Posted by JC on February 14th, 2010
When is a quote not a quote? When is a quote something you didn’t say or even think in the first place? When you agree with a proposition or statement put to you by a journalist, that’s when.
This happens more regularly than you might think. How? Let’s take a hypothetical case.
Your company, The Good Guys, is in the spotlight over a spat with one of your competitors. The media are gathering. As far as possible you stay away from them. You resolve to handle this crisis, in public at least, with calm, good humour and dignity.
You’ve managed to get through a print interview with considerable poise, and carefully steered away from invitations to criticise your competitors, The Super Guys.
The journalist is nothing if not sympathetic to your cause. You feel as though you’ve got a friend at court. When she says, “But their business practices are a bit dubious, aren’t they?” you can’t help but chuckle and you say that you don’t disagree with her.
And then you read in the Sunday paper that you claim “The Super Guys’ business practices are dubious”. Hang about! You didn’t say that – she did. But you agreed with her, so you haven’t got a leg to stand on. You can protest that she put words into your mouth, but unless you spit them out at the time, she can report them as being your opinion.
There’s an excellent example of how journos get themselves a boomerang “quote”. A couple of weeks ago the Herald on Sunday published a story about leaked emails between Janet Wilson and Noelle McCarthy concerning NZ producer Meredith McGrath. The story included this:
Asked for comment yesterday, McGrath said the exchange about her was “nasty and bitchy”.
Replying to Brian’s post on this website, The Really Big News from Godzone, Meredith McGrath wrote:
I agree the story was a beatup. I even suggested as much to Carolyn Meng Yee when she telephoned me on the Saturday afternoon, breathlessly telling me she was giving me my ‘opportunity’ to tell my side of the story and to ‘set the record straight’.
Hence my ‘no comment’.
And in fact, the ‘nasty and bitchy’ comment she attributed to me was not made unsolicited; I was merely repeating back to Carolyn her own description of the emails.
The moral of the story is: Be wary of sympathetic journalists, and never agree with a print journalist’s comments unless you’re happy to have them attributed to you. Maybe even in quotes.
Having read Meredith’s comment, you have to say she weathered it well. But Carolyn Ming Yee took a bit of journalistic licence, to get the story she wanted. No credit to her.