The Media Needs to End Its Obsession With Quotes

Last month the frivolous public outrage meter ticked up a few notches when it was revealed that both the Obama and Romney campaigns review and alter quotes before they appear in print. Yet in all the hemming and hawing over how to fix this “problem,” people have ignored a more fundamental question: Why does the media still adhere to ridiculous conventions regarding the value of quotations?

Ninety years ago quotes served a number of important purposes. Without the internet, it was actually difficult to find out the thoughts of important people, and the best way to remedy that problem was to print their words in widely read publications. If you wanted to know how Woodrow Wilson felt about Chick-Fil-A, you had to read a quote from him in the newspaper. Quotes also lent real legitimacy to a story by proving that a person had physically been near the places and people at the heart of the story. You didn’t see video of the reporter on the scene, but a quote was the next best thing.

Things are different now. You rarely read a quote in a newspaper article that truly fulfills a need to know somebody’s opinion. A host of archival data on internet means that most people’s views are already known, and even if they aren’t, new views aren’t likely to be broken through mainstream media, they’ll be delivered through Facebook, Twitter, email lists, and hacked iPhones.

What’s worse, the proliferation of PR shops and communications departments means that quotes aren’t simply superfluous, they often give the reader a less accurate portrayal of what’s happening. How often do you read the self-interested analysis of a Romney or Obama campaign official on an issue that’s not directly related to their expertise? Why is Romney’s view on the latest job numbers in any way helpful for interpreting what they mean?

Making an article without quotes the new norm will solve a number of issues. First, it will require political campaigns, corporations, and anybody else who might be quoted to actually say something insightful in order to have their voice heard. No longer will we have to waste valuable seconds reading that one campaign believes the other campaign’s latest attack is just an attempt to distract from the issues. Putting less importance on quotes may even help stem the flow of he-said she-said journalism.

Clearly, quotes are not without merit. But the implicit agreement between journalists and communications departments in which journalists print talking points in return for the opportunity to add legitimacy to their story has diluted the value of quotes to the point where it’s impossible to recognize those that are worthwhile. As a confused Christopher Nolan superhero might say, “to save the quote, we must kill it.”

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