neither was exactly pleased. Each, as I recall, then went out of their way to trash the paper for all of our real and imagined sins.
And each indeed said exactly what they later disavowed. Funny that each talked loudly about integrity while, well, displaying none of that quality.
It’s quite the window seat we have on the world.