Most quotes in news stories are needless, and you can quote me on that

Quote marksWhether formally acknowledged or not, there is a quote quota in mainstream reporting, and I’m here to quash it.

The spark for today’s post was an item on Robert Feder’s blog. With the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination nearing, Feder (a longtime Chicago media columnist) plucked a passage from the autobiography of another Chicago legend, anchorman Walter “Skippy” Jacobson.

Jacobson wrote that he was a fairly junior TV reporter in November 1963, assigned to stake out a downtown movie theater to catch people coming out who were unaware of the shooting. He was to tell them about it and catch their reactions — which were exactly what you would expect. Recounting the experience, Jacobson wrote:

I wish I had refused to be that intrusive, that grotesquely insensitive. But back then, it didn’t occur to me to refuse. I was a second-string reporter competing for the starting lineup, and the story was huge. I didn’t think about what it would be like on the other side of the microphone, how much I’d want to smash it, or at least turn away from it in disgust, and to give a finger to the cameraman.

In similar circumstance, I did avoid putting myself in Jacobson’s shoes. At lunchtime in May 1981, a group of us from the Saginaw News were sitting in a fine dining establishment we referred to as the Cafe Char-La (Home of the Ground Bologna Sandwich), having just about finished our repast. If memory serves, we heard the news of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II over the retaurant’s radio. The Cafe Char-La was not the type of place where one lingered for hours over a demitasse, discussing Proust or counting the days until deer season. But on that particular day, we looked around at each other and knew there was only one thing to do. And we did it. I believe the pie was quite tasty.

On the one hand, we stuck around because we wanted to avoid exactly the kind of assignment Jacobson got. On the other hand, it was less out of empathy for the people we’d have to talk to, and more because working for someone whose nicest nickname was “Chainsaw” tends to reduce one’s zeal.

And, of course, our dawdling just meant someone else got stuck with the assignment. What’s any story of a tragedy, after all, without the obligatory quotes from shocked locals? Sometimes it seems the less people know about something, the more eager journalists are to put what they say between quotation marks. Earlier today I ran across a story from the Sun Sentinel in Florida, about a visiting doctor who fell to his death at a local hotel. The story includes this enlightening passage:

“It’s terrible,” said Ben Epstein, a guest at the beachside hotel. “We went to dinner last night…went upstairs about 11:30 p.m. We didn’t hear anything. Today we came downstairs and everything was all blocked off.”

Lest you think there was any reason to include this quote, let me point out that Mr. Epstein did not know the deceased and, as the quote makes clear, did not witness either the incident or its immediate aftermath.

Note that Mr. Epstein’s quote doesn’t involve the classic kind of question, the one Jacobson was told to ask, the one print reporters like to sneer about when they see it on TV: “How did you feel?” Yes, that’s often (but not always) a dumb question. And, yes, the line between reporters and vultures is sometimes blurry. But my complaint isn’t about asking a dumb question; it’s about feeling compelled to get pointless quotes and to include pointless quotes in our stories.

This affects more than tragedies. I know far more than one editor who would insist that every story had to have a quote. I remember when, as a business wire editor, I had to edit the daily stock market story. Every day, as regular as sunset, the story would include a quote explaining why the market had gone up/gone down/run in place. The quotes contributed nothing. But there was a spot in the AP template for a quote and, by gosh, the reporter filled it.

Those stock quotes reminded me of an even earlier time when I was on the features copy desk at the Chicago Sun-Times. One of my tasks, as the newest rim person, was to edit the two daily horoscope columns. One day I noticed that two different zodiac signs in a column had the same prediction. I dutifully called the syndicate, where some other poor schnook had to dig up the original copy (or just pluck something from a previous column, for all I know) so I could provide our readers with the correct version of a phony prediction.

I had already noticed that the same sentences, rearranged, showed up the the horoscopes over and over. It seemed that the stock market quotes worked the same way. I managed to resist temptation to just use the same quote day after day, but it was difficult.

One might have hoped that the slackening of editing reins in recent years would result in fewer pointless quotes — that reporters, freed of the encrustation of editorial mandates, would limit their use of quotes to those that actually convey information and personality. Alas, no. When I look at news reports on sites where I know editing is less intense, what I see is, if anything, an increase in quotes. I’m guessing this is due to the common reportorial failing called “emptying the notebook.” Clearly, the quote quotas are not just imposed by editors, but ingrained in reporters’ brains.

Or, perhaps, it’s a universal human failing. In the fiction writing workshop I’m currently attending, one writer after another has presented the group with stories in which whole pages are taken up by dialogue as scintillating as “Hello, Joe.” “Why, hello, Tom. How are you?” “I’m fine. And yourself?”

But I’m not here to save the world, just that portion of it inside newsrooms. So my plea to reporters and the dwindling supply of editors: Sneak up on every quote in your story with a slingblade and slash away at it. If the quote is strong, if it has passion, it will fight for its life and succeed. But leave the rest to perish, bloodless and deflated.

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