I met my husband when he was in film school at UCLA. He was doing quirky video art instead of mainstream feature films, which made me think he’d be good to date. So when he was interviewing people for a video about memory, I was happy to participate.
I tried to be really charming in the interview – scintillating, funny, adorable – all the things he might want in a date.
Then a year went by with no contact.
Then I got a call from him. He ended up making the whole video about me, and the video was being shown in Europe and winning film festivals and it was part of UCLA film school’s curricula. He said he spent a ten months editing my interview and he felt like he’d been talking with me the whole time.
Of course, I knew this was my cue.
On our second date, I saw the video. He had footage of me telling all the most important stories of my life. He cut up the footage, reordered it, and created a tool that allowed viewers to recombine stories as they unfolded.
He basically made me sound like a lunatic. Like I was probably a liar and maybe delusional, depending on how someone ordered the video.
I fell in love with him immediately. I thought the work was genius commentary on storytelling. We each tell stories that matter to us. We take in the world, and tell it back in a way that creates meaning. My husband’s video is an extreme example, but it resonates in a lot of different contexts, including journalism.
The reason that everyone thinks journalists misquote them is that the person who is writing is the one who gets to tell the story. No two people tell the same story.
Not every example of this is so extreme as my husband’s video. Look at David Sedaris and Amy Sedaris. They grew up in the same house, but they don’t have the same tales to tell from it. They are both great writers who see different stories in the same facts.
Journalists who think they are telling “the truth” don’t understand the truth. We each have our own truth. When you leave out details, you might leave out what is unimportant to you but very important to someone else, and things start feeling untrue to the person who wishes you included something else.
Recruiters, by the way, know this well. If I get fired from three jobs but I only report that during that period I taught dance lessons to toddlers, I am not lying. I am merely telling the part of the story that I want to tell. No one can tell every part of every story. The details are infinite. But in this case, the fact that I left off the details most important to the recruiter makes the recruiter feel like it’s lying. But it’s not. I’m telling my version of the story.
So everyone feels misquoted because people say twenty or thirty sentences for every one sentence that a journalist prints. It’s always in the context of the journalist’s story, not the speaker’s story.
Here’s my advice: If you do an interview with a journalist, don’t expect the journalist to be there to tell your story. The journalist gets paid to tell her own stories which you might or might not be a part of. And journalists, don’t be so arrogant to think you are not “one of those” who misquotes everyone. Because that is to say that your story is the right story. But it’s not. We each have a story. And whether or not someone actually said what you said they said, they will probably still feel misquoted.
And this problem is not limited to text-based journalism. When my husband and I got married, we had a big wedding. When the photos came back, I said to my husband, “These are terrible. He missed all the good photos.” And my husband said, “They seem fine. They’re the photographer’s version of the story.”
Other posts from “A Week in Journalism” series: