20/20 #7 — Interviews, quotations and paraphrases

What’s an interview? The default answer is that an interview is a personal meeting where you sit down with someone and talk about the subject matter of your article. But what about phone interviews and email “interviews?” What are best practices for interviewing and for quoting today?

An in-person interview is still the best practice. In person, you can see the reactions of the person you are interviewing, can see the signals that something is said humorously or sarcastically, can pick up on subtle physical cues and probe further when it looks like you are getting close to uncomfortable truths. Your interviewee can see you, too — ideally, that should build rapport and trust and get more forthright answers than you might get by phone.

If you quote someone in an article, your readers are justified in assuming that the quotes come from an in-person interview. If you interview someone by phone, that’s second-best. Best practices call for signaling the reader with something like, “as Ben Bigshot said in a telephone interview.”

IMHO, an email exchange is NOT an interview. If you send someone questions by email and they reply by email, you have no way of knowing whether the answers actually come from that person or from their publicist or their lawyer or their 12-year-old nephew. Moreover, you have no reading on whether they sound hesitant, whether you should press harder for a more exact answer, or whether they sound like they are hiding something, so you will look further for the truth.

If you quote from an email exchange, that MUST be stated clearly in your article. The way to do so is, “In response to emailed questions, Susan Spokester said …” or “Jane Doe wrote in an email that …”

Press releases and canned statements are NOT interviews. Any quote from a press release must identify the source: “Otto Official said in a press release that …”

Quotation or paraphrase?

Simply put, a quotation consists of the exact words spoken by someone, enclosed in quotation marks:

“I did not accept a single dollar from Texaco or any other oil company,” said Senator Bill Blowhard, “not last week, not last year, not ever.”

“I’ve listened to every weather report, and consulted my granny’s arthritic knee,” Juan Soto said, “and I can tell you that it’s going to rain tomorrow.”

Sally Spokester said, “Hamlet will open on March 15 and will run for three weeks.”

Two general guidelines for quotations:

  1. Most quotations read better if the “source X said” phrase is inserted somewhere in the quotation, rather than at the beginning or the end.
  2. Each quotation usually gets its own paragraph.

A paraphrase is an accurate restatement of what someone said, but not their exact words, and does not get quotation marks:

Senator Bill Blowhard said that he has not received money from oil companies.

Juan Soto said it’s going to rain tomorrow.

According to Sally Spokester, the play will open March 15 and run for three weeks.

Use a direct quotation when the person’s words:

1) need to be stated precisely, (especially if they are contradicted by other statements or evidence in your story);

2) are colorful or interesting (such as Juan Soto’s comment about the weather);

3) say something that you cannot possibly summarize or restate nearly as well as the person speaking.

Use a paraphrase in just about every other circumstance. For example, there’s no reason for a direct quotation from Sally Spokester — just give the information.

And one final tip: Don’t step on your own quotation. Here’s an example:

Juan Soto gave a colorful weather commentary, saying that it’s going to rain tomorrow. Soto said, “I’ve listened to every weather report, and consulted my granny’s arthritic knee, and I can tell you that it’s going to rain tomorrow.”

Sally Spokester gave information about the schedule of Hamlet. Spokester said the play will open March 15 and run for three weeks.

The first sentence gives exactly the same information as the quotation. Say it once — either as a quotation or a paraphrase — and move on.


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