Out of context: When bad quotes happen to good people

Debra Pickett is president of Page 2 Communications (www.page2comm.com).  A former newspaper columnist and television commentator, Pickett offers consulting and training services to law firms and lawyers who deal with the media.  She writes here each week on topics related to Law and Media.  To learn more, reach her at deb@page2comm.com.

I’d barely had time to glance at the front page of the paper when I got the e-mail about it.

A friend and mentor had been quoted in a big article, but, rather than writing to her contacts to bring the story to our attention, she was, in fact, e-mailing everyone she could think of in order to disavow the quotes that had been attributed to her.

“I write to you to let you know that the quote was fabricated,” the message began, “In fact, the words were cherry-picked out of a sentence on a different topic and then ascribed to me …  As for the fragment quoted, it was in a completely different conversation, and was said not about [the subject of the article] or any individual for that matter.”

When I talk to lawyers about dealing with the media, this is their No. 1 fear: that something they say will be taken out of context or misinterpreted or “spun” in a way that could ultimately be harmful to their client.  It happens. 

When I was a reporter, I sometimes received story assignments from my bosses that came with a point of view already attached.  Once, early in my career, I was tasked with writing an article about a government commission on which appointed members, from both parties, were apparently having major ideological conflicts.  I spent the morning talking to people close to the commission and the members themselves and everyone I interviewed made a point of telling me how collegial things were, despite the different points of view.  They also acknowledged the depth of their philosophical divide.  The piece I wrote made no mention of the collegiality and, in fact, ran under a headline (written by a copy editor) that included the well-worn phrase “partisan bickering.”  It was as if the narrative of what was going on had already been formed and neither the facts on the ground, the people involved or even the reporter could change them.  I cringe at the memory of how I wrote that piece, poring over notes and tape to find words that fit the assignment I’d been given.

Later in my career, of course, I was better prepared to make sure that didn’t happen.  I was bold enough to tell editors, “there’s no story here,” or, at least, that the story they wanted to have wasn’t actually true.  Still, I was keenly aware of the pressure to produce the stories they (and our readers) expected.

Now, when I prepare clients for media interviews, I coach them on how to suss out a reporter’s agenda.  Sometimes, just asking “What is it that you’re looking for?” is enough.  Other times, when the agenda is less clear, it’s better to stick with a few key talking points (which we’ll have prepared in advance) and make no “off the cuff” answers.

Fear of being misquoted makes many leading professionals extremely media shy.  But it doesn’t have to stop you from getting your message out.  A little preparation, a little strategy and a little discipline will go along way in error-proofing your quotes.

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