Why the proper use of quotes is important

The correct use of quotes is an important part of journalism. In this training module we look at some of the basic rules for adding quotes to news stories and features. We will look at the different types of quotes - including partial, incomplete and scare quotes - how they should be used and how they should not be used

Image by Quinn Anya and released under Creative Commons

Image by Quinn Anya and released under Creative Commons

What is a quote?

A quote is the written form of the words which people have spoken.

Occasionally it will also apply to words they have written down, perhaps in a book or a news (press) release.

The alternative to using a quote is to rewrite the sentence into what we call reported speech.

Quotes should not be used on radio, which should broadcast the words in the spoken form.

"Attribution is stating who made the quote or gave the information"

Television journalists can use quotes shown as text on the screen.

Attribution is stating who made the quote or gave the information.

See the training module on the correct use of attribution.

The most common form of attribution uses the verb to say.

Always say who is speaking. In America, attribution is called the tag.

Always attribute quotes you use

Why use quotes?

There are three main reasons why you should use quotes in print journalism:

1: Accuracy

If you repeat the exact words which people themselves used you will reduce the risk of misreporting what they say.

2: Clarity

When we give a person's exact words our readers can see both the ideas and the way they were presented.

3: Reality

People often use lively language when they speak. Quotes allow you to put that lively language directly into your story.

One of the golden rules of journalism is: Let people speak for themselves.

Never start a news story with a quote

The most important reason for not starting a story with a quote is that a quote itself seldom shows the news value of your story.

It is your task as a journalist to tell the reader what is news.

A standard intro in reported speech is the most effective method of expressing an idea

Very few people speak well enough to say in one sentence what a good journalist can compress into a well-written intro.

One of the few places where a journalist can occasionally begin a story with a quote is in writing features - and then only in special cases.

As a rule, do not start stories with quotes until you reach a level of experience when they earn their place through artistic merit and not because of their novelty.

A quote itself seldom shows the news value of your story

Quotes in the rest of the story

If you are going to quote a speech or a personal interview, never leave the first quote later than the third or fourth paragraph of the story.

If you cannot find a quote strong enough to go that high, you should question the value of covering the speech or doing the interview in the first place.

If there are no good quotes there might be no story

How often should you use quotes?

Although quotes bring a story alive, it is still possible to kill a good story by carelessness, particularly over-repetition.

Do not put in strings of quotes simply because you have them in your notebook.

Alternate quotes and reported speech, choosing those quotes which are especially strong and rewriting in reported speech those which are either too complicated or too long.

Don't overuse quotes just because you have them

Partial quotes

There is seldom any excuse for using partial quotes, whether it is in an intro or in the main body of the story.

The main exception is when the words you are quoting are slang, such as "dead loss", "the bee's knees", "Star Wars" or "junket".

If you do use a partial quote in the intro, you must give the full quote later in the story; otherwise the reader may believe that it is you using slang.

"If you use defamatory words, you can be sued, whether they were your words or someone else's, whether or not they were in quotes"

Some bad journalists use quotation marks around words or phrases which they think might be defamatory.

They mistakenly believe that, by showing that the words were said by someone else, they themselves will not be sued for defamation.

This is not so. If you use defamatory words, you can be sued, whether they were your words or someone else's, whether or not they were in quotes.

Do not put individual words or phrases in quotation marks simply because someone else said them first.

Most descriptive words can stand by themselves, without the support of quotation marks.

Putting defamatory words in quote marks doesn't offer legal protection

Incomplete quotes

Incomplete quotes are slightly different to partial quotes. Incomplete quotes are full sentence quotes with some words left out.

They can be used if it is made clear that you have omitted some words or phrases without altering the essential meaning of the sentence.

This should not be done because you failed to make a note of the whole sentence, only if the part you want to cut is either insignificant or unconnected.

You must avoid changing the meaning

Completing quotes

Sometimes you may need to use a strong quote which does not actually contain all the information your reader needs in order to make sense of the sentence.

This can happen because the person is speaking about something he or she does not mention in the actual quote itself.

In such cases you can insert the missing fact - often a name or a title - in square brackets - within the quote to show what you have done.

Whether you use a full quote, a partial quote or an incomplete quote, you must not take it out of context.

The most common complaint against journalists - after that of misquoting itself - is the accusation that the reporter took the statement out of context.

Always keep quotes in context

Scare quotes

Scare quotes are words or short phrases which are placed between quotation marks when they really do not belong.

Usually, the writer is trying to add stress to the words or to suggest something other than their obvious meaning.

"Scare quotes are usually unnecessary and should only be used if you are confident they are required"

Scare quotes are usually unnecessary and should only be used if you are confident they are required.

As discussed above, there are usually better ways of using partial quotes.

The simplest reason for scare quotes is to add emphasis, which in literature is normally done by the use of italics.

In news reporting, however, this usage can cause confusion or be misleading.

Unless the words are actually quotes which can be attributed to a person, avoid scare quotes for emphasis.

A more common use of the scare quote is to suggest that the word or phrase should not be taken at face value.

It is often used to suggest disbelief or actual disagreement with the words as they are being used.

In news scare quotes can cause confusion or be misleading

In summary

Quotes are an important tool for print journalists, but they should never be used on radio, and only as text on television.

1: Never begin a news story with a quote.

2: Try to keep a balance between quotes and other sentences.

3: Take care when punctuating quotes.

4: Avoid partial or incomplete quotes unless they are necessary.

5: Avoid scare quotes

And finally, most important of all

Never make up quotes

There is, of course, no excuse for making up a quote. That is one of the greatest sins a journalist can commit.

It destroys your integrity and risks landing both you and your employer in an expensive action for defamation. Don't do it.

The News ManualThis module is a one of six from The News Manual reproduced here with permission. Unlike other modules on this site, The News Manual modules are not covered by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA. If you want to reproduce any you will need to contact the editor.

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