On the Origin of Quotes
by Al Diamon
What he said … sorta: I’d like to see more attribution of quotations in news stories. All too often, reporters cut and paste quotes from press releases into articles as if they’d conducted interviews they never bothered to do.
There’s nothing wrong with using material from releases, but it should be clearly identified as such. Because we all know the person quoted often had some public-relations underling write the material in order to keep the esteemed boss from making a fool of himself or herself.
An example of the fuzzy origins of quotes turned up in the July 31 Portland Press Herald in a story by business writer Jessica Hall on WEX Inc.’s latest financial report. The financial processing company based in South Portland put out a press release touting its growth in quarterly earnings that contained quotes from company chairman and CEO Michael Dubyak. Of the two quotes in Hall’s story, one was exactly the same as that in the release and one wasn’t. That raises the question of whether Hall interviewed Dubyak or not. If she did, did he read one of his answers from the press release? Or did she blend together statements from a couple of sources?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those options, so long as the sources are clearly identified. To neglect to do so prevents readers from adequately assessing the credibility of the remarks. It also makes it look like the reporter is hiding something.
Clouding the issue: The Maine media have devoted a good deal of time and space over the past few days to stories on plans by the administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage to make changes to air quality rules. Most of the coverage seems to have been driven by complaints by environmental groups that painted the proposal in a negative light. Typical was a story in the MaineToday Media papers that said the rules would “weaken one of the state’s key anti-smog regulations.” Another MaineToday piece emphasized support for the changes from industries that emit pollution.
The reporting by staff writer Colin Woodard wasn’t exactly biased against the policy shift, but it came pretty close. Just how much spin Woodard put on his pieces became clearer when the Lewiston Sun Journal’s Scott Thistle weighed in a couple of days after the news broke. As Thistle noted, the changes are being backed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, part of the Democratic administration in Washington. His more thorough and better-considered coverage made the plan appear considerably less ominous and rather routine.
While Woodard is to be commended for bringing this proposal to light — LePage’s Department of Environmental Protection apparently planned to implement it without a public hearing — he allowed unsupported allegations of sinister motivations to creep into his work. He should have done more digging and provided the perspective Thistle did.
Ethics update: The national Society of Professional Journalists is preparing to update its code of ethics to reflect changes in the digital age. Maine SPJ chapter president Jeff Inglis, editor of the Portland Phoenix, sent out an e-mail this week inviting interested parties to attend a local session hosted by Maine Public Radio “Morning Edition” anchor and former SPJ national president Irwin Gratz on what alterations might be needed to reflect the new ethical reality. It’ll be held Thursday, August 15 at 5:30 p.m. at the Dry Dock, 84 Commercial Street in Portland.
Disclosure: My weekly political column appears in the Phoenix.
There goes the neighborhood: From an August 2 story by staff writer Stephen Betts in the Bangor Daily News on a proposal to construct a “high-end residential alcohol treatment center” in Camden, a project that has drawn vehement opposition from some neighbors, because, according to one of them, “It is our experience that the news media, when motivated by the desire to slur or harass celebrities and other wealthy individuals, will stop at nothing to obtain a story, and they are not afraid to assert their right to report it, even if it involves loitering, trespassing, intrusion and other public disturbances.”
I can see the Maine media loitering. The rest, not so much.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.