Using Quotations to Report Facts


Here's a tip far too many writers need to hear: Don't use quotations to report facts.

Let me demonstrate.

“The school was founded in 1897 by settlers from Pennsylvania,” Mary Schoolspokesperson said.

Here’s another:

“Just over 38% of registered voters turned out for the election,” Shelly Soandso said. “That’s a 2% decrease from last year.”

One more:

“The parade begins at 8 a.m. and ends at around 11 a.m., or whenever the last float reaches Sierra Madre Boulevard,” said Joe Repstheclub.

I see stuff like this all the time in my editing and it tells me in an instant something the writer would prefer I didn’t know: He has no real news experience.

Journalism has some good ideas about what kind of information belongs in quotations or, more importantly, what does not. In its simplest form, the best principle is this: Facts are the reporter’s job. They should be verified by him and reported in his own words, rather than attributed to someone else. Look at a hypothetical example so you can see why.

“My neighbor Dan is a child molester,” Joe Soandso said.

That’s not OK. It doesn’t absolve the reporter of responsibility for the facts. It doesn’t even protect him from legal liability. The reporter and publication can be sued. And the “We didn’t say it, Joe Soandso did” argument won’t hold water.  (If you’d like to know more, read the section on libel law in the back of the Associated Press Stylebook.)

But that’s an extreme case. Most abuses of this principle don’t involve shocking assertions. They just say stuff like “The park opens at 10 a.m.,” which comes off as amateurish because, in professional publications, the facts come straight from the reporter – the person who takes responsibility for them. And quotes are left for opinions, observations, and other bits exclusive to the person saying them.


Tags: ,