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Empty quotes: Fill ‘em or ditch ‘em

 “It’s an exciting time to be an Abbott shareholder,” said Mark Geraci Jr., a financial adviser for Sound Strategy Estate & Retirement Specialists … who works closely with many local Abbott employees, retirees and shareholders. (Chicago Sun-Times)

I hate quotationsTell me what you know. (Ralph Waldo Emerson.)


Testy Business Copy Editor Phillip BlanchardQuotations are the foundation of news stories, we have been told since the beginning of time. Quotes, it is supposed, lend credibility to our stories and put a human voice to our reportage. Everyone knows this.

The people who read this blog should know there’s more to it than that.  But many of you haven’t listened. Let’s go over this one more time.

In everyday practice, quotes too often are used as devices to break up long passages of text that, if properly written, tell the story and why it’s important. You know the formula: you write the lede, explain in the second graf why anyone should care, and then stick in a quote from someone who agrees with you.

Netflix is down

The site downrightnow monitors the status of web services, combining user reports and official announcements to tell you when there's service trouble.

Such quotes often are from someone directly involved in the story. Those may or may not serve as a springboard to move the story along. Usually, though, they are repetitive and highly expendable. It’s as though reporters think no one will believe their stories unless some guy (it’s almost always a man) backs them up.

“Often we try to tell the story with long quotes from a source. You can tell it better,” David Pauly writes in The Bloomberg Way. “Do your job; earn your money.” (If Bloomberg only followed this guideline.)

In business stories, quotations are often used to give companies an opportunity to deflect relevant questions. On the night before Christmas, Netflix had some technical problems and its streaming video service went down. This horrific turn of events — on Christmas Eve! — was reported as news, rather than the customer-service problem that it was. The New York Times was all over it.  (The Times made clear the gravity of the problem by reporting that “[s]ocial networks filled with complaints.”)

The reporter properly described how Netflix supposedly has “safeguards” to prevent such service interruptions, and then gave the company a chance to explain what went wrong: “Joris Evers, a Netflix spokesman, declined to elaborate on why Netflix went down despite these safeguards.” OK. “He said the company was investigating the cause and would do what it could to prevent the interruption from recurring.” You could edit that out for being obvious and self-serving.

And then, the follow-up quote: “‘We are happy that people opening gifts of Netflix or Netflix-capable devices on Christmas morning could watch TV shows and movies and apologize for any inconvenience caused Christmas Eve,’ Mr. Evers said.”  Free ad! That statement, wholly irrelevant to the news (such as it was), is something Netflix might use on a recording played to customers calling to complain. The editor should have cut the quote and, perhaps, taken a moment or two to make fun of the writer for including it.

The story went on to quote an “analyst” with no direct knowledge of what happened, and, finally, a woman who described what it’s like to try watching a movie on Netflix that wouldn’t play. Bummer!

Get rid of that stuff, too. Who knows? The time spent talking with the analyst and the aggrieved woman might have been better spent on reporting and that would have made it unnecessary to append a long correction to the story.


In Featured, Story ideas.

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