Media mistakes 2: I can always change my quote later

One of the things people often assume about working with the press is that we’re at their beck and call and will alter things they don’t like.

When I started as a technology journalist in the late 1980s (I grant you it’s ancient history now but the example still stands) there were two major, major manufacturers of PCs: IBM and Compaq. There was also Dell at a close third, AST pretty much fourth. Some people thought this was unfair.

I took a call in the office from a person who wanted to set up a new company. People were idiots, he said, spending money on these brands when they could just buy something with the same components and without the big name. He had IBM, Compaq and the rest in his sights.

I wrote up a little story and quoted him. If he made it big, I’d broken the story. If he didn’t, never mind. I wrote it and sent it for subbing.

He called back. He’d decided, he said, not to go up against IBM and Compaq. I told him it was too late, he couldn’t un-say what he’d said. He was a bit perturbed but the story ran. He vanished without trace.

We won’t lie to readers

Another person sent us a press release once and it had the usual “For further information please contact…” at the end. I called the woman, she was very helpful and answered all my questions.

I then had a call from her boss. I should, he said, have spoken to him (which I was expected to know by osmosis or something, since I’d spoken to the person named on the press release). However, he was happy as long as I changed all of her quotes so that they appeared in his name.

I wasn’t comfortable with this. Journalism, and this might surprise cynics, is about telling the truth. He hadn’t said these things, even if he agreed with them wholeheartedly. I wasn’t going to say he had. He asked to be put through to the editor.

The editor also said we weren’t going to reattribute quotes.that would be lying to readers and this wasn’t a marketing outlet. The guy is probably still baffled, if he’s around. Professionally he vanished without trace, at least from my radar.

The conclusion from these stories is simple. If you say something, it’s said. To a journalist working independently of you, as distinct from a PR person or copywriter you might employ, the accuracy of your quote is everything. We won’t change it after you’ve said it, so it’s best to think before you speak and make sure you offer us the right contacts.

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