Five Ways To Avoid Being Misquoted By Reporters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 2, 2010 – 7:02 AM

I spoke to a new client last week. He had given an interview to the media. The reporter misquoted him. The incorrect quote made him look like an insensitive jerk.

I hear that story at least once a month.

There’s good news and bad news for spokespersons who have suffered an infuriating misquote.

The bad news is that you can never guarantee that a reporter will quote you correctly. But the good news is that you have a lot more control than you think – and you can dramatically increase the odds that the reporter will get your story right by using the five techniques in this article.

1) Give Them the Facts: The more you say, the more you stray. A lot of spokespeople get misquoted  because they say too much. Instead of spending most of your interviews providing reporters with endless background, write a one- or two-page fact sheet which lays out the basic facts.

Providing reporters with a written fact sheet in advance of your interview allows you to tell reporters what the story means rather than what it is. By doing so, your quote will contain your interpretation of the facts instead of raw facts devoid of context.

Because you’ve said less and repeatedly emphasized the meaning of the story, you’ve given reporters more opportunities not only to get your quote right, but to make it meaningful.

2) Click, Clack, Repeat: If you’re giving a phone interview, listen for the sound of typing on the other end – you’ll hear it when you say something that intrigues the reporter. That’s your cue to slow down, make sure the reporter has time to capture every word, and repeat what you’ve just said.

The same is true during an in-person interview when a reporter is scribbling notes in a notepad. When you see a reporter scribbling notes, slow down and repeat your point.

3) Click, Clack, Send: Some reporters allow interviewees to respond to questions over e-mail, which allows you to retain total control of your words. Just be sure to have a colleague check your response for unintended meanings and phrases that can be taken out of context.

Although you can use e-mail interviews occasionally, you shouldn’t rely on them too often. Your goal is to build long-term relationships with reporters – and that’s something better accomplished over the phone or in person.

4) Now, What Did I Just Say: Although reporters are under no obligation to read your quotes back to you, many of them will. If you don’t like the way you said something, they may not change it – but if you said something factually inaccurate, they usually will. You should ask them to read back your quotes during the interview, not afterwards.

You can also offer to help the reporter fact check the finished story. If you don’t like the way the reporter framed the story, the journalist will probably not change it – but the reporter will usually correct a “fact” that’s demonstrably false.

5) Record The Interview: I generally don’t recommend recording your interviews with reporters, as it can create an unnecessarily mistrustful relationship with a well-intentioned reporter.

But if you know the interview is likely to be contentious, recording the interview can often help you, since the reporter knows you have an independent copy of the raw tape. Just be sure to disclose your intent to record the interview in advance, since many states require you to notify the other party.

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Comments (5)

  1. By Stanley:

    I was misquoted by Joe Vasquez of KPIX 5 News, San Francisco. In an interview about a possible Mosque being built near my neighborhood, he edited out my entire message that the potential traffic and parking issues were the main concern. Instead he fished around and asked questions about vandalism and property values. The finished edited product made me sound like a bigot against Muslims, which is the furthest from the truth. Can journalists get away with this? How can ordinary citizens fight back against poor reporting?

  2. By Dr Tom Potisk:

    Brilliant article, thank you! I’m continually amazed at how often the press mis-quotes me. I provide many interviews about holistic health in regards to my new book Whole Health Healing, and this article will help me to minimize those misquotes.

  3. By Brad Phillips:

    Tom –

    Thank you for your nice words, and good luck with your book. I hope these techniques help you gain more control over your interviews!

    Best wishes,
    Brad

  4. By Geoffrey Rowan:

    Hi Brad,
    Maybe I’ve misread the post but the idea of asking a reporter to read back your quotes at the end of an interview wouldn’t fly with the overwhelming majority of reporters I know, and it would create a confrontational/adversarial relationship that could affect coverage. Seems like basically the same thing as saying: “Can I see that before you print it?” It’s not going to work and it’s going to send the message that you question the reporter’s professionalism and abilities. You may be justified in your position, but it’s rarely going to help you to say so.
    The exception i can imagine is in a description of a highly technical piece of information. “Would you like me to take a look at how you’ve got my definition of our new cold fusion reactor process? It’s pretty complicated and I want to make sure I explained it right.”
    Did you have something else in mind with that tip?

    Geoff
    PS – You know I’m a fan of this blog. Hope this comment comes across in the spirit of collegiality that I intended.

  5. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Geoff,

    Thank you for your comment. The fault is entirely mine – in a quest for brevity, I excluded a critical point – so you’re quite right to flag it and I’m glad you did.

    Here’s what I should have added:

    First, asking a reporter to read back an answer should take place immediately following an answer, not at the end of an interview (I agree it’s inappropriate to ask them to read you back your quotes at the conclusion of an interview).

    Let’s say you answer a question. It’s a complicated point, and you’re not sure you explained it well. It’s okay to say to the reporter, “You know, I’m not sure I got that quite right. Would you mind telling me what you heard me say so I can make sure I didn’t mangle my point too badly?” In my experience, most reporters are willing to comply with that request if you frame it in such a manner — by putting the fault on yourself, you’re helping to make clear that you’re not asking for approval. You shouldn’t do this often, but I wouldn’t exclude it as a tool either.

    I hope that adds some clarity to my original point, and apologize for not making it clearer to begin with. And yes, of course your comment comes across collegially! As much as I like to believe at times that I have all of the answers, the truth is that smart peers offering thoughtful counterpoints makes me better at my job.

    Thanks again,
    Brad

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