In Issue 1/2020

A quote is an essential part of a journalistic narrative; thus converting spoken utterances into written form is an essential part of journalistic work. Despite this, it is not generally known how spoken interviews are reproduced as quotes. We tend to perceive quotes as direct, word-for-word, testimonies of the original utterances. However, the truth is not that simple, as I will illustrate with the following quote, in which the director of a company that manufactures high-technology devices describes the company’s activities abroad:

“We have targeted international markets from the beginning, and have hospitals from around the world as our customers”, the director says.

Many may think that this quote is an exact reproduction of what the interviewee has said to the journalist in the interview. However, the transcript of the interview reveals something quite different.

Journalistyour customers then they are like hospitals (.) and such
Intervieweethey are hospitals yeah
Journalistyeah (.) but from the beginning it has been kinda clear that it’s also directed abroad
JournalistI mean (.) the whole world is the market (.) isn’t it
Intervieweeyes yes that’s right (.)

In general, a single quote can combine an interviewee’s utterances from two or more places in an interview. Even large omissions can be made from a continuous stretch of speech when it is used as a quote. Fragmentary and incomplete sentences are often repaired by compressing and rewording them so that they can be correctly understood in the new, written context. Furthermore, some verbal features resulting from the nature of oral communication, such as pauses, self-repairs and word repetitions, have barely any equivalence in the conventions of written journalism. It is also common for the linguistic form of the quoted text to be polished towards the aspired standardised register, although some vernacular cues are sometimes used in order to “spice the quote”.

In this particular case, the journalist’s words have jumped into the interviewee’s mouth in a modified form. This phenomenon, in which the interactive turn exchange between the journalist and the interviewee is simplified for the resulting article, can be called monologisation. It occurs mainly by obscuring the involvement and influence of the journalist in the interview. In other words, the journalist not only introduces topics and asks the questions in the interview but also keeps the conversation going and structures it by using verbal responses as well as gestures. In the journalistic article, however, all this is concealed and the interaction is presented as the interviewee’s unprompted and continuous speech, though in written form.

A view behind the scenes of quoting

The comparison between original and final texts describesthe process of quoting. However, in order also to explain the process, my research asked the journalists to justify, one by one, the modifications that they have made to their quotes.

In the case presented above, the journalist explained that he was assigned to write an article having “internationalisation” as its main topic. When he called the interviewee for the first time, he told to him that the central point of the article would be the international markets of the interviewee’s company.

In the actual interview, the journalist wanted to introduce this main topic to the discussion to elicit more information on it. However, as they had already discussed that specific topic – internationalisation – over the phone, it was taken for granted in the interview. There was no need to ask any explicit questions related to internationalisation – it would even have sounded weird. However, when the journalist was writing his article, he wanted to “let the interviewee say the main point”, even though the quoted phrase was never actually uttered during the interview.

The purpose of presenting things in quotes

In addition to the eye-catching linguistic modifications, there are also two even more essential and far-reaching processes going on in quoting. First, it is significant which particular, shortish utterances journalists extract from the interview to be used as quotes. Secondly, the articles are not descriptive, slavishly reproduced accounts of the course of the interview, but independent and dramatically consistent stories. Therefore, where journalists position the to-be-quoted stretches in the emerging article is also significant. The article involving the internationalisation quote has seven quotes altogether, and their order is partially different from the interview.

According to my research, journalists select utterances to be quoted in the aim of constructing the persona of the interviewee, disclaiming responsibility for the content, or adding plausibility. For example, a quote attributed to an expert strengthens the veracity of factual content covered in the article. Journalists then position the quote so that it constructs the narrative; the quote about internationalisation was positioned in a prominent place in the article. The other strategy for positioning quotes is to pace the structure, so that the quote and the body text alternate in a smooth way. In summary, journalists aim primarily to make a good story with good quotes. They do not aim to transform spoken utterances into a written format as verbatim as possible, nor to maintain the exact meaning of these utterances.

Quoting is the key to understanding journalistic writing

Finally, the process of quoting can facilitate understanding the entire production of news articles. What I mean by this is that the central phases of the production can be perceived as sub-processes of quoting.

1. Journalists and their editorial teams first decide on a topical issue to be addressed and, at the same time, reject other topics (topicalisation).

2. Journalists identify societal groups that are somehow linked to this topical issue, such as victims, authorities, lay people, or politicians, and bring some of these groups, but most likely not all of them, into the emerging article (societal localisation).

3. Journalists select some people as representatives of these societal groups (personalisation).

4.Journalists verbalise the representatives’ points of view, often by means of quoting (verbalisation).

These four sub-processes of quoting seem to be a prerequisite for the publication of today’s news articles. In other words, a “proper” piece − be it delivered in the form of a television or a written news item or, for example, as a radio insert or podcast − cannot merely name a topical issue and introduce competing societal groups. Instead, it must explicitly identify some key actors and embed a selection of their statements.

In conclusion, quoting is the key to understanding the process of journalistic writing. When we focus on the sub-process of verbalisation, ­i.e. the actual quoted phase,­ we see that it is by no means mechanical speech-to-text reporting. Instead, it involves diverse editing in order to achieve the journalistic goals of the article.

Lauri Haapanen is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

Further reading

Haapanen, L.(2017a). Monologisation as a quoting practice: Obscuring the journalist’s involvement in written journalism. Journalism Practice 11(7): 820–839.

Haapanen, L. (2017b). Quoting Practices in Written Journalism. An article-based dissertation. Helsinki: Unigrafia.

Haapanen, L. (2019). Modelling quoting in newswriting: A framework for studies on the production of news. Journalism Practice. Epub ahead of print 20 May 2019. DOI: 10.1080/17512786.2019.1618199.

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