Fake News: Using Quotes as Facts and the Death of Journalism
The "quote as fact" is killing journalism.
It's among the laziest, most egregious forms of journalism currently practiced. And it's practiced a lot. It's used by many bad journalists who don't have time to do research and instead find some random person to provide them with a quote that supports the point they want to make. Usually, however, it used by bad journalists to provide "balance" to an article.
What is the "quote as fact"?
Let's say you're writing an article on supermarkets. In the article, you're describing the characteristics of various supermarkets and during the course of the article you write: "Whole Foods is more expensive than King Soopers." Instead of providing data to support this assertion, you instead use quotes. You find some random person who says something to the effect of: "I shop both stores and King Soopers usually has better prices." This is the sole support for the article's assertion that Whole Foods is a more expensive supermarket. If you read newspapers often, you will see this tactic used all the time. It's a substitute for data, research, and actual work.
When used for "balance", the "quote as fact" can be even worse, providing legitimacy to ideas for which there is no evidence. Let's use vaccinations for Whooping Cough as an example. A journalist writing an article on the drop in vaccinations for Whooping Cough in a particular area writes a vague story with some generalities about how the incidence of Whooping Cough has risen. The journalist interviews a doctor who says something to the effect of "it's very important to get children vaccinated for Whooping Cough." Then the journalist interviews somebody who decided not to get their child vaccinated and quotes that person who says: "I heard that vaccinations can cause autism, so I didn't get my child vaccinated." The two quotes are given equal weight, but one is backed up by scientific data, while the other is not.
Colorado Floods: Boulder (September 2013)
When the Quote as Fact Becomes Negligent
Using quotes as facts can become negligent when the quote used is from somebody who is misinformed about an important matter. Clearly, using a quote to establish that prices are higher at one supermarket may provide misinformation, but it probably doesn't harm anyone, other than the store that's maligned. When the quote is used to imply information about a critical matter, like flood remediation for example, it can lead to serious problems. Such was the case in the article from The Daily Camera in Boulder concerning the recent flooding in Colorado that occurred in September of 2013. (linked below)
In the article, the journalist investigates the high cost of flood remediation. The journalist recounts the story of a woman who called a remediation company and was quoted a price of $4500, which she says she thought was high. Although it's not presented as a direct quote, the journalist writes that the woman told him she got the work done for $300 by calling her husband who connected her to "someone."
Anybody see a problem with printing this information?
This is almost like quoting somebody with the following story: "Oh, I knew I needed brain surgery, but I found out it was going to cost $250,000" and that sounded a bit high, so I called my husband and he found somebody to do it for $300."
My point is that anybody can find somebody to do something for less money. The question though, is whether or not the person charging less money is an expert and is going to do the job right.
As somebody who's had to have flood remediation done when I had a sewer back-up in my house, I can tell you that flood remediation is fairly expensive, but that companies who specialize in this know what they're doing. They come in and put the house back in exactly the condition it was before the flood damage. For $300, I'm sure somebody can remove wet carpet, but that's hardly satisfactory when drywall has gotten wet and mold is sure to develop. Yes, $4500 is a lot of money and a larger sum than $300, but the scope of work for those amounts is entirely different.
Journalism is Dangerous
The reason the "quote as fact" has invaded journalism is because most journalists are poorly paid, badly trained, and overworked. Perhaps it's a stretch to write this, but we see an increasing number of people badly misinformed about a whole range of things. The "quote as fact" is undoubtedly a contributor to that. It's use is leading to the end of journalism as a respectable practice.
Are you bothered by newspapers that use quotes in place of facts?
- Home repairs from Boulder flood damage won't be cheap - Boulder Daily Camera
An article from the Boulder Daily Camera that demonstrates the pernicious journalistic practice of using quotes as facts.