PR: Quote Anxiety – Can I Ask Reporters to Read Back What I Said?

Posted by Jonathan Ringel
November 20, 2023

Moments after you’ve ended your call with a journalist, doubt creeps in: “Did they understand what I meant about our environmental policy? I didn’t expect that question about leadership—did I just throw our new CEO under the bus? And I was a little flip on profits—I can’t believe I made that silly accounting joke. Oh, please don’t use that quote.”

The best way to avoid this kind of anxiety is, of course, to prepare for the interview. Identify your key messages and practice weaving them into your answers, with a friend or by yourself in front of a mirror.

But even if the interview goes well, people may fear they inadvertently said something that will get them in trouble, and some will ask reporters for reassurance. Understand that good journalists are focused on providing accurate and interesting reports, usually under a tight deadline—and they can’t predict the ramifications of any particular statement. That said, under the right circumstances, some are open to discussing what you said and what they plan to use in their articles.

Early in my journalism career, a mentor suggested responding to these requests by paraphrasing what information I thought was the most useful to my article. She added that I should try to avoid identifying specific quotes unless I wasn’t clear on what my source said. The reason for paraphrasing instead of citing direct quotes was to avoid inviting the subject to rewrite a compelling quotation.

Similarly, conversations with journalist friends revealed that their biggest concern about going over quotes was that subjects will attempt to take back what they said earlier. (All of them noted they were sharing their personal views only—not those of their employers.)

David Gialanella, a former colleague who is managing editor for regional brands at ALM, said he’ll read back quotations when asked, but he points out that he usually doesn’t know what parts of the interview he’ll use until he has written it. In discussing quotes, he may ask an interviewee, “Does it sound like I took it down wrong?”

Gialanella will not let interviewees change the meaning of their quotes, but on request, he will allow people to clean up grammar or awkward word choices. In those cases, he said his article benefits because a clear quotation removes the need for ellipses and other obstacles to easy reading.

Rosie Manins, an Atlanta-based reporter for Law360, told me in an email, “If someone I’m speaking to wants to check quotes for accuracy (which doesn’t happen that often in my experience), I am happy to recite them back as I have them in my notes while I’m talking to them.”

“On occasion I have sent written quotes to an interview source for an accuracy check when that’s been requested,” she added. “It’s not for the quotes to be re-written.”

Manins added a statement universal to any journalist I have ever known: “I almost never get asked to send a copy of an article before it’s published, but that is a hard no.”

Mark Niesse, another former colleague who now covers elections for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, tries to be “gracious, forgiving and kind” to interviewees, but not just for the sake of being nice. “I want their quotes to reflect what they believe,” he said. “What they say should reflect what they think and know.”

This highlights an important point about journalists. Accuracy and thorough context are their primary goals. Speakers—and their public relations advisors—are responsible for presenting themselves well to important audiences.

Like the others, Niesse said interviewees can’t take back the meaning of what they said.

Gialanella, Manins and Niesse deal in print/web news media, but it’s important to consider how the rules differ somewhat in the world of video. Mike Petchenik, a longtime Atlanta TV news reporter who recently started his own company, told me the following in an email:

“In general, TV reporters don’t let interviewees review raw footage after the interview is completed. If the interviewee stumbled or misspoke during the course of the interview, they should correct themselves in real-time. If they realize, after the fact, that they misspoke, they should notify the reporter of the error and ask them not to include that portion. However, simply deciding they don’t like what they said on camera isn’t normally grounds for requesting the quote/soundbite not be used. The same goes once the story is set to air. A source shouldn’t expect that a reporter is going to remove something from the piece last-minute. Once the source grants an interview, they lose all editorial control.”

A final thought: Anyone asking a reporter to rediscuss an interview should be aware that this engagement is a new opportunity for the reporter to ask more questions and gather more information. As a reporter, I sometimes received the best stuff and most compelling quotes in these later discussions. Ideally, this helped everyone understand the subject more, but people concerned about what they said in the first interview may want to leave well enough alone. Reopening the conversation may just start the anxiety cycle again.

Jonathan Ringel is the senior vice president of content and a former journalist and managing editor of the Daily Report. He is based in Atlanta, GA.