Have journalists ever been known to ‘tweak’ their quotes? Is the Pope Catholic? It has always been the tradition (in British publications much more than, say, American ones it has to be said) to ‘tidy up’ the quotes. You take out the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘you knows’ to present the interviewee’s statements more cogently. Result: more readable article and (usually) happy subject who sees the published piece and is impressed with his/her own articulacy. Tabloid hacks of course have gone a lot further – many an invented celebrity ‘friend’ gets quoted, and sometimes, under pressure, completely fabricated quotes are put in named individuals’ mouths. Of course it’s not defensible, but at least most people know the purpose of tabloids is mainly for entertainment, and take them with a pinch of salt.
It’s a bit different though when serious-minded papers – those that would once have been called ‘broadsheets’ whatever their current print format – appear to be playing fast and loose with the truth. There has been a row this week (or possibly even a ‘storm of protest’) at Independent columnist and interviewer Johann Hari’s admission that some of the quotes in his long-form interview pieces weren’t actually said to him. It seems Mr Hari wasn’t always satisfied with the way his interviewees expressed their thoughts, so would take quotes from earlier sources and pretend they were spoken to him directly – sometimes even putting in colourful flourishes such as ‘we stare at each other for a while. Then he says in a quieter voice…’ (insert quote from earlier book or interview here). Both Mr Hari and his Editor defend the practice, claiming it is not unusual, and that no-one has complained of misrepresentation.
But that is not the point. Every time a case arises like this, it chips away at the average reader’s willingness to believe what they read in the paper, making it easier to tar all journalists with the same brush, and in the end, to give up reading newspapers altogether because they all ‘make it all up’. For that reason alone, it’s very sad.
From a media training point of view, is there anything you can you do if, as an interviewee, you feel you have not made your points effectively when talking to a reporter or feature writer? Yes. Some journalists are happy to read you over the quotes before they go in. Otherwise you can always send a follow-up email – ‘this is what I was really trying to say’ – if you put it more cogently the reporter will often be happy to use your refined version.
More on the Hari case at Fleet Street Blues blog.