Monday, February 9, 2009

Orphan Quotes and Orphan Days

Lately I've been tough on orphan quotes -- of the "The mayor said he was 'pleased' with the council's action." I can see where a reporter might want to not mischaracterize a source by making a word a different indirect quote, but if the word is simply generic English, why are the quotes necessary? So I've been taking them out if they read exactly the same without quote marks. Of course, if the mayor says he was "exultant," I'd probably leave it in.

I'm also leery of them because they can be used in the Louis Renault, raised-eyebrow sense: "The councilman said he had 'misplaced' the documents." The councilman probably said something like, "It appears I have misplaced the documents," but the sentence comes across as "Lying through his teeth, the councilman said he had 'misplaced' the documents." We have no idea if he burned them or if two days later he will find them underneath his winter coat that he threw on his couch instead of hanging up. So I feel that a copy editor, on guard, should simply have him saying he misplaced the documents; or the reporter should have used the entire direct quote. Otherwise it looks like a cheap shot. But perceived cheap shots and overabundant adjectives are two of the greatest divides between reporters and copy editors.

Still, what would you do with these three sentences:

"The mayor said the council's decision was 'correct.'"
"The mayor said the council's decision was 'singular.'"
"The mayor said the council's decision was 'preposterous.'"

Leave the quote marks? Take them out?


Much ado about two cutbacks in publication days, but this is still low-hanging fruit. The Rexburg Standard Journal in Idaho cut back to three days a week from five; but it was only four years ago it went to five days from three. Even when times were good, a newspaper now and then would decide its readers and advertisers demanded it every day, only to find out a few years later that they really didn't. And the three Calkins papers in the Philadelphia suburbs canceled their Saturday editions -- which they only introduced five years ago, I believe to satisfy the demands of insert advertisers who wanted the inserts in the home on Saturday. I guess there are not enough at the moment to pay the cost of producting a paper as basically an insert wrapper. These are no different than Famous Footwear opening a store and finding out after three years that it was never going to show a profit. Sometimes you guess wrong. These are not indicators of the death spiral, although they will be presented as such.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What I've noticed about some orphan quotes is how the highlighted word comes out of a sentence that won't fit into the story structure or was incompletely recorded in the reporter's notes.

The unwillingness to use an indirect quote is because the writer wants to make it clear that the person actually said a particular word. So, are readers today more likely to attribute a sarcastic meaning to the word in quotes, particularly if it is unexpected or pejorative, even though the reporter only wants to make it clear that that striking word came from the source, not from the reporter?

I notice in my own writing I tend to use orphan quotes more often when I am writing after a night meeting and have to get the story in at a time when I can't call the source and ask for a repeat of the sentence or other clarification. If this is where some orphan quotes are coming from, expect more as Internet deadlines reduce the amount of fact-checking and editing time before the story becomes available to the public.

-- Barbara Phillips Long