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When quotes take on a life of their own

September 15th, 2008

Dr Petra

Recently I found myself quoted in an online news site discussing issues of sexual chemistry in relation to the launch of a new range of sex toys in the UK. The coverage implied the site had used the Telegraph as their source and kind of implied they’d spoken to me directly. In fact the bulk of the text was lifted from the BBC’s website (from 2006) and yes, you’ve guessed it, nobody talked to me from the news site at all.

A fortnight ago I found myself quoted in a Scottish paper railing against a leading spokesperson from a Cancer charity with me apparently arguing against the HPV vaccine. While I’ve certainly raised concerns about this vaccine I’ve never told people not to have it. Again it seemed like I’d been approached directly, but in reality someone from the paper simply lifted and re-edited text from a year-old blog entry of mine.

And last month I discovered myself mentioned on several websites about tips for a successful marriage in a quote I’d never given to anyone, and that seemed to have been written by someone and had my name put to it. I’ve yet to find out how that happened.

So am I particularly incompetent in my dealings with the media or just unlucky to be misquoted (or have quotes made up for me) in this way? Well, neither (I hope!). Unfortunately there are numerous problems within journalism that means this is a common event for folks who engage in the media. And the more you actively engage with the press the more likely it is to happen.

The most common issue is where one paper writes about your work and then other papers report the original report, adding their spin as they go. Which means you can end up seemingly saying a lot of things you didn’t say at all, or have a quote given to one paper end up as an entirely different story in another.

Journalists are still learning the way to handle blogs and many feel they’re just an open sweetie jar to use without reference or quotation – or may be quoted but can be re-edited at will and without permission. And because many experts are happy to say anything in return for a book or website plug it’s now common practice for journalists to write quotes for you. Which means that for some journalists they feel it’s okay to write something they think you might say and attribute it to you, even if they never bother asking you if that’s acceptable.

It’s something that annoys me, and has caused me numerous professional problems, but it’s something I’ve also come to expect. Unfortunately if you’re new to working with the media this tactic can come as a horrible shock – and can bring a lot of unwanted professional hostility from collagues as a result.

A classic example of how this happens – and how it feels – is covered in Ben Goldacre’s most recent Bad Science column for The Guardian. In ‘Don’t let the facts spoil a good story’ Goldacre explains the case of geographer Dennis Wheeler whose work on ships logs was reported faithfully in one paper, but in other newspapers who picked up the story his work was reinterpreted as some anti-global warming thesis. Obviously for an academic presenting a piece of science about ships records this came as a very unpleasant, and probably very disempowering reaction – particularly when Wheeler appeared to have been taking a critical stance on inaccurate media coverage of a very important issue.

At the end of the piece Goldacre rightly invites academics whose work have been misrepresented to get in touch with him, and I’d recommend anyone who has been through such an experience to do so.

However, I think this example and countless others should not be seen in a bad-journalists-misquote-us way, but as a sign of something else going wrong within the media. When you’re misquoted it’s very tempting to feel you’re being personally attacked by evil journalists who know the truth but maliciously decide to portray you in a very bad light. In reality what we’re seeing is journalists who’re not particularly skilled at understanding science and health stories having a very limited time to create a story for their editor who’s breathing down their necks. What better way than to lift your piece from someone else’s? And if someone’s already done that why not copy their copy? Alternatively you can just regurgitate a press release and if that’s sensational or wrong, well you don’t have the time, skills or resources to check.

Misrepresenting experts and stories is just the tip of the iceberg. Journalism training and supervision hasn’t moved with the times so many journalists don’t seem to understand the concept of plagiarism any more. Meaning it’s not just experts they’re misquoting, they’re also ripping off other journalists who’ve worked on a story. So in Wheeler’s case the journalist at the Sunday Times who accurately interviewed him had their words and ideas nicked and revised by all the other writers who followed up the story. Or in my case this week when the writer from the BBC had their work appropriated by another news website. It’s easy to assume because something’s available through a google search -whether that’s a news site, blog or other website – that it’s free to take, revise and embellish. Forgetting that you need to consult, gain permission and fully reference what you’re interested in.

Media training for academics also hasn’t moved with the time, so most media training for us revolves around being taught how to write press releases or handle a tricky interview on your ground-breaking research. It doesn’t teach you what to do if you’re quoted accurately in one place but inaccurately by countless others. Or if quotes you never even said end up in print or online. It doesn’t give you any ideas on how to handle colleagues and superiors who may fail to believe you didn’t say what you’re quoted as saying. After all it’s there in black and white for all to read so you must have said it. And it definitely doesn’t help you if the quote runs against all you stand for and makes you look like a bit of a berk, particularly if you work in an area of science or healthcare where the press and public are always looking for a reason to dismiss evidence.

So what can we do about this problem? Apart from letting Ben Goldacre know when we’ve been set up there are several things we can do. If you’re an academic or expert lucky enough to have a media office in your university or organisation then always get them to help handle any press you do. Alternatively work with a professional organisation you belong to (for example the British Psychological Association). They can’t guarantee a misquote but they can help manage any information you distribute and advise you on how to handle interviews. If you find yourself misquoted by other sources then get your media office to tackle this by writing to the editor of each publication and setting out where the problem is. They will have more weight than you have on your own and will be better placed to speak on this issue.

Alternatively you can contact the paper or website direct and demand they print an apology. There’s no guarantee they’ll do this but it’s always worth a try. Where possible contact the highest person in the organisation (usually the editor) and if you’ve got the name of any journalist who has been negligent then name them in your complaint. Allegations of fradulent practice are particularly bothersome to the media at the moment after a number of recent broadcasting scandals, so your complaint may be heard more readily than you think. If it’s a truly serious misrepresentation you may consider putting your case to the Press Complaints Comission (although frankly I don’t think you can expect too much joy there).

Or you can let any journalists who have reported your work faithfully know that other journalists are ripping off their ideas. That might also generate a better response than just you complaining.

Another excellent way to tackle a misquote problem is to give quotes via email so you have a record of what you said when. It can help you show where you’ve been misrepresented and if you have your own blog or links with someone else’s you can demonstrate the difference between your words and the eventual reporting. This can be done while you complain to the publication or website you’re bothered about, and their responses can also be reported upon. So when I had problems with a Scottish paper misquoting my blog recently I did get an email apology to me which I noted when I complained in my blog about their malpractice. In situations where you’re misquoted and a publication does nothing about it – or perhaps acts in a dismissive way – then reporting this strengthens your case and can let other academics know to steer clear.

We need to start upping our game in the way we offer media training to academics who want to work with journalists. It’s no good limiting us to writing tedious press releases that we’ll never probably need do in real life. We need to instruct people what to do if they’re misquoted, how to recognise a misquote from a partial quote, and to know when to take action and when to ignore.

We also need to encourage academics to keep a close eye on how they’re talked about within the print, broadcast and online media. That’s something we might shy away from as it smacks of being self-obsessed, but if you’re planning on engaging with the public via the media you need to be sure that the time you’re taking to do this is well spent – and your key messages are being delivered faithfully.

And we need an idea of why we’re doing this. We’re not complaining to be difficult, picky or typical academics who don’t understand that being quoted means some of your ideas can’t be included. What we’re talking about here is clear misrepresentation of your professional work and values and what we’re after is to set right any incorrect coverage, and to ensure similar problems don’t happen again.

Dealing with the media can be as rewarding as it is frustrating. With training, support and practice you should find being misquoted is a rare occurrence. But where it happens (and when it’s definitely not your fault) then you have every right to speak about it openly and without shame or fear. After all, when a journalist is misquoting you by misrepresenting another journalist’s work they’re damaging your reputation, the hard work of another professional, and misleading the public. All of which is a news story in itself – you just have to be brave enough to complain about it.

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