A Blog Around The Clock

The Ethics of The Quote

Yesterday, I had an interesting discussion on Twitter with @jason_pontin (and a couple of others chimed in, e.g., @TomLevenson and @scootsmoon) about the role of quotes in journalism. Specifically, about the importance of providing a brief quote from sources interviewed for a piece. The difference in mindsets of Old vs. New journalism appeared in sharp relief.

I did not really think hard about this question until now, so this post is just my first provisional stream-of-thought about this and I welcome discussion in the comments.

So, let me try a mental experiment here. You are a journalist. You picked, or are assigned, a topic to write an article about. You may know nothing, little or a lot about the topic. Regardless, you start with a clean slate. What do you do?

First, you conceptualize your article in your mind: decide what the limits are, i.e., what can and what cannot be included due to space restrictions you are given by the editor. Thus, in your mind, you already have a bare skeleton of the story.

Then, you hit the Rolodex and start calling people who may something interesting to say on the topic. You consciously or subconsciously pick people who can provide you with a broad spectrum of opinion on the topic. You ask them for interviews. Many say Yes.

You conduct the interviews for about 30 minutes to an hour with each person. You record or jot down notes or save their e-mail responses.

Then you start writing your article, putting your skeletal version into words. When done with that phase, you start fleshing it out. How?

You have learned, from interviews or before, what the spectrum of opinions is out there. You want to include some or most of them into your article. How do you go about that?

First, you decide that Opinion A is so out of whack it is not worth mentioning. Second, you decide that Opinion B is out of whack, but can be used for comic relief to make your story fun.

Then you are left with a few remaining opinions which are, in your view, “legitimate”. Now you need to find the best quotes that represent those opinions. How do you find them?

You go through all your transcripts/notes/recording and look for them. And you find them – one best wording for each of the opinions. You include them in your article and correctly attribute them to the authors. Your work is done – send to the editor and move on to the next story.

What is wrong with this picture? What is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong with this picture?

There are several layers of wrong. Let me try to dissect them, one at a time.

First wrong: you had the concept of the article in your head before you did the research. This shapes your research, choices of interviewees, choices of “opinions”, choices of quotes.

Second wrong: you picked to interview people with colorful views on the topic instead of people who have the relevant expertise to say something on the topic. Hence the appearance of Creationists, anti-vaccinationists, Global Warming Denialists or Republicans – people who are wrong every time they open their mouths – in the media.

Third wrong: you made decisions, out of your own gut instead of from deep research, which opinions are too wacky to include. How do you know they are wacky? Are you an expert? Are you sure they are just not outside the Overton Window, or outside the “legitimate sphere” as defined by the media itself?

Fourth wrong: you cherry-picked the quotes, looking for specific statements that illustrate the opinions you have decided to include. You are not interested, really, who they come from or if that person stands by it. You are just looking for who put it into words the best, the “best quote”. Journalists love language, but have a very post-modern relationship to facts. They think of themselves more as writers, with a skillful turn of the phrase, than as reporters who are stubbornly looking for the truth.

Even when asked, journalists openly state that their role is not to find the truth, but to register the spectrum of opinions out there. That is stenography at best (not even that, as some opinions are never registered, including some very valid opinions), not journalism.

But that is absolutely NOT what the audience expects. Audience is already aware of the spectrum of opinions out there. They look for you to tell them exactly which one of those opinions is correct, and which ones are bunk. But you never deliver. Which is why people are mad, and the press has an extremely low ranking in popular opinion on trustworthiness.

If you disagree with the above paragraph, think why that is so? Did you hear it from your editors and colleagues? If so, they are dead wrong. If you learned it in J-school, your professors were dead wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!!!

Now think again.

Is everything you ever learned in a professional setting about the role of journalism wrong? Could be. Time for deep introspection.

But let’s go back to the example and look at some other aspects of wrongness in it.

The method of quoting used is deeply unfair to the interviewees. They talked for an hour. You cherry-picked a quote that fits your own narrative, not theirs. They are misrepresented.

For example, I may start the interview by putting up the clearest possible wording of a statement that I deeply disagree with. I spend the rest of the hour explaining in great detail and nuance why that statement is wrong. But I worded it so well, it is just peachy for you to use it and put my name next to it as if I agreed with that statement. That is blatantly dishonest.

You got your pretty quote, but in the process you completely misrepresented my stand on the issue, perhaps 180 degrees from it (yes, this happened to me – not found in Google, in St.Peterburg Times, about Edwards’ concession to Kerry in 2004). In public. Forever associated with my name. I should be able to sue you for this!

Even when the quote is correct, e.g., I do agree with the statement, there is a reason why I talked for an hour: it takes an hour to explain it (this happened to me, too).

Perhaps that sentence was an aside, just a polite way to respond to one of the stupider of your questions, but the main thrust is elsewhere – but that never makes it into print (yes, this also happened to me).

That single sentence you chose is such an oversimplification of my view, that the commenters will rip me to shreds for being so dumb (yes, this also happened to me – the same St.Peterburg Times article). And you did it to me – I did my best trying to explain my position, but you were not listening to what I had to say, you were just hunting for pretty quotes that fit YOUR narrative.

And people know all this. Which is why so many people refuse to give interviews – they know for certain they will be misquoted (sure it’s verbatim, but plucked out of context it is meaningless).

Some people refuse interviews only when they are told they will not be able to check the quotes before publication. The journalists invoke some sacred rule about refusing to do this. I have no idea where the rule comes from, but it is stupid and wrong. It is preventing the person from avoiding slander.

It should be made a right, and written into law, and monitored by the Human Rights Watch, that an interviewee has to be able to see the article in advance, can change one’s own quote, and can remove one’s name and quote from the article if deemed necessary to protect one’s own reputation. I do not want my name associated with statements I do not 100% hold and support and I have a right to remove my name from them. If you interview me as an expert, that is your duty (this may differ if you are playing gotcha journalism with a politician, but that is a different kind of interview and a different kind of quote: extracting facts from an unwilling participant, not an expert who gave time to explain stuff to the public).

But refusing the interviewee this right is the way journalists wield power over the interviewees. And they relish that power. And will relinquish it only if it is taken out of their dead, cold hands. They reserve the right to misquote and thus slander everyone.

As there is no argument that can be correctly summarized with a single sentence to the satisfaction of the interviewed expert, does this mean that quoting someone should be never done?

No, there is a role for a quote – as a hook for the reader to click on the link and read (or listen to or watch) the entire transcript. It makes an interesting story that may pique the interest of a casual reader who will then follow the links to get more information, including, especially, the full treatment by the interviewed expert. Then the reader can see if the person was quoted correctly or not, and will understand that the quote is an oversimplification which the author does not really hold. No reputation is lost that way.

So, when you interview someone, pull out that audio recorder, or camera and record the whole thing. Then pay the transcribing services (or get an intern to do it, or, better still, don’t be lazy and do it yourself: unlike bloggers who have other jobs it is your full time job to do this, so do it). Or better still, conduct the interview by e-mail so all you have to do is copy and paste. Then make sure that every quote in your article links to the complete transcript/podcast/video of the entire interview. Everything less than that is deeply dishonest and no interviewee should ever agree to.

Finally, this way of collecting quotes is a disservice to the reader who is looking for facts and the truth, not the spectrum of well-known opinions. By wasting half the space on meaningless quotes, the journalist has no space left to make the Truth-statement for the readers: the very reason journalism exists. So, not just interviewees are screwed, but so is the audience.

The institution of the quote goes back to the era of printing on paper. There was very little (and expensive) real estate in the newspaper or magazine. The editor told you in advance how many inches you get for your story. Reducing 20 hour-long interviews into 20 single-sentence quotes is a way for you to prove to your editor and to readers that you did your job. To hell with substance or truth – you demonstrated that you put hours into the article and thus deserve your paycheck.

On the Web, real-estate is endless and cheap. Not linking out to complete documentation – including transcripts of all interviews – is deeply unethical in the 21st century journalism unhindered by the limitations of the dead-tree technology.

You can see the full transcript of our Twitter debate on this topic if you search Twitter for BoraZ + jason_pontin (you will have to scroll down and go to the second page to see it all) as well as a couple of side-discussions by searching BoraZ + scootsmoon and BoraZ + TomLevenson.

=================

Addendum.

Here are some articles for which I was interviewed and what I think of them (I skipped several because they are behind paywalls or not available any more), so we can see by example what works and what does not, and why:

This was the worst example. It does not even matter what I said and what was quoted – my name is in a piece that slanders everything I stand for, including my own book. But what does one expect from The New Scientist?

This one is the example where I talked for 65 minutes and all that was quoted was an unimportant aside. Was there really nothing else interesting in what I said? Including things I explained in detail, with passion, clearly indicating what is important? Or just not what the journo had in mind at the outset?

This was radio, so the quote is very brief, and I am OK with it.

This one (also carried by papers in Baltimore, Houston and Charleston SC) was really good – the journalist paid attention, learned, and used her own words to accurately portray what I said on top of a decent quote.

This one was also good, for the same reason.

Caroline McMillan did even better – published two articles side-by-side: one was a profile of me, the other about science blogging learned from interviewing me. Worked great together as a package.

John Dupuis, Klaus Taschwer, Simon Owens, Hsien Hsien Li, Brandon and Caryn Shechtman did the smart thing – posted entire interviews. If you are interested in me as a personality, or in my expertise, or in my opinion, just give me the mike. That’s the best solution for everyone.

Likewise on the radio – several times I was on for entire hour-long shows – see this, this and this for some recorded examples. My panels and lectures were sometimes recorded and posted online as well.

At this day and age, when this technology is easy and cheap – who needs quotes any more?

Update: This is an excellent example of an interview that includes several quotes PLUS provides the entire transcript.

Comments

  1. #1 bill
    June 20, 2009

    I know I sound like a cracked record, but this looks to me like another appeal for the death of “data not shown”. Just as no formal scientific claim should ever be supported with anything less than full data disclosure, so journalistic claims should be as fully supported as possible.

    While I would strictly outlaw “data not shown” in science, I don’t think I would *require* the same thing from journalists. They deal with sensitive issues and need some leeway. I definitely think that if a journalist wants to acquire a good reputation they should include full records/transcripts whenever possible.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    June 21, 2009

    Correct. See the side-discussion with @scootsmoon as we veered there. I took the extreme position: if forced to choose between a pretty, but shallow story and a spreadsheet chockfull of relevant data, I’ll have to pick the spreadsheet – that is information, thus News.

    All the pretty writing is just a hook to get the people to take a look at the actual information. If you don’t have the space and expertise to do a deep analysis of data, and all you do is quick summary, prettily written, than it is imperative to link to the data (which, in case of an interview, is the transcript). Leaving it off is unethical and is not journalism.

    A printed newspaper, a homepage of a news-site, a radio show, a TV show – all those are just colorful, exciting Tables Of Contents, trying to get the audience motivated to go to the relevant part of the website to see the full information. If you do not provide full information, you have failed at the basic role as a journalist: providing the public with information.

  3. #3 Bubs
    June 21, 2009

    This is quite a dumb piece and reflects a very poor understanding of journalism as well as an overly generalized opinion of journalists themselves. The things you rail against any good journalist (and there are plenty) would gladly rail against with you.

  4. #4 Coturnix
    June 21, 2009

    I am so glad you actually pointed out logical and factual errors in my argument and carefully dissected them for my readers, pointing to counterexamples in addition to ones I already did. What a useful contribution to the discussion! Is that how you do your real job, too?

    Yes, there are good journalists. They are rare. And this has nothing to do with the argument that the institution of the quote should be reconsidered as a journalistic practice in the 21st century.

  5. #5 Hilary PhD
    June 21, 2009

    What you say about quotes is true but there is advice for interviewees that can help to mitigate it. If a journalist calls you, offer to brief them off the record. You can then discuss/explain your views freely and at length. If you’re lucky, this may enable them to see a different angle on the story from the pre-conceived one they started from.

    It’s important to understand what “off the record” means. It doesn’t mean they can’t report your views. It just means they can’t attribute these views to you, either indirectly or via a direct quote.

    At the end of an off the record discussion, the journalist may well ask for a quote. Obviously you don’t have to give a quote if you don’t feel able to summarise your actual views in one brief sentence, but it’s your opportunity to do so if you wish.

    I don’t know why this isn’t taught more widely.

    A further tip for radio/tv: clearly going “off the record” isn’t possible in an interview for broadcast (though you can do it beforehand when briefing the researcher). And even if the interview initially goes out live it may later be edited and re-hashed in other places. Therefore, never agree with anything the interviewer puts to you. If they say “Would you say that [pigs might fly]” and you say “Yes, but only in an alternative universe” it then becomes legitimate to convert this into a direct quote as “X said that ‘pigs might fly’”. Always answer briefly but only in your own words that you’re willing to be quoted on.

  6. #6 DeLene
    June 21, 2009

    Have you talked with journalists who have told you that they start out with a skeleton outline *before* they do any interviews on their story? I have never outlined a piece before doing at least two or three interviews, or talking to the main source. (How can you? You do not know what the story is yet?) I don’t know many reporters who do the former actually. Also, don’t forget the role of the editor in a journalist’s piece. It may very well be the editor who insists on removing the wacky opinion, or the inserting it, and not the lowly, overruled reporter. I’m also curious to know which papers are refusing to run quotes back by the sources. This is a basic accuracy check, and I’ve not heard of any paper/publication worth its salt refusing to do this as a condition for an interview.

  7. #7 DeLene
    June 21, 2009

    As a follow-up to Hilary PhD’s quote — actually, I think she means “on background” or on “deep background.” To talk to a reporter “off the record” does indeed mean they cannot use the material at all; they can not report on it directly but they can use the material you provide to dig up other sources, facts or figures. If you talk to them “on background,” they can report on the material you provide, and they can attribute it with a description of your job, for example, just not your name (A science blogger from Raleigh, N.C. said x, y, z about science reporting…). On “deep background,” then can use the material you provide, but they must attribute it to an anonymous source, with minimal to no description of why that source is a relevant voice in the story (A blogger from the southeast said x, y, z about science reporting…).

  8. #8 Coturnix
    June 21, 2009

    But, isn’t quoting ‘anonymous sources’ the scourge of political reporting? Replacing a bad practice with a worse practice?

    Anyway, Dan Conover transcribed the conversation on Twitter that precipitated this post.

  9. #9 nbm
    June 21, 2009

    I’m not reading this as a journalist, which I haven’t pretended to be since the High School newspaper where I was mostly in advertising anyway, but as a contributor to Wikipedia. We have the discussion all the time, and much of it is covered in the policies “Neutral Point of View” & “Undue Weight”. When collaboration works as it should, it’s a great system. One little quote-argument the last few days, for example, is: should we write “X University said”, “a spokesman for X University said” or “Joe Doe, spokesman for X University, said”? Potentially unfair quotes get pounced upon regularly, and a link to the paper or book is required for a quote. When the system works as it should.

  10. #10 Michael Tobis
    June 21, 2009

    Bravo! Well said indeed. Linking to transcripts is indeed a good idea in most cases, but this to me is not the primary insight of the column.

    The key insight is the bolded paragraph; that the journalist’s function is to understand the situation, understand the arguments, and rate them as to plausibility and quality.

    This is essentially why science journalism must for the most part be undertaken by people trained in science at least to the Master’s degree level. The idea that journalism itself is the required expertise for reporting on complex issues makes so little sense as to be mindboggling.

    Thanks yet again for your insights and presentation.

  11. #11 ecologist
    June 21, 2009

    Well, there is something wrong, I think, with your analysis. And it starts with the statement:

    “First wrong: you had the concept of the article in your head before you did the research. This shapes your research, choices of interviewees, choices of “opinions”, choices of quotes.”

    That accusation of wrongness is itself wrong when applied to science, let alone to science journalism. All scientific research (and, I would suggest, all science journalism) must, and should, start with the concept of the article in one’s head before doing the research. It does, and should, shape your research, choices of experiments (in science) or interviewees (in journalism), etc etc. It is supposed to do exactly that.

    The myth of inductive science dies hard.

    What is wrong, and what can legitimately be criticized in both science and journalism, is failing to recognize when the interviews, opinions, etc, or experiments, data, etc, that you find demand that you change the concept you started out with in your head.

    To suggest that it is “wrong” to start out by conceptualizing your article is … well, wrong.

  12. #12 Coturnix
    June 21, 2009

    Yup, that is what I said. Starting out with an unchangeable story is what they tend to do. And remember that 99.999999% of journalists have approximately zero scientific training and thus do not think like scientist about starting with the evidence and building on it, instead of starting with the conclusion and then looking for the evidence (is that why they are so sympathetic to Creationists? Same thought habits?)

  13. #13 daedalus2u
    June 22, 2009

    I disagree that all scientific research has to start out with a concept in one’s head. If you are doing cutting edge work, there are times when you know that you don’t know what is going to happen. Is it then unscientific to do the experiment to try and find out?

    I appreciate that all scientific papers are written with the perspective that the authors knew what was going to happen when the tests were done. Maybe they knew because they had preliminary data. Or maybe that perspective is an artifact of how scientific papers are written.

  14. #14 Michael Tobis
    June 22, 2009

    The misinterpretations are surprising. Bora, whose first language is not English, occasionally slips a tiny bit outside the idiomatic but I always find him clear.

    So it’s peculiar to see the last two correspondents get this article exactly backwards. To clarify: it is journalists and not scientists who tend to start interviewing with a clear concept.

    The problem is exactly identified here: they think they are writers and not reporters; that they should report only those facts which keep the article interesting, rather than only those matters of interest that keep the article factual.

    Examples are legion, but I write to provide a fresh one. Michael McCracken quoted on Climate Progress via Anna Haynes:

    No, the New York Times quote did not represent my views, and it did not even represent the reporter’s attempt to portray my comments-–I am told the article was edited down a lot from his submission.

    As for me, they quoted 7 words out of a 34 word sentence that was part of a 900 plus word set of comments…

    Very poorly done by them–-and by me as I should have given them only the 7 words that I would wanted to have them use.

    Joe Romm, summarizing, advises as follows:

    So this is an important lesson to anyone who talks to the media. Keep it short and when they keep asking you the same version of one question over and over again, they are trying to get you to answer it differently. Don’t do it!

    This may well be true but it’s not indicative of information flowing effectively from primary sources to the public. To say the least.

  15. #15 bluefoot
    June 22, 2009

    Thanks for a great piece. I have also had the same experience of a journalist (from a highly regarded newspaper) coming to interview me and others in the lab having already made up his mind about what the narrative was going to be. Not that the journalist said so, but the questions he asked made that clear. We all spent a good deal of effort trying to change that when we were interviewed since the narrative was so skewed. We would have declined to speak with him, but the university press office insisted since it was a highly regarded and high profile newspaper. The resulting article was a complete misrepresentation of the research, following the pre-decided narrative. Nor were any members of the lab asked to verify any quotes or information before publication.

  16. #16 James Hrynyshyn
    June 22, 2009

    Bora’s argument that journalism should be about evaluating the merits of various opinions, not just providing he-said, she-said reporting, is bang on. There are far too many journalists who practice only the latter.

    I would argue however, that he-said, she-said is not what’s taught in journalism school; it’s just what many journalists end up doing because :

    1) They’re lazy
    2) They’re rushed
    3) They don’t know enough to pass judgment because their editors haven’t given them the luxury of the time and resources to understand the issues.

    I also take issue with the contention that reporters should always offer to let sources read the story. There are quite good reasons for the practice of not letting sources see material first.

    In political or business stories, giving sources an advance look is just plain idiotic for reasons that should be obvious, but apparently aren’t:

    1. The possibility of a court injunction being filed before publication.
    2. The possibility a competitor will get a hold of the story.
    3. The reality that the writer has no control over what actually ends up in print.

    That’s just three. There are plenty more as any veteran journalist can attest.

    Now, science stories rarely involve the same threats, but publishers and editors are loathe to make the rules apply to only some reporters in the news room.

    On the other hand, Bora’s right: letting sources see what you’re doing with their words will enhance trust and likely improve what ends up in print. So what do I do?

    As a freelancer, I generally don’t have to follow specific newsroom policies unless warned ahead of time. But I know that few reputable publications condone source vetting, so I have come up with a kind of compromise. I send the quote back to the source, with the framing paragraphs — just enough context to give the source a sense of how their words are being handled, but not enough so they get a preview of the rest of the story.

    I also make it clear that what happens to the story after it leaves my hands is well, out of my hands. I have had great success at convincing scientists who have never dealt with me before to talk. Occasionally they have made suggestions that improved the story. Occasionally they have asked to rewrite their own quotes. I sometimes agree but not if their suggestions change the essence of what they actually said.

    Also: on the idea of posting transcripts online. I’ve not done this yet, but have no objection and expect to start doing it soon.

    For me, it’s all about accurately representing what the source said and ensuring it’s put in proper context. My goal is to do my best to ensure the source isn’t surprised by what they see when the story appears.

    Anything that can further that goal should be embraced with open arms.

  17. #17 Coturnix
    June 22, 2009

    Thanks, James.

    I have placed in parentheses up there that this may not apply to cases in which the interviewee is not willing provider of expertise, or is a person likely to spin. That is a different case altogether, something to think about.

    I also agree with your 3 points about the reasons they do HeSaidSheSaid – though the View From The Middle (as Jay Rosen puts it) is also a factor: feeling smug by taking a position midway between the two extremes regardless of the Truth-values of the extreme cases.

    You are right that lying, spinning etc. are rare occurrences in science. But I have to stress here that a scientific debate has to be within science. The Evolution-Creation debate is not scientific it is political. The same goes for Global Warming Denialism, anti-vaccinationist loonies, or HIV-AIDS denialists – none of those are scientific controversies as science is squarely on one side. Taking a midpoint view between a Truth and a Lie is a Lie, too.

  18. #18 Coturnix
    June 22, 2009

    The discussion continued on Twitter and FriendFeed. I guess this link captures it all, though not in any kind of chronological order.

  19. #19 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2009

    I don’t know what I think about any of this yet, but I’ll add something to the discussion:

    I’ve very rarely written something in which I provide a quote, but I’ve been quoted very often, and it is almost always bad. The only times I’ve ever been not embarrassed or otherwise felt badly about a quote is when I wrote the quote myself in collaboration with a press office journalist.

    So, when I’m interviewed, I always send the interviewer an email with three sentences in it. Each sentence is a separate paragraph, each is short, each is accurate, each is usable as a quote, and each is non-embarrassing.

    Not that these ever get used, but at least I tried.

  20. #20 DeLene
    June 23, 2009

    Hi Bora, as a follow-up to your “anonymous sources” as a scourge question — I do not believe you can roundly say that this practice is all bad all the time, or all good all the time. That is a false dichotomy. It depends upon the context of the story, and how the source is used. Many political stories can not be told *without* the use of anonymous sources. Conversely, many political stories are told quite poorly because of an over-reliance upon them. The Deep Throat source was anonymous for decades and took down a corrupt president. That was a good use of an anonymous source disclosing highly relevant data to journos on deep background. But many of the war stories we saw in the Bush years over relied on unnamed “senior admin officials” to the point that the stories were weakened, IMHO, and trust was eroded between readers and newspapers/journos. I don’t see much need for anonymous sources in science reporting, unless there is a highly politicized angle to the implications or applications of the science (as in climate change, or nuclear tech). Anyways, that’s my two cents. Have a great week.

  21. #21 daedalus2u
    June 23, 2009

    In any use of anonymous sources, the reporter has (in my opinion) the obligation to disclose the identity of that anonymous source if that source exploits the trust of the reporter as Oliver North did by leaking military details to Newsweek and then in sworn testimony saying that Congress leaked the details.

    http://www.newsweek.com/id/61762

    I think that many of the “leaks” in the rush to war in Iraq were similar; they were actually lies, orchestrated to accelerate the rush to the judgment that war with Iraq was necessary. When the reporters who were fed those lies found out they were lies, they should have released the details of who leaked the lie and the circumstances around it.

    I think that if a reporter or news outlet is unwilling to sanction an anonymous source for lying to them or abusing their trust, by “outing” the anonymous source, then the reporter is not an honest broker of information but is a hired shill, bought and paid for by the anonymous source.

  22. #22 Pascal Lapointe
    June 24, 2009

    Think about all your “wrongs”, starting with the first one:

    First wrong: you had the concept of the article in your head before you did the research. This shapes your research, choices of interviewees, choices of “opinions”, choices of quotes.

    And then think about how you wrote this article. This is exactly the same road that followed your mind. Except that you didn’t quote anybody.

    Is it better, because it is only your opinion, and you didn’t try to insert other opinions that reflect or not your opinions? Could be. But on the other hand, maybe interviews could also have slightly altered your opinion, and then, your article would have been better.

    By the way, is it not also how social science are done? They start with “opinions”, they choose readings and interviews and those choices are shaped by initial opinions… which can change during the process, or not.

  23. #23 JR Minkel
    June 29, 2009

    As a working science journalist, all I can say to this post is, maybe scientist bloggers don’t realize how concerned many of us journalists are about the ethics of our profession.

  24. #24 Coturnix
    June 29, 2009

    Perhaps. But bloggers did not fall from Mars yesterday. Bloggers are people. Always been here. Your audience. Forced to be silent until recently, and now capable of talking back. If your audience massively does not see how much you care about journalistic ethics, or let me rephrase this better, points out that so-called journalistic “ethics” are not ethical but hurtful, who is right? Perhaps their perception should tell you something and it is a good idea to listen.

  25. #25 JR Minkel
    June 30, 2009

    The whole question of journalistic ethics raised by my colleagues turns on who our audience is. Is it made up primarily of scientists who want to hear what’s going on in other fields, in which case it makes sense for published research to drive news? (Although you can see from news sections in Science and Nature there’s plenty more to be said.) Or is it the public who needs to be able to distinguish, say, good medicine from bad? The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but what my colleagues are reacting to is the lingering conception of science journalism as primarily responsible to scientists, as opposed to the public, or even as opposed to “truth.”

    Regarding your model of linking to what the scientist actually said in an interview, here’s an example where a scientist blogger surprised me by doing just that. It provides evidence for my basic point: just as scientists are in a better position to judge what is good science, I think journalists are in a better position to judge what is ethical in their own work.

    Which is not to say we couldn’t use feedback from concerned scientists such as yourself. And which is not to say that all science reporting is good. But you have to think about three things here: experts, journalists and audiences. Each one will tend to fail in its own way, and focusing on the failings of one over the other two makes sense as an abstraction but not in practice.

  26. #26 Coturnix
    August 9, 2009

    So, to summarize:

    It is OK to quote.

    If you do not post a link to the full transcript, you lose trust.

    If you post a link to the full transcript, you gain trust.

    Most readers will not read the transcript (or listen/watch to audio/video) but a few will, and those few will inform the others, in the comment thread, if the quote was fair and what else was in the interview. If a journalist consistently quotes correctly, the trust grows.

    Those journalists who whine about the time and difficulty of providing transcripts are tremendous Luddites who still use pens and paper instead of digital recorders – they need to grow up.

  27. #27 Coturnix
    April 7, 2010

    Well, I am not the only one understanding that journos come to the story with preconceptions in their heads, just looking to fill in the gaps with quotes – see The Bias of Veteran Journalists for a good account.

  28. #28 Dan Ferber
    June 25, 2010

    Provocative post, but based on some erroneous assumptions.

    “First, you conceptualize your article in your mind: decide what the limits are, i.e., what can and what cannot be included due to space restrictions you are given by the editor. Thus, in your mind, you already have a bare skeleton of the story.”

    This is a straw man. Good journalists approach a story with an open mind, ask questions first, and frame the story only after talking with enough sources to be confident they understand the news, the context, and the implications for their audience. They don’t say I have only 400 words, so I’ll just select one source from column A and another from column B. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen–it does–but you tar all with one brush. Interviewing a working journalist would have made for a better informed post. This is the main reason journalists do interviews–we realize we’re not experts and we speak with people who are–with an open mind.

    “Second wrong: you picked to interview people with colorful views on the topic instead of people who have the relevant expertise to say something on the topic. Hence the appearance of Creationists, anti-vaccinationists, Global Warming Denialists or Republicans – people who are wrong every time they open their mouths – in the media.”

    This reveals a deep misunderstanding of how good journalism works. Again, I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. It does, usually by less experienced or less responsible reporters. There’s bad journalism out there. But your post reveals a seriously closed mind. (Republicans are always wrong? Really?) If you were to exhibit such a closed mind into a newsroom, a good editor would kick your butt from here to Tuesday, forcing you to get sources who represent the range of legitimate, informed opinion on the story in question, or, if you were a freelancer, killing the story and not assigning to you again. Intellectual discipline and fairness are integral to good journalism.

    “Third wrong: you made decisions, out of your own gut instead of from deep research, which opinions are too wacky to include. How do you know they are wacky? Are you an expert?”

    No, and we know it. Therefore we do research as deep as possible in the time available, and make decisions based on that research. We also develop specialties where we learn the lay of the land, not unlike a scientist, which helps select sources and provide context. A good journalist would never opine about a whole class of people (say, bloggers) the way you do about journalists. He would do the interviews and other research and write a fair-minded piece that represented what he’d learned.

    I could go on, but that’s enough for now. I actually think you’re a good blogger, but you seem to have a very large chip on your shoulder when it comes to working science journalists.

    One of the conclusions from the wonderful conference that you organize was that the bloggers vs. journalists war was passe. So, why are you still fighting it?

  29. #29 Coturnix
    June 25, 2010

    I think we differ in degree. I think that the examples of atrocious journalism vastly outnumber the examples of good journalism – something that comes from my experience checking ALL of the coverage of PLoS ONE articles, plus whatever else I see on Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook or blogs.

    Republicans are always wrong. I’ll give you a cookie if you find me a link to a statement by a Republican official, paid operative, or media talking head, uttered in the last 30 years, that proved to be objectively correct in the end. Stating this in this blog post is also my way, for people who are not regular readers, to insert my View, so people know where I am coming from, thus my way of avoiding the trust-breaking View From Nowhere that so infests the US journalism.

    Finally, when dealing with time-related issues, it is vitally important to check the date of the post. Did you check? In relation to the date of this post, when was my conference? Before or after? By how long? Have you read stuff I have written on this topic since mid-2009? Since the conference in January 2010? Direct follow-ups on this post? Discussions of this post on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook, as well as other people’s blogs? Have you fact-checked yourself before posting? Obviously not. Thus you are also not in a position to evaluate if I am a good blogger or not, so that statement is there for other reasons – not a statement of fact or your opinion, but either as a deflection of my potential anger, or as a snide pat-on-the-head by someone who self-designated himself as a judge of what is quality blogging, putting himself above me in the hierarchy. What is your emotional need for doing this? Can you do some self-analysis?

  30. #30 Dan Ferber
    June 25, 2010

    Yup, Bora, I missed the date of the post. You got me on that. I followed a link from a recent (June 2010) post of yours. Yes, I’ve read other blog posts you’ve written and comments on other people’s blogs–certainly not religiously, but enough to see this theme reappear.

    I read a lot of the coverage of the conference, on your blog and others. I think the conference is great, and plan on attending when I can.

    As for my reasons for challenging you, I have to admit that I find it a tad annoying when scientist-bloggers berate a profession I have devoted years of my life to doing well without finding out how members of that profession actually operate. But mostly I’m just having fun.

    Just as scientist-bloggers can judge journalists, journalists can judge scientist-bloggers. Turnaround’s fair play. Have a good weekend.

  31. #31 Coturnix
    June 25, 2010

    ;-)

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