How Reporters Get Good Quotes for Their News Stories

What to Quote, What Not to Quote

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So you’ve done a long interview with a source, you have pages of notes, and you’re ready to write. But chances are you’ll only be able to fit a few quotes from that lengthy interview into your article. Which ones should you use? Reporters often talk about using only “good” quotes for their stories, but what does this mean?

What Is a Good Quote?

Broadly speaking, a good quote is when someone says something interesting, and says it in an interesting way.

Look at the following two examples:

“We will use U.S. military force in an appropriate and decisive manner.”

“When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.”

Which is the better quote? Let’s consider this by asking a broader question: What should a good quote do?

Grab the Reader’s Attention

Using our two examples, it’s clear the first quote is dry and academic-sounding. It sounds like a sentence taken from a particularly dull research paper or dissertation. The second quote, on the other hand, is colorful and even funny.

Evoke Images

A good quote, like good writing, evokes images in the reader’s mind. Using our two examples, it’s clear the first quote evokes nothing. But the second quote evokes a bizarre image that’s bound to stick in the reader’s brain – a camel being hit in the posterior with an expensive, high-tech missile.

Convey a Sense of the Speaker’s Personality

Our first quote leaves no impression of who the speaker might be. Indeed, it sounds more like a scripted line from an anonymous Pentagon press release.

The second quote, however, gives the reader a feel for the personality of the speaker – in this case, President George Bush. The reader gets a sense of both Bush’s determination and his penchant for off-the-cuff humor.

Convey Regional Differences in Speech

Looking again at our first quote, can you discern where the speaker was raised? Of course not. But one could argue that Bush’s quote, with its salty humor and coarse imagery, contains some of the colors of his Texas upbringing.

A reporter I worked with once covered a tornado in the Deep South. He interviewed victims of the twister and in his story contained a quote that included the phrase, “I tell you what.” That’s a phrase you’re only likely to hear in the South, and by putting it in his story, the reporter gave readers a feel for the region and the people affected by the storm.

A good reporter could do the same thing in any area with distinctive patterns of speech, from the South Bronx to the upper Midwest to East Los Angeles.

Given everything we’ve discussed, it seems clear the second of our two examples is by far the better quote. So what makes a bad quote?

Unclear Speech

Anytime someone says something in an unclear or unintelligible fashion, chances are you’re not going to use that as a quote. In such cases, if the information contained in the quote is important to your story, paraphrase it – put it into your own words.

In fact, reporters often must paraphrase much of what they gather in interviews because many people simply don’t speak very clearly. People don’t craft their speech the way a writer crafts a sentence.

Basic Factual Data

If you’re interviewing a source who’s giving you reams of data, such as numbers or statistics, that kind of information should be paraphrased. There’s simply no point in quoting, for instance, the CEO who tells you his company’s revenues increased 3 percent in the second quarter, 5 percent in the third quarter and so on. It may be important for your story, but it’s boring as a quote.

Profane or Offensive Speech

Most mainstream news organizations have policies banning or limiting the use of vulgar or offensive speech in news stories. So, for example, if a source you’re interviewing starts swearing profusely, or uttering racial slurs, you’re probably not going to be able to quote them.

An exception to that rule might be if the profane or offensive speech serves some larger purpose in your story. For instance, if you’re profiling your town’s mayor, and he has a reputation for salty language, you might use part of a profane quote in your story to show that, indeed, the man likes to cuss.