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Say What? How Reporters Gather and Use Quotations

A year ago, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work. Thoughtful and challenging questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of columns. In this dispatch, deputy editor Steve Mills answers a question about quotations.

I am curious about quotations in journalism. There seems to be so much conflict currently about what people have actually said or the context in which they said it. How are quotes obtained and chosen? Why aren’t more things recorded to eliminate or minimize the arguments? —Corey Beauvais

Reporters work hard to get compelling or colorful quotations. It’s how we show people saying what they want to say in their own words. But getting those good quotations can be hard work. For some stories, we interview our subjects several times. Sometimes, we ask the same question more than once, or in subtly different ways, hoping to get a good quotation.

But what’s a good quotation? For my money, the best quotations reveal a truth about the person being quoted. They help reflect the speaker’s opinion on the subject of the story, hopefully in a lively manner, while offering a clue to their personality in how they use language. They capture a person’s emotions in their own words. Dive Deeper Into Our Reporting

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I was struck by a quotation in ProPublica Illinois reporter Duaa Eldeib’s story last month about six young men being released from prison after Gov. Bruce Rauner commuted their sentences. The young men had received lengthy sentences in adult prisons for minor infractions that occurred while they were in a juvenile correctional facility in southern Illinois.

Eldeib interviewed Shakira Cousett, whose 19-year-old son, Jaylan Banks, had his eight-year sentence commuted and was ordered freed. This is what Cousett told Eldeib as she waited for her son to be released: “It won’t be real to me until I can wrap my hands around him.” The sentence said everything about a mother’s worry for her son.

Quotations also help move stories forward; they don’t echo what the reporter has already written in his or her own voice. Instead, they add an urgency to the story as it moves to its natural finishing point. Reporters use smartphones and recorders as they interview Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill on Jan. 2. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Quotations are especially good for memorializing promises and statements from public officials. That’s why so many stories about the government shutdown have included President Donald Trump’s boast, made in a meeting with congressional Democrats, that he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security.” Not that it has stopped Trump from turning around and blaming Democrats for the shutdown since then.

That’s another thing about quotations: They don’t stop the person who was quoted from denying their own comments or claiming that what they said had been taken out of context. Not that we never get quotations wrong or never paraphrase them clumsily. But people sometimes forget or don’t realize everything they’ve told reporters, or they are mortified when they later see their words in print or online. So they complain.

That’s why many reporters record interviews. Recorders are especially prevalent in Washington, where you see reporters in scrums around officials reaching with recording devices to tape interviews or statements.

I was never a fan of using a tape recorder. It could be intrusive. But I was never hesitant to ask someone to repeat or clarify what they had said or to just talk slower so my note-taking could keep up with their speaking.

And on particularly contentious or sensitive stories such as investigations, I sometimes went over the quotations with the person I was quoting. I wouldn’t allow them to change their quotations so they could sound better, but I wanted to be sure I quoted them correctly and in context.

One of my favorite quotations came in a story I wrote about two northern Illinois sisters who were among the world’s leading cow picturers — photographers of cows for breeding catalogs, calendars (yes, for calendars) and other uses. As I watched them work one day, one of the sisters deadpanned, “Not every cow is photogenic.”

I wrote down those words and knew they’d make it into the story.

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