Chapter Six: Sources, Interviews and Quotes
Reporter examining document

Reporters know there is no substitute for talking to people, but preparing carefully for an interview by examining documents and other resources is essential. The Roanoke Times/used by permission



           In Chapters One through Five we focused on how to approach writing as a process – how to weigh the value of information to our audiences, how to organize that information in an understandable way, how to use words effectively, how to recognize the characteristics of print, broadcast and Web media and their audiences, and the basics of writing effectively for each. Starting in this chapter with a discussion of sources, interviewing and using quotes, we now turn to examining other skills reporters need and some types of stories that they are frequently called on to write. As you might expect, the exercises in Chapters Six-16 will become increasingly complex, for two reasons: You need to be appropriately challenged so that your skills will continue to grow and improve, and you need plenty of practice to become a good writer for print, broadcast and the Web.     


Part One: Sources



           When she goes about gathering information for a story, Tori Baxter relies on two kinds of sources: the documents and records she consults, and the people she talks to. In this section you will learn important distinctions between human and documentary sources, and how to use each effectively. (In making these distinctions, though, it’s important to keep in mind that all documents are generated by people.)

            Let’s look at each kind of source in turn.


Documentary sources

           We should interpret the term documentary sources broadly.  In addition to the obvious — copies of lawsuits and other court filings, arrest reports, budgets, consultants’ or government reports, agendas — documentary sources can include clippings or file tape of previous stories (often accessed online now), telephone and city directories, encyclopedias or other reference works, and, increasingly, electronic databases. When judging credibility, journalists occasionally give the benefit of the doubt to a document over a quote from a person, or they use it to support the credibility of a human source, or they do not subject it to the same verification that they would information from a human source. But remember that all documentary sources are generated by people, so information in documentary sources can be lies or be simply wrong, too. Make sure that your document really is support or proof, and not just someone else making an unsupported claim. As we saw in Chapter Four, this has become a particular problem with relying on the Web for information.


Human sources

            When she talks to people, Tori tries to keep in mind the type of sources she is dealing with. Examples include witnesses or participants, custodians of records, experts or interpreters of information and advocates.  She remembers not to rely on a particular source for more information than that source can or should provide. For example, she would not ask a court clerk (a custodian of a record) who has just given her a case file why the defendant’s attorney filed the motion that he did. For that, she should call the attorney, a participant, or another defense attorney, who would provide information as an expert. She would not ask a teenager who survived a mass shooting in a restaurant (a witness) for the typical psychological profile of an unknown mass killer. For that, she would call an expert with the FBI. Experts are also sometimes advocates, as in the case of lawyers, doctors and some academics.

           Often, believe it or not, people try to be more cooperative with reporters than they ought to be.  When it’s their turn in the spotlight and the questions start coming, they are tempted to speculate rather than simply say, “I don’t know.” (Police public information officers are notoriously bad about it.) It’s the reporter’s responsibility not to get information from the wrong source.


Whom and what can we rely on?

           Whether she is talking to someone or consulting a document, Tori always keeps in mind two questions to help her judge the responses to her other questions: 1) What does this source know? 2) How does he know it? Faith Palmer, her city editor, has taught her that journalists have to deal with several levels of observation, and that they must always keep in mind at which level they and the source are working. 


Levels of observation


Box 6.1 Levels of Observation

           As information moves farther from firsthand observation, we should be increasingly careful about the reliability of the information:

1. Direct or firsthand observation: The reporter sees or hears something herself. An example would be a reporter covering a city council meeting.

2. Second-hand observation: The reporter gets information from a witness.

3. Third-hand observation: The reporter talks to someone who got information from a witness. An example is the account a police officer gives a reporter based on the officer’s conversation with a witness or witnesses.

4. Fourth-hand observation: Reporters occasionally receive information from spokesmen or spokeswomen, or from news releases, that is based on information that is already thirdhand. An example would be information from a police spokesman who summarized the report of an officer who had talked to witnesses.   


           Direct or firsthand observation happens when Tori sees or hears something herself.  An example is what she observes at a city council meeting.  Ordinarily, we trust firsthand information the most, because journalists should be trained observers.

           Second-hand observation would refer, for example, to the information Tori gets from a witness.

           An example of third-hand observation would be the account a police officer gives Tori based on the officer’s conversation with a witness or witnesses.

           And so on. (See Box 6.1)  When she is interviewing and when she goes over her notes later, Tori must keep in mind the level of observation that the information came from. That will help her judge how much faith to have in it. It is crucial for her not to confuse levels of observation herself, and also for her to make clear to her audience the level of observation. For broadcast reporters and audiences, taped interviews with sources often make the level of observation clear, but not always. In writing for all media, it remains the reporter’s responsibility to keep levels of observation clear, both in the reporter’s mind and for the audience. 


Being careful, and teaching your audience to be careful

           For example, for Tori to write:

           “The Chevrolet ran a red light and struck the pickup truck” would be misleading unless she had seen it happen. Firsthand observation by reporters, particularly of accidents, is fairly rare.

           Similarly, if Tori wrote:

           “Witnesses said the Chevrolet ran a red light and struck the pickup truck,” that would be accurate only if she had heard that from the witnesses themselves. If she took the witness accounts from a police report or from a conversation with the investigating officer, her story should read:

           “Witnesses told police the Chevrolet ran a red light and struck the pickup truck.”

           Sometimes, participants or witnesses will confuse levels of observation themselves. Again, whether reporters are interviewing witnesses on tape for broadcast or the Web or are taking notes on the witnesses’ answers to use in print stories, they need to ask questions carefully to make sure of the level of observation at which each witness is operating.

           Finally, witness accounts of the same incident can vary wildly. Tori has learned to adopt some strategies for resolving those conflicts:

           1. She makes sure of the level of observation of each witness.  Sometimes the conflict can be resolved by determining that one witness is actually reporting information second-hand rather than firsthand, even though he thinks he observed it firsthand. For example, we see only what occurs in front or, less clearly, to either side of us. But we can hear noises behind us as well. A witness at an accident, for example, will often hear a crash, then turn and see only the immediate aftermath, missing the crash itself.  But that witness might tell a reporter he saw the accident. In reality, he may be reporting what he heard first, then saw, while two other witnesses are reporting what they saw directly.

           2. She can report to witnesses what other witnesses have said. From the responses she gets, Tori might be able to judge how sure each witness is of his or her account: “Is that what the other witness said? Oh, well, it all happened so fast, maybe . . . .” or “Well, actually, I was turned around talking to my boyfriend right then, so it was after I turned around that I saw . . . .” or  “No, I don’t care what the other witness said. I’m positive I saw the Chevy run the red light.”

           3. She can look for the commonalities in the witnesses’ accounts. While each account might vary somewhat, there may well be a “nut” of agreed-on information in the accounts.

           4. She will remind her audience of the discrepancies in the accounts:

           “Witness accounts varied sharply. Two said the Chevrolet ran a red light.  A third said the light was yellow. A fourth thought the light was green.  But all agreed that the Chevrolet slammed into the pickup truck broadside. The driver’s door of the truck was crushed inward so far that it had shoved the steering column into the center of the truck’s cab.”




Box 6.2 Writing Different Levels of Observation

           Here are examples of how, in her story, a reporter might attribute information received at different levels of observation:

Firsthand: “The Chevrolet ran a red light and struck the pickup truck.”

 “Witnesses said the Chevrolet ran a red light and struck the pickup truck.”

Third-hand:  “Witnesses told police the Chevrolet ran a red light and struck the pickup truck.”

Fourth-hand: “A police spokesman said witnesses told officers that the Chevrolet ran a red light and struck the pickup truck.”

Combination of levels: “Witness accounts varied sharply. Two said the Chevrolet ran a red light. (second-hand) Another told police the light was yellow. (third-hand) A police spokesman said still another witness told investigators she thought the light was green. (fourth-hand) But all agreed that the Chevrolet slammed into the pickup truck broadside. The driver’s door of the truck was crushed inward so far that it had shoved the steering column into the center of the cab. (firsthand)


           Using a combination of firsthand observation (what damage Tori saw on the pickup after the accident), second-hand observation (the witness accounts), and careful reporting of where the witnesses’ accounts varied and where they agreed, Tori has given her audiences an idea of how much credence to give to the information she has given them.  (See Box 6.2)                                             



           Dealing with sources presents a number of potential ethical issues for journalists. Some of those focus on the audience, others on the sources themselves.

           We will discuss levels of attribution in detail in Chapter 15. Much of that discussion centers on dealing with sources who do not want to have information attributed directly to them. But remember always that attributing information directly to its source is the rule, not the exception. We should identify human sources by name and other relevant information. We should be just as careful in identifying documentary sources.

           Sources need to understand that what they say will be attributed to them in your story. We owe it to sources to identify ourselves as reporters at the beginning of a conversation, whether on the phone or in person, and to inform the source that we are working on a story. With sources who talk to news media frequently, that should be enough. With sources who are not used to dealing with reporters, we might have to be a bit clearer. Once we have done that, we must never let a source change the rule retroactively – to talk to us for 20 minutes, for example, and  then  say: “Now, you can’t put any of that in the paper.”

           Broadcast reporters won’t encounter that in videotaped interviews, of course, but remember that broadcast reporters talk to many sources whom they don’t put on the air in sound bites. Those sources need to be aware of the rule, because without the camera or tape recorder running, they might think they are not being quoted for attribution. If we make promises to sources – expressed or implied — we should keep them. If a source is naïve or inexperienced in dealing with reporters, not making our intentions clear to the source is a form of deception.

           Even though our first obligation is to provide our audiences with information they need, we must keep in mind that we can be persistent with sources and aggressive in pursuing information without causing undue harm. Belittling or insulting sources is never appropriate or necessary. Continuing to badger them after they have definitively declined to talk to us is also inappropriate. Maintaining journalistic independence does not mean we have to ignore the pain someone might be going through. If seeing people shattered by tragedy does not affect us emotionally, we should find another line of work. As CNN Correspondent Anderson Cooper has said, “You shouldn’t do this job if you’re not willing to feel, if you’re not willing to get hurt.”

           We owe it to sources – and our audiences – to quote sources accurately, and to fairly represent what they said by not taking their quotes out of context. The “stake” our sources have in the story should also be made clear, so audiences can judge a source’s information against his or her agenda.           



           When you evaluate information to judge its reliability and appropriateness for including in a story, remember:

           1. Know where it came from.  Documents, or human sources? Is there a reason to give more credence to information in documents? Can human  sources verify the information from documents? Can documents verify what you have gotten from people?

           2. With human sources, match the kind of reporting you do and the information you get to the appropriate source. For example, don’t rely on “people on the street” sources as experts to untangle a complex issue for you and your audience.

           3. Determine the level of observation at which your human sources are working: firsthand, second-hand, third-hand and so forth. Was the source really at the event, or is he or she reporting what someone else said who was there? Did the source really see or hear what happened? The reliability of information decreases as you move farther from firsthand observation.            

           4. Make sure, by writing carefully, that your audience is as aware as you are of the level of observation. That allows your readers or viewers to make informed judgments about how much credence to give information.

           5. Attribute carefully. Make sure your story makes clear where information is coming from. Identify people by name and other relevant information. Identify documentary sources just as carefully.


Box 6.3 Strategies for Dealing with Sources

1. Stay aware of where all your information came from. Do you need human  sources to verify the information from documents? Will documents verify what you have gotten from people?

2. Don’t rely on the wrong human source for information. For example, a police spokesman is not the right source for how a witness is dealing with an event emotionally. Nor should “people on the street” be used as experts to explain a complex issue.

3. Make sure you know the level of observation for each of your human sources. As you move farther from firsthand observation, the reliability of information generally decreases.

4. Write carefully to make levels of observation clear. Your audiences will rely on you to help them determine the reliability of  information.

5. Identify human sources by name and other relevant characteristics. Do the same with documentary sources. 


           Exercise 6a calls on you to write a complete story from the facts and witness accounts you are given. Almost all of your information comes from human sources. Keep in mind levels of observation, the type of witness you are talking to, and whether witnesses are in a position to know or are only assuming.


Part Two: Interviewing

Pam Podger at interview

Pam Podger of The Roanoke Times interviews Dan Brown, retiring superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. In their manner and appearance, reporters can establish the tone for interviews before they begin asking questions. The Roanoke Times/used by permission



           In Part One of this chapter we looked at sources, and how you can show your audience what they contribute to a story. In this section we will follow up those discussions with a discussion of effective interviewing.

           For many beginning journalists, the prospect of telephoning or dropping in on a perfect stranger to ask probing questions is pretty frightening. For one thing, it goes against the grain of much of what we’ve been told growing up: Don’t talk to strangers. Mind your own business. Don’t ask rude questions. In Chapter One we talked about how our obligations as journalists affect these old standbys from the parents’ handbook. 


Whose advantage?

           Even without all that parental advice kicking around in your subconscious, your first few interviews can be pretty intimidating. But if you think it’s a gut-tightener for you, think about the person you will be interviewing, particularly if he or she isn’t used to dealing with news media. Your subject goes into the interview knowing that anything he or she says might wind up in the newspaper, on the air or on the Web for all to see. Or that a brand-new reporter just out of J-school will not get it right.

           Now back to your perspective: The person who is quite used to being interviewed and is skilled at manipulating the media dreams of the day when an inexperienced reporter stumbles into her crosshairs. The reporter might as well be wearing a sign that says “Shoot me and mount me on your wall.”

           But an interview doesn’t have to be a contest to see who wins. In fact, if we are to serve our audiences well, that’s probably not the appropriate model.


What kind of interviewer will you be?

           As an interviewer, you need always to convey a sense of self-assurance and professionalism.  That doesn’t mean you have to be cold, arrogant, unsympathetic or overly slick. Being professional means being able to judge what is required in a given situation. With the skilled media manipulator you will need to be tough and focused but still fair. With somebody who isn’t used to talking to reporters you need to be more relaxed and informal, to put the subject at ease. Your sense of self-assurance can help you do that. At least one of you ought to feel comfortable so the other can feed off that. (That’s especially true with the camera running. It’s going to make most people pretty nervous just by its presence.)

           When it comes to the so-called grief interview, with the relative or friend of the victim of a tragedy, you need to be low-key and unobtrusive. (How many journalists does it take to change a light bulb? Eleven — one to change the bulb, and 10 to chase the old one down the street, asking it how it feels.) Always, you need to be a good listener.

           For television interviews, you will need to plan to shoot 10-20 times as much tape as you will use in your story. You need to keep the camera rolling long enough to allow your interview subject to get comfortable with its presence before you start asking the really important questions — the ones you expect to yield bites. Plan to spend as much time with the subject as doing that will require.


What kind of questions will you ask?

           Journalists recognize two kinds of interview subjects: Those who won’t open up, and those who won’t shut up.  Often, there is little middle ground. You’ll need to use at least two kinds of questions in interviewing. In their book Writing the News, Anderson and Itule identify them as open-ended and closed-ended. Use open-ended questions when your subject won’t open up; used closed-ended when he won’t shut up. (See Box 6.4)

           Open-ended questions often don’t even sound like questions: “Tell me about it.” “Talk about that for a minute.”  It’s hard to respond to that with a one-word answer. If a taciturn football coach answers questions like “How is Flurtz’s arm this season?” with “Fine,” try an open-ended question: “Talk about the coming season, coach.” Open-ended questions can also sound less threatening to a subject who is inexperienced, nervous or upset: “Tell me about your son.”

           The second kind of source won’t shut up, or will try to hide or avoid honest answers with a flood of words. When that happens, used closed-ended questions to get to the point quickly and keep the source focused: “Did you take the money?” “What was her name?” “How much was missing?” Often, it’s appropriate to elicit a one- or two-word specific answer and then let the source elaborate. Use your knife when you need your knife and your fork when you need your fork.


Box 6.4 Open-Ended and Closed-Ended Questions

Use open-ended questions (often expressed as a statement) when a subject won’t open up:

Tell me about your son.

Talk about that for a minute.

Describe what you did at that point.


Use closed-ended questions when a subject won’t shut up, or is being vague or evasive:

Did you take the money?

What was her name?

How many hikers are missing?

When did he graduate?

From Anderson, D., and Itule, B., Writing the News,  Ch. 7.  New York: Random House. 1988.


How will you go about your job?

           Just as we have identified steps in the writing process that make it more manageable, you should approach interviewing as a process comprising several critical steps. Before we look at those, let’s take a minute to talk about a mechanical aspect of interviewing.

           If you are working for a radio or television news operation, you will of course be recording your interview on audio- or videotape or some other means of digital electronic capture. But some newspaper reporters also tape interviews so that they may be sure to get quotes verbatim and not miss other crucial information. For print reporters, that practice raises a couple of issues. The first is time: For a reporter on deadline, finding and transcribing quotes from a tape can be time consuming. You might not have that time. Second, you have to be prepared in case your tape recorder fails. Will you take a second recorder with you to the interview? If you don’t realize until you return to your office that your tape recorder failed, you will have no record of the interview unless you took careful notes as well. So even if you record an interview, always be sure to take notes as a backup. Faced with taking notes anyway as insurance, many print reporters decide not to fuss with a tape recorder, especially when they are on a tight deadline.

Broadcast interview

Reporters should combine open-ended and closed-ended questions to get the most from an interview. WSLS News Channel 10/used by permission


The process

           Now then, let’s consider what makes a successful interview (See Box 6.5):

           1. Do your homework. Learn as much as you can before the interview. You’ll want to know what you’re likely to encounter before you encounter it. Effective interviewing starts that way. Read clips. Look at file tape. Use Google or other Web search engines, but remember that not all websites or search engines are equally credible. Round up everything you can find about the interview subject and what it is that makes you want to interview him or her. Find out as much as you can about the event or issue at hand and your subject’s interest or involvement in it. Knowing your topic and something about your source does several things, all of them good:

               It helps establish rapport when she learns that you care enough to have done your  homework. Many sources won’t even bother with an unprepared reporter.

              It helps you catch lies and discourages the source from trying to tell them.

             It helps you note inconsistencies in the source’s position or a change in that position over time.

            It keeps you from wasting the source’s time by asking questions whose answers you could have gotten elsewhere. (An interviewer once asked baseball legend Mickey Mantle what position he played.)

           2. Get some questions ready based on the homework you did. You’ll feel more confident going in, because you know you’ll be able to control the direction of the interview, and you’ll know you won’t forget to ask an important question.

           3. But always be ready to depart from your list. Careful listening will show you when you need to follow up with an unprepared question. Sometimes an interview takes off in a direction you haven’t planned.  If you’ve done your homework, you’ll be better able to judge whether that change of direction will be appropriate and productive or a waste of time.

           4. Show your professionalism. Dress appropriately for the situation, but don’t overdress.  And always show up on time. For a television interview, show up early to give yourself time to set up your equipment. You’ll want to be ready to begin the interview at the agreed-upon time.  

           5. Keep to your purpose. Usually, you’ll want to ask short questions and depend on follow-ups to get the subject to elaborate. Ask what needs to be asked — in other words, don’t pull punches — but be sensitive.  Avoid arguing; you’re there to elicit information from the source, not to argue your opinion. But that doesn’t mean you have to allow the source to get away with a vague or illogical response, or a lie. You might have to ask a question several times or in several ways to get a clear answer.

           6. Control the pace. Some subjects talk so fast you risk losing what they say. When you ask your interviewee to slow down, it shows him or her that you are interested in getting what he or she says right. That’s a good idea even when the camera or tape recorder is running, for two reasons: 1) You’ll want to take some notes as well; 2) a subject who talks too fast makes for lousy bites.  By the way, don’t accuse the source of talking too fast. Instead, put the onus on yourself: “I’m a pretty slow note-taker. Could you repeat that?” or “That sounds really important. Could you go over that again to make sure I understood it?”

           7. Use all your senses, not just your ears. How does the subject behave? Is he or she at ease? Are some questions making him or her more nervous or ill at ease than others? Should you ask why? Remember that for television interviews you will need to shoot some “cutaways” – video that is of something other than the interviewee — for editing purposes. Can you focus on something other than the subject’s face that reveals something about him? 

           8. Remember that potential interview subjects can choose many ways not to be in your story. Learn — and report to your audience — the difference between “would not comment,” “did not return phone calls,” and “slammed the door on a reporter.” Even when a source is not represented in a story, showing your audience how that came about can be informative and useful.

           9. Keep asking “What does that mean?” until you’re sure you understand. Your interview subject might get exasperated, but eventually he or she will speak plain English. As a result, you’ll understand what he or she is saying, and so will your audience. It also will give you better, cleaner quotes or bites.

          10. Make sure before you write your story that you know how to spell your interview subject’s name, and that you’ve got her job title and other appropriate identifying information right. If it’s appropriate, ask for a business card.



           As you learned in Part One, interviewing sources presents a number of potential ethical issues for journalists: quoting accurately, making sure information and quotes remain in context, ensuring that sources know information is on the  record, properly attributing information, keeping promises to sources regarding how information will be attributed, treating sources with respect, even when we have to ask tough questions, and keeping clear the level of observation at which a source is operating. You should review that discussion before you work on the exercises at the end of this chapter. 

           There are at least two more ethical issues we can identify in conducting and using interviews. The first has to do with your decision whether to record the interview. Many journalists think it a matter of basic fairness to let a source know when you are recording his or her comments. Others think that the mechanics of gathering information are irrelevant – that they are under no obligation to share those methods with their interview subject. A couple of things to remember: When you are conducting a telephone interview, there is usually no way for a source to know he or she is being recorded unless the reporter acknowledges it. And a reporter who goes into a live interview with a hidden camera or tape recorder is acknowledging a form of deceit by assuming that the source would object if he or she knew the conversation was being taped.

           In July 2005 Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede was fired after acknowledging that he had surreptitiously taped a phone conversation with a distraught source who shot himself to death moments later. DeFede said he made a quick decision that he wanted a record of the conversation because he recognized that the source was emotionally agitated. But taping conversations without consent is a violation of Florida law. Several other states have similar laws. To many observers, it was not clear whether DeFede was fired because he broke a law, because he did not tell the source he was taping the conversation, or both. 

           The second ethical issue is how journalists ought to respond to interview subjects’ requests to hear their statements read back to them. There is no consensus among journalists on that issue, either. Some see it as a threat to journalistic independence, fearing that a source will try to amend or influence what the reporter took from a conversation. Increasingly, though, reporters are recognizing that reading quotes and other information back to sources at the end of a conversation can help fulfill the reporter’s obligation to serve audiences: The practice ensures that the reporter got everything right, and gives the reporter a chance to fix what isn’t right. But the reporter also must judge the difference between a source’s objection that the quote is not accurate and a complaint that it simply puts him in an awkward position or makes him “look bad.” 



           1. Do your homework.

           2. Get some questions ready based on the homework you did.

           3. But always be ready to depart from your list.

           4. Show your professionalism.

           5. Be precise. Ask short questions, but then follow up to allow the subject to elaborate. Use a combination of open-ended and closed-ended questions. 

           6. Remember that most interviews do not have to be confrontational.

           7. Keep to your purpose.

           8. Control the pace.

           9. Use all your senses, not just your ears.

         10. Remember that potential interview subjects can choose many ways not to be in your story.

         11. Keep asking “What does that mean?” until you’re sure you understand.

         12. Make sure to get job titles and spellings of names right. 




Box 6.5 Strategies for Effective Interviewing

1. Learn as much as you can before the interview. Do your homework. Know what you’re likely to encounter before you encounter it.

2. Prepare a general set of questions. It will help you make sure you don’t forget to ask something important.

3. Be ready to depart from your prepared questions. Careful listening will show you when you need to follow up on an unexpected response. 

4. Give visual cues to your professionalism. Dress appropriately for the situation, but don’t overdress.  

5. Be precise. Ask short questions, then follow up to get the subject to elaborate. Use a combination of open-ended and closed-ended questions.  

6. Remember that most interviews do not have to be confrontational.

7. Keep to your purpose.

8.If your subject is going too fast, ask him or her to slow down.  Show the interviewee that you consider important what he or she is telling you. Control the pace of the interview.

9. Watch as well as listen. How does the subject behave? Is he or she at ease or nervous?

10. Learn — and report to your audience –  the difference between “would not comment,” “did not return phone calls,” and “slammed the door on a reporter.” When a source chooses not to be represented in a story, show your audience how that came about.

11. Remember the three most important questions in journalism: “What does that mean? What does that mean? What does that mean?”

12. Make sure you have gotten appropriate identifying information about your interview subject.Don’t ever assume you know how to spell her name or have her job title right, or that you know other basic information without asking. Ask for a business card when it’s appropriate.   


Part Three: Using Quotes



           As we learned in Chapter One, news stories ought to be about people, or about people involved in events or issues. They should not be just about the event or issue.  As journalists we need to find ways to get people into our stories.  Now that we have addressed finding sources and interviewing them effectively, we will look at using those sources’ quotes to put a human face on our stories.  


The work that quotes do

           In any medium, good quotes, used well, let your audience know the people in the story in several ways (See Box 6.6):


Box 6.6 Quotes Work Hard for Your Audience

1. Quotes give your audience a sense of being there with those involved.

2. Quotes convey the emotional reactions of the people in your story.

3. Quotes show, rather than tell, that your story is about people.

4. Quotes allow audiences to see personalities. 


           1. Quotes lend immediacy, so your audience has a sense of being there and gets the sense that you were there. Even the best narrative, by itself, can’t do that.

           2. Quotes impart emotion, the reactions of the people involved and affected, in their own words. Allowing the people in our stories to report their own emotions carries more weight than our attempts to describe those emotions.

           3. Quotes help us show — rather than just tell — what’s going on.

           4. Quotes help convey the personalities of the people in our stories. As in personal relationships, audiences best get the sense that they know others when they feel that they are conversing with them.   


Types of quotations

           Whichever medium we are writing for, we can use quotes in any of several ways in our stories. In Newswriting Exercises, Ken Metzler identifies five of them (See Box 6.7):

           1. Direct quotations depict word-for-word what the speaker said. In print stories, they are set off by quotation marks to show your audience that:

           “We will find the remaining leaders of al Queda even if we have to turn over every rock on earth,” the President said.

           2. Indirect quotations convey what the speaker said in essentially the way he said it, but quotation marks aren’t used because the quote has been altered slightly:

           The United States will find the remaining leaders of al Queda no matter how hard we must look, the President said. 

           3. Paraphrased quotations express the essence of the speaker’s comment in the reporter’s words:

           The President vowed to find the remaining leaders of al Queda. 

           4. Partial quotations take a fragment of the quote to preserve the color of it. Because their fragmented nature makes them distracting, they should be used sparingly, and never as a sound or video bite:

           The President said finding the remaining leaders of al Queda would happen “even if we have to turn over every rock on earth.”

           5. Dialogue captures the drama of an exchange between two or more people:

           “We will find the remaining leaders of al Queda even if we have to turn over every rock on earth,” the President said.

            “All we can expect of an effort like that is a lot of pain,” the Senate minority leader replied.



Box 6.7 Quotes and Other Attributed Statements

1.Direct quotations are always set off by quotation marks because they indicate  word-for-word what the speaker said.

2.Indirect quotations do not use quotation marks, because the quote has been altered slightly. Sometimes called close paraphrase, indirect quotations still closely represent what the speaker said.

3. Paraphrased quotations use the reporter’s words to express what the speaker said, usually more concisely.

4. Partial quotations consist of a few words or brief phrase of a quote. They should be used sparingly.  

5. Dialogue represents direct quotes from two people, presented as one responding to the other.

from Ken Metzler, Newswriting Exercises, 2d Ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 1987  


Gather many, use few

           To be effective, quotes or sound bites should be used sparingly. They should seldom be used to carry your narrative or to explain complex issues. Speaking spontaneously, most of us are hard-pressed to explain complicated matters in a coherent way, and certainly not in an efficient way. As a result, using quotes to explain can be tedious at best, confusing at worst.

           Long broadcast bites are notoriously sleep-inducing, particularly if you try to use them to explain a concept rather than convey the speaker’s reaction or emotional stake in the story. For print, broadcast or the Web, use quotes to show not what happened or what the issue is, but how the participants or those affected saw it or are responding to it. Quotes should humanize our stories. Learn to listen for the quotes that will do that.

           The best strategy is to fill your notebook or your video camera with quotes, then limit yourself in your story to the very best. As your parents always told you about carrying an umbrella, it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them. If you gather just one quote, you are pretty much forced to use it, even if it is weak. If you gather three, you have a little more choice. If you get 10, especially from multiple sources, you not only virtually guarantee that you will use only the strongest quotes; you also ensure that you will be able to fairly represent just about every significant side of an event of issue.  


Show them off

           Because quotes are used to show immediacy, emotion and personality, they should not be buried in the story. If you use a long clause to introduce a quote at the end of your sentence in a print story, you will lose much of the quote’s impact. Broadcast reporters learned that long ago. They use full-sentence transitions to introduce speakers and their sound bites. That might seem the natural way to introduce a quote in broadcast journalism. But it is also the most effective way in print writing to ensure that good quotes will get the attention they deserve. Use short full-sentence transitions to introduce a speaker so that the next paragraph can begin with his or her quote. (See Box 6.8):


Box 6.8 Setting Up Quotes

1. Don’t bury quotes in a paragraph. You wouldn’t be using them if they weren’t strong.

2. Whether you are writing for print, broadcast or the Web, use full-sentence transitions to introduce quotes.

3. Practice writing effective full-sentence transitions:

                Not: Reacting to the city manager, City Council Member Eaton Wise said, “I don’t think Mr. Prentice has the authority to do that.”

               Try instead: The city manager’s initiative upset Council Member Eaton Wise.

“I don’t think Mr. Prentice has the authority to do that,” he said  


                   Not: Replying to the President’s promise, the Senate minority leader said, “All we can expect from an effort like that is a lot of pain.”

           Instead, try: The Senate minority leader foresees hard times. 

                                       “All we can expect from an effort like that is a lot of pain.”

           You can see from the above example that using the first way to introduce the quote in a broadcast story would be somewhere between awkward and impossible. The reporter would have to pause her voice-over narrative in mid-sentence for a rough transition to the quote. The nature of broadcast reporting practically forces us into good practice in setting up quotes. (Of course, you could still write a weak full-sentence transition to the bite: “Harry Reid of Nevada is the Senate Minority leader.”)  For print and Web writing, there are plenty of opportunities to screw up; you can write weak full-sentence transitions, or ignore them entirely. Practice doing it right.

           When you write a transition to a quote, avoid what’s called a stutter quote — introducing the quote with the same words we will see in the quote:

            Not: Wise said Prentice has refused to meet with him and Bullard.

                              “He has refused to meet with us,” he said.

            Instead, try:  Wise said he was frustrated by Prentice’s response.

                                         “He has refused to meet with us,” he said.



           Whether you are using direct quotes, indirect quotes, partial quotes, paraphrase or dialogue, always attribute – that is, make clear who is speaking. Identify the speaker by name. Often, other information about the speaker is relevant as well: position (City Manager Don Prentice);  age (4-year-old Sally Smith), address or place of residence (Dorothy Foster of Eden);  group membership (Fred James, a local Democratic Party activist) or involvement in an issue (Sam Jones, who opposes the housing subdivision). If you have the slightest doubt about whether your story makes the speaker’s identity clear, attribute. Remember, if you have a small doubt, your audience will have a big one. Don’t over-attribute, though.  You need not attribute information that is readily available from any of a multitude of sources or is universally known:

           The city’s proposed operating budget for next year is $15 million (not: the mayor said).

           President Bush was re-elected in November 2004 (not: according to federal election records).

                   But: Jones hit the victim over the head with a bat and yanked her purse from her, according to the arrest affidavit.

           Or (if  charges have been filed): Jones is charged with robbing the victim by hitting her over the head with . . . .

           Also: The city’s proposed operating budget is $15 million, but Mayor Hostetter says that’s too high.

          Not: The city’s proposed operating budget is $15 million, and that’s too high. 


Use “said”

           In print or Web stories, and when you are paraphrasing a quote in a broadcast story, almost always use “said” to attribute to people.  Use “according to” in most references to documents.  Avoid trying to convey context or emotion in the attribution you choose. (See Box 6.9) Often, it slants the comment; at the least, it can make your writing sound silly. Instead, in your transition to his quote, show us how the speaker reacted:

          Not: “That’s way too high,” the mayor exclaimed wildly. 

                   “Over my dead body,” Wise giggled.

         Instead, try: The mayor jumped up and pounded his fist on the desk.

                                       “That’s way too high,” he said.

                         Wise looked out at the audience and laughed.

                                      “Over my dead body,” he said.  



Box 6.9 Use “Said” for Attribution

1. Adjectives and adverbs can introduce bias into attribution. “Said” is much less loaded.

2. Using a full-sentence transition to a quote allows you to show your audience the speaker’s emotion.

3. Practice showing the speaker’s reaction in the transition, not in the attribution:

                        Not: “I’ll file a criminal complaint if you do,” Wise exclaimed wildly.

                                “Take your best shot,” Prentice laughed.

                       Try instead: Wise jumped up and pounded his fist on the desk.

                                              “I’ll file a criminal complaint if you do,” he said.

                                              Prentice leaned back and laughed.

                                              “Take your best shot,” he said.   



Altering and “cleaning up” quotes

           When is it okay to alter quotes? The short answer: Never.  A slightly better answer: Rarely, and only if your audience understands that altering quotes is the exception, never the rule. If we put quotation marks around a series of words in a print or Web story, they send a message to our audience that that was exactly what the speaker said. Altering quotes in broadcast stories is ordinarily a different proposition, because messing with a sound bite presents technical difficulties that simply changing words within quotation marks does not. But in their decisions about how much of what the subject said they leave in the bite, broadcasters are just as susceptible to altering the meaning or context of quotes as print journalists.    

           Saying that quotes should be sacrosanct, though, presents us with a couple of  problems:

           First, if the speaker gave us a 10-sentence response, and we can convey its essence in one of her sentences, is it misleading to use only that one sentence? 

           Second, should we leave profanity and bad grammar in our quotes because that’s what the speaker said, even though doing so might hold the speaker up to ridicule or offend members of your audience?

           Most members of your audience have no expectation that what a speaker is quoted as saying is the only thing he or she said.  It’s essential for you to cut to the chase, to quote the most important or illustrative thing she said, as long as the quote you use is not taken out of context.  Whether you are writing for print, Web or broadcast, you don’t have to use the entire quote or bite to provide that context; ordinarily paraphrase will do a clearer, more succinct job of that. But the quote you do use should be verbatim, unless our second problem applies.


Bad grammar, profanity and obscenity

           Most of us, when we speak, use a more informal language than we do when we write, full of sloppy grammar and, once in a while, goddamn gratuitous profanity. As journalists, our goal should be to create understanding, not to offend our audience or hold people up unnecessarily to ridicule. As journalists in the United States pay more attention to the diversity of both audiences and the people involved in events and issues, we become more aware of people who use heavily accented or nonstandard English. Reproducing the language as they speak it could hold them up to ridicule or stereotyping by readers or viewers who think that the way people speak reflects their character, intelligence or values.

           So print journalists routinely clean up poor or nonstandard grammar to avoid embarrassment to the speaker, unless the grammar itself shows something about the speaker that is germane to the story. (Obviously, “cleaning up” a quote presents a unique set of problems for the broadcast reporter. More about that in a minute.) Say a truck driver with an eighth-grade education is describing an accident on the interstate:

            “It begun when the Chevy got sidewise, and I seen it a-comin’.”

           There’s nothing about his verbatim grammar that’s essential to that story.

           Say, however, that the superintendent of schools describes a new remedial grammar program:

            “Hopefully, it’ll work out good, but then we ain’t got nothing to lose by trying it.”          

           We can argue that the grammar of the highest-ranking educator in the county is important to that story, and should be published unaltered.

           With profanity and obscenity, your concern shifts to your audience. If we are writing for a general audience, we should avoid pointless or gratuitous profanity. There is no defensible reason to offend your audience just because you can. Take the example of our truck driver again:

           “Once he got sidewise it was slick as owl shit and the sumbitch behind him run right up his ass.”

           There is little about that language that makes it essential to the story.

           But sometimes obscenity or profanity is germane to the story. In response to a question about Sen. Edward Kennedy’s intention to run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1980, the incumbent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, said this:

            “If Kennedy runs, I’ll whip his ass.”

           He was quoted verbatim by most major news media in the United States.  The President is usually more diplomatic and guarded when speaking publicly. The fact that Carter used that language with the press underscored his conviction.

           As I said above, for broadcast reporters, cleaning up sound bites is made difficult if not impossible by the limitations of the medium. Profanity can be “bleeped” out of bites for radio or TV, but bad or nonstandard grammar is probably better handled by a voice-over paraphrase of the speaker’s comment.

           Generally, a changed quote is going to be obvious to a broadcast audience, but a quote taken out of context will not be. Even for a quote in print, though, you do not need to show your audience that you have cleaned up bad grammar. With profanity or obscenity it’s different: When you use a printed quote that has been scrubbed clean of profanity or obscenity, you need to indicate where you have actually changed or left out words. (Why the difference? I have no idea. Chalk it up to convention.)

           Remember that there are several options that should be considered before you alter a quote. They are summarized under item Number Eight in the Strategies section (below).

           Ask your instructor if he or she has a policy on cleaning up quotes or the use of profanity for the stories you will do for this class. When you begin working in a newsroom, learn your newsroom’s policy. If you think you need to violate that policy for the sake of using a really strong quote, always discuss that with your editor or producer first. In many newsrooms, such decisions have to involve top editors. (The Philadelphia Inquirer’s policy not only divides profanity and obscenity into three categories of words, it prescribes the level of editor who must make the ruling for each category.) Remain part of that discussion. Obviously, it’s better to have those discussions as early in the day as possible, before everyone is on a tight deadline. (See Box 6.10)


Box 6.10 Using Difficult Quotes

1. When you are confronted with bad grammar, profanity or obscenity, remember that a paraphrased or indirect quote is usually a better option than altering the quote. Depending on whether you are working for print, the Web or broadcast, other options include:

2. Ellipsis, the three dots that indicate something is missing, can be used in print or Web stories. Similarly, brackets [ ] indicate that a word has been substituted for the offensive word.

3. A partial quote allows the speaker’s voice, but not the bad grammar or language, to reach your audience.

4. Listen for trouble spots when you conduct your interviews. Asking a question a second time often yields a “cleaner” quote.  

5. Most newsrooms have a policy against using bad grammar, profanity or obscenity gratuitously. If you think you have a compelling reason to use a quote containing any of those, talk with your editor, producer or news director before you use it.    




Box 6.11 Strategies for Using Effective Quotes

  1. Gather many quotes, but use few. 
  2. Use quotes that put a human face on your story. Don’t use them for long explanations or to carry a narrative.
  3. Remember to use paraphrase, indirect quotes and dialogue as well as direct single quotes. But use partial quotes rarely.
  4. Identify all sources by name and position or relevance to your story. Attribute carefully, and often.
  5. Use full-sentence transitions to introduce speakers and set up their quotes. 
  6. “Said” is the best form of attribution for news stories. Use it.
  7. Don’t try to convey a speaker’s emotion in your attribution. Show his or her emotion in the transition to the quote.
  8. When you are trying to decide whether to “clean up” a quote to eliminate bad grammar, profanity or obscenity, keep in mind your better options (see Box. 6.10)     


           1. Gather many quotes, but use few.

           2. Use quotes that put a human face on your story, that show the emotional ways people respond to their involvement in events and issues. Avoid using quotes for long explanations or to carry a narrative.

           3. Consider the most appropriate way to convey what the people in your stories are saying – direct quotes, indirect quotes, paraphrase, dialogue.   Use partial quotes rarely.

           4. Attribute carefully, and often. Identify all sources by name.

           5. Use full-sentence transitions to introduce speakers and set up their quotes. Display quotes appropriately by having them begin the paragraph after the transition that introduces the speaker.

           6. “Said” is the best form of attribution. Use it almost always.

           7. Show the emotion with which people in your stories speak. Avoid trying to convey that emotion in your attribution.

           8. When you’re trying to decide whether to cleanse a quote of bad or non-standard grammar or profanity and obscenity, keep in mind that you have several options that do not involve altering the quote itself. Some are available to print, broadcast and Web reporters equally. Some won’t work for broadcast. 

            Always consider these options first:

            a. Paraphrase the quote, or use an indirect quote.  Will we lose too much by not using the quote or the bite itself?: Honeycutt said the Chevrolet skidded sideways on the slick highway, and the pickup struck it from behind.

            b. For print or Web reporters, use ellipsis, the little dots that tell your audience something is missing, to get around the profanity. Or use brackets [these squared-off things] to substitute a word for the offensive word. The brackets tell your audience that the word in brackets is not the word the speaker used: When the Chevrolet skidded, Honeycutt said, “it was slick . . . and the [pickup] ran right up [into him].”  

            c. Use a partial quote to convey the color but not the bad grammar or language: Honeycutt said the Chevrolet skidded sideways on the slick road, and the pickup “ran right up” into it from behind.

           d. When you are conducting your interview, ask the speaker the same question again. You might get a cleaner version of the quote the second time.

           e. If none of these solutions seems to work, and you still think the quote is compelling enough to include in your story, talk with your editor, producer or news director about using it. Most newsrooms have policies proscribing bad grammar and gratuitous profanity or obscenity, even in quotes.  To get it into the paper or on the air, you will probably be breaking that policy. 

           In the exercises that follow, remember to weigh the level of observation of each speaker and how much credibility he or she has before you decide to use his or her account. Remember also to use quotes sparingly for maximum effect, to mix your best quotes with paraphrase and indirect quotes, and to attribute appropriately. You should also practice introducing speakers and setting up their quotes with full-sentence transitions. Remember your impact, elements, words process, and consider the story form that might best serve the decisions you make. 


Exercise 6a: Plane Crash

           From the facts and witness accounts below, write a complete story for tomorrow morning’s Jeffersonville Herald, a 30-second RDR for this evening’s newscast, and a two-sentence blurb for immediate distribution on the Web. Remember to time yourself reading your broadcast story aloud, and to write the length, in seconds, at the top of your broadcast story. Whether you write the print story, the broadcast story or the Web blurb first is up to you. Think about which assignment will help you focus most easily on the other two.  

           The aircraft was a Cessna 150, a two-seat light plane piloted by Thurgood Vance, 24, who lives on Rt. 4, Culleytown. The plane crashed into a wooded area just south of the U.S. Rt. 15 bypass at the city limits of Valleydale, across the road from North River Middle School. Pilot is dead. He was alone in the plane. The plane was burned and the body was inside. The craft departed from the Kupp’s Creek landing strip at 11:15 a.m. Crashed shortly after noon. The crash is still under investigation. The Federal Aviation Administration will send an investigator in tomorrow to look over the wreckage and the crash site. [Source: Police Chief Buford Hunicut]

           From Anita McLeod, teacher at North River Middle School: “I don’t know anything about flying, but I think this guy is a hero. He literally gave his life to keep our kids out of danger. It looked to me like he was trying for an emergency landing along Route 15, because his engine was sputtering and the plane was balky. And then he saw we had a couple of P.E. classes out running the track right next to the highway. He must have been worried that he couldn’t control the plane and it might careen over into the kids. Next thing I knew, why, he just pulled the nose of the plane up and banked left into the woods, across the road from the kids. The plane went into the woods and exploded. Bless his heart.”

           From 12-year-old Lisa Kondricki, a seventh grader at North River. “I was running around the track, trying to go slow, and the coach was hollering at me to speed up, and then I heard what I thought was really loud screaming, but not like from a person, you know? More like from a motor or something, and then this big whoosh, and then I looked up and it was like the trees were on fire. I never saw an airplane, just heard these weird noises and then the woods caught fire.”  

           From Tom Kramer, construction worker at Virginia Department of Transportation’s maintenance facility, next to the middle school and across the road from the crash site: “We had come back to the maintenance barn for some post hole diggers, and suddenly all the guys are like ‘Holy shit! He crashed!’ And I’m like, ‘What? Who crashed?’ So we hopped in the truck and went hauling ass over there, but the fire wouldn’t let us close enough to get him. But it was close enough to see him burning inside the plane. So I, just, you know, hurled my breakfast.”

           From Penelope Hinds, chair of the county Board of Supervisors: “I just feel awful. I’ve known Thirsty since the day he was born, and I’ve known his mother and dad since I was a child. Such dear, dear people. What a terrible loss for them. I’ve been to see them, and they are devastated, of course, but I was able to tell them that their son apparently is a hero. That seemed to help a bit. I’m planning to introduce a resolution with the board to recognize him.”

           From Meagan LeBlanc, VPU student: “Oh, God, it was just so totally gross. The plane just, like, blew up in midair. One minute it was flying low over Kroger, and the next, you know, kablooey. I was riding my bike along the Travis Street extension, so it went right over my head and right into those trees. I think it just missed the water tower.”

           From Phillip Casteneda, principal of North River Middle School: “One of the secretaries in the office said, ‘I can hear a plane’s engine cutting off,’ and so we ran outside, and, sure enough, this little plane was having a tough time keeping altitude and staying trim. I started running toward the track, because I saw the kids out there. I don’t know what I could have done if he’d plowed into them, but then, miraculously, he veered the other way and crashed across the road. I’m pretty sure he did it on purpose.”    

           From Valleydale Police Officer Timmy Healey’s incident report: “While on patrol in my vehicle this officer witnessed an individual attempting to pilot a small aircraft, yellow in  color, in the vicinity of the skies over the eastern part of the city. At which time said individual appeared to execute an intentional dive in the aircraft, in what this officer took to be a stunt-type or “hot dog” maneuver, however he was unable to execute a proper recovery from the dive in that said aircraft came into contact with a wooded portion of the ground. As a result the foilage became engulfed in flames. I contacted dispatch and responded to the scene in my vehicle at a high rate of speed, where I contacted several civilian witnesses who reported they were unsuccessful in their attempts to reach the pilot, who was trapped in the burning aircraft.”             

           Howard Kreiter, FAA spokesman in Washington: “We have heard from your police chief, and will respond with an investigator beginning tomorrow. Until such time as he arrives on site and completes his investigation, we will not comment.  No, I will not speculate on the cause of the crash until our investigator has had an opportunity to complete his investigation. The investigation could take one day, or it could take weeks, depending on the circumstances. I’m not prepared to speculate on that, either.” 

Exercise 6b:  Interviewing Meagan LeBlanc

            As Tori Baxter, write a story for The Herald based on the information below, and on notes you will take on a one-on-one interview that you will observe in class. Tori also gets information from clips of earlier stories. (You can find references to Meagan LeBlanc in Chapter One.) By interviewing Meagan, Tori is changing her focus from only the most recent event, so that she can fashion a story with more impact for local audiences.  Notice how she mixes open-ended and closed-ended questions for a subject who is willing and fairly relaxed, but who has an adolescent’s inclination to wander off point. Note also how Tori politely challenges Meagan to explain why some things Meagan mentions – such as race — are relevant. By giving Meagan the opportunity to explain, Tori can better judge whether the information belongs in her story at all.

           When you have written a story for the newspaper, try tightening it to a 30-second RDR for broadcast. Can you see why such a story would be better told as a longer broadcast “package” including bites from Meagan? 

           It is now mid-October. Meagan was featured this morning in a two-minute story and subsequent live interview on CNN. The subject was VPU’s quadrennial mock presidential nominating convention. Because it is celebrating its 100th anniversary – it has been held every four years for the past century — and because of its record for accuracy, the convention has attracted widespread media attention already. The convention is scheduled for March. Meagan is program chair. Officials at CNN estimate that the segment was seen by about four million people nationwide.

           Chapter One refers to Meagan’s rescue of 2-year-old Chandra Jefferson from a burning home in Valleydale a year ago. The President mentioned her in his State of the Union message in January. Meagan holds the conference record in the indoor 400 meters and outdoor 200 meters. She is co-captain of the VPU women’s track team and an avid rock climber. She was the youngest woman to scale the Dawn Wall of Yosemite’s famous El Capitan, a feat she accomplished with an older brother and uncle when she was 17. To reach Meagan, you leave a message on her answering machine. She calls you back later in the afternoon.



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