May I quote you on that?

Journalists love a good quote from a source. Used well, those words can add details to the story and elicit emotions in the reader. They also add credibility because readers can see sources speaking in their own words.

Accurately quoting a source isn’t a simple task, however. People speak faster than reporters can take notes. Sources go off on tangents and speak in incomplete sentences. Tape recorders and flip cameras can help, but deadline pressure presents challenges too.

Perhaps that’s what happened with recent coverage of a college football game between UNC and N.C. State. The Wolfpack prevailed over the Tar Heels in a contest that included a failed two-point conversion that would have tied the game.

My colleague Bill Cloud detected two renderings of a post-game quote from UNC quarterback T.J. Yates. Here’s how The News & Observer quoted him:

The rival Herald-Sun in Durham also covered the game. It quoted Yates this way:

I believe that each newspaper was making a good-faith effort to quote Yates accurately. The differences here are not significant; the meaning of what Yates said is intact in each one.

Yet, these two versions of the quote illustrate the challenge of quoting a source and including those exact words in a story in context. Different people can hear different things, or they can record them differently.

Ambrose Bierce put it this way in his Devil’s Dictionary: “Quoting is the act of repeating erroneously the words of another.” I hope that I am quoting him accurately.


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