Writers are a creative bunch. We love to blow our horns and write about subjects we dig. In our enthusiasm, however, it’s easy to get carried away. Remember the importance of keeping perspective in your writing.
How does getting carried away damage or make our writing lose credibility? One way is to take a quote and use it out of context.
For example, I tell you that someone told me, “John Smith is an alcoholic.” I do not tell you that I believe this is true. I only tell you this is what someone else said.
You write that I said,” John Smith is an alcoholic.”
When you print and publish that I said John Smith is an alcoholic, it’s not true. I told you what someone else said. I quoted that person. I clearly stated who told me. But you quoted me as saying it, when in fact, it’s hearsay. You don’t know if what I said was true or fabricated. Or perhaps it’s what I believe to be true, based on the information I have. Until you go further, to the source of the quote, you don’t know if this is indeed what I was told.
Writers, be careful how you put words on the page. When I interview sources, I tape record the entire conversation (with permission). I also take notes. But that recorded tape is my lifeline for getting the quotes straight.
It’s true that writers often condense or mildly rearrange what a source said. The writing community does not frown upon this practice as long as you keep what’s said in context. So far, I haven’t condensed or rearranged a quote except to clean up “um’s” or hesitations found in natural speech. I store the recorded tapes and a typed transcript should I need to prove what was said during the conversation.
Keep the context of what you read and hear. Blowing information out of proportion, sensationalizing to draw attention, or mis-using quotes damages your credibility.
My rule of thumb? When in doubt, check it out. If the answer isn’t forthcoming, don’t do it. Sitting on a story that you’re not sure of is far better than reporting falsely to get a headline.