A week of journalism: Why journalists misquote everyone…or do they?


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:

How to be a freelance writer without starving

How to move from print journalism to online journalism

Seven ways to get an agent’s attention (by my agent, Susan Rabiner)

26 replies
  1. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Penelope, I think you are spot on about why people think they are being misquoted, when in fact they are not. They say 20-30 sentences for every one that is quoted and they don’t get to frame the story; that’s the journalist’s job.

    Yeah, it doesn’t hurt if journalists are aware of this, but it doesn’t mean that they should change what they do. Unless of course they really are “one of those” journalists who misquote people. And by that I mean, *actually* misquote people: ie. they NEVER said that one sentence, not just that it was one out of 30.

  2. Latoya
    Latoya says:

    Good points, Penelope!

    Another thing to mention is that sometimes a “misquote” is a result of editing for space, time, brevity, etc. Some interview subjects give really great, lengthy 10 minute quotes – which your editor then asks you to condense into a few words.

    * * * * * *

    Right, Latoya. You bring up the additional point that in many publications the story is actually the vision of not just the writer, but also the editor, and maybe two editors.


  3. Mike Setrab
    Mike Setrab says:

    “He basically made me sound like a lunatic. Like I was probably a liar and maybe delusional, depending on how someone ordered the video.”


    He basically made me sound like a lunatic. I am liar and delusional, How someone ordered the video doesn’t make a difference.

    Where do you come up with this stuff?

  4. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I went to a real estate seminar (bear with me) yesterday on how to sell your home. One point that was emphasized over and over was to take your personal possessions out of the home when you are showing it i.e. you autographed pictures of sports stars, your pictures of you and your family, your favorite set of shot glasses, the antlers….the reason being that the potential buyer wants to see him/her self in that space, not you.

    I think journalists do something along the same lines…use “their” filters to assess information about “your” story, in order to partially make it “their story”, their version, as well.

    The deal is that there’s “Truth” (often denied, obfuscated, made opaque, ignored, hidden…) and there’s “truth” (judgmental, subjective, massaged, parsed, etc.) It’s the “truth” that for some journalists (and many of us who are not), becomes the focus…how I can see/interpret reality through my eyes, my filters. The question is “why?”

    I would bet many journalists (and others of us) in a past life were the blind men who were touching one part of the elephant and trying to explain the whole.

  5. oldguy
    oldguy says:

    *”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.”*

    Suggesting that this kind of behavior would be a good strategy is really, really terrible advice.

    Either people can trust you, or they can’t. If they can’t take what you say at face value, because of artful omissions or careful spin, they learn to distrust you.

    It’s not good to be distrusted. It’s easy, and economically efficient, to do business with people you can trust. You don’t need to do extensive due diligence to find out what the real, complete story is. It is neither easy nor economically efficient to do business with people who persistently craft misleading narratives. Because the costs of due diligence can be so high, the rational thing once you have identified a person who tiptoes around the truth is not to hire them, and not to enter into contracts with them. Because of this, over time, deception catches up with people who cut corners on the truth; they gradually become radioactive to those who know them. (The obvious way out, to keep moving to new fields and new locales where your reputation does not precede you, is no solution, because the only long term profitable business is repeat business.)

    The same goes for ethical journalists. If you cover a beat, and the stories you want to tell differ from the stories the sources report based on reality, you end up with no sources. Sure, every journalist has an unhappy source at some time, but the ones who have them over and over again don’t last in any branch of the business where repeat sources matter.

    What I’ve observed over and over again (and I’ve known plenty of C level execs and their peers) is that character matters. The winning long run strategy is to be forthright and reliable.

    * * * * * *
    Hi. Thank you for this comment. And, in general, thank you for the many comments you post here. You almost always disagree with me, but you post good comments.

    I think truth is not as black and white as you think it is. I think most questions about truth are gray, and we have to be true to ourselves. That said, I agree with you that trust and character matter most. Thank you for saying that – it’s important.


  6. Mike Hobart
    Mike Hobart says:

    The truth is a very intangible thing and not many of us see it without some sort of filter.

    Here’s an example: a prominent man was accused of having sexually harrassed an employee some years before (I won’t name names but you may guess who). The man stood firm, claiming that the woman was misrepresenting what had happened. She was equally immovable, saying that he was not telling the truth. And it came into my head “What if they’re both telling the truth? What if they are honestly telling what happened as they remember it?”

    Another example: do you keep a diary? Sometimes I’ve picked up an old diary and read an entry about something that I thought I remembered well. And nearly always there is some difference between what I wrote at the time and the way I remember it.

  7. Miriam
    Miriam says:

    I have personally been at events or had journalists interview me, only to see the facts and my words skewed beyond recognition in print. After a family tragedy involving the death of a family member, the press came to interview me and my family to hear the details of what happened. The published report screwed up so many of the facts and details that it made me sick. These details did not detract from the story, but it just showed the disrespect and egocentricity that journalists have for their subjects. I wanted to say to them “Can’t you respect someone’s memory enough to at least get the facts right? Or are we all just animals in a cage that you look at from your superior position on the outside? We’re just the ticket to your Pulitzer, aren’t we?”

    Take what you read with a grain of salt, and remember that just because it is reported in the newspaper doesn’t make it true. The producers of our “news” all have agendas, and we little people are often just pawns in their game.

  8. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    One of the joys of being a journalist is that I get to tell the story. I go in without preconceptions and I strive for the truth. Of course my perceptions and my choices in how I frame and phrase the story act as a filter for truth. That’s the same for a photographer but they seem to cop a lot less flak than journalists.

    The catch is that my loyalty is to the truth, not to my sources. I’ll protect their anonymity and I won’t deliberately misquote them and I’ll try to be accurate on the actual facts. However, they don’t get to tell the story. I will be talking to other people as well. I will be comparing it to known facts. I will be setting it all in context.

    This is not distortion; it’s framing. It’s not always the story that the sources would tell if they individually told their own story but, by having context and other points of view, I firmly believe that it’s MORE truthful, not less.

    What Miriam describes with active distortion of what people say and inaccuracy on the basic facts is simply shoddy journalism.

    I also do oral history work. The difference there is that I don’t get to tell the story. The subject gets to tell the story – it’s in their words and their voice. My job is to enable that to happen and the only editing I will do is for space.

  9. Tom O'B
    Tom O'B says:

    There are three sides to every story – your side, my side and the truth. The harder we can work to understand *your side* the better things go!

    Tom O’B

  10. dan tynan
    dan tynan says:

    I don’t think journalists misquote everyone. I do think we {selectively} quote everyone, if simply for lack of space.

    If I’m writing a 500 word story I’m talking to at least three people (and usually more), so just getting in the story is a feat. You’re lucky if I have 50 words to devote to you. I recently had someone complain to me about this, but he’s the only one who has in 20+ years of doing this gig.

    The other thing journalists do that nobody talks about is make people sound better — smarter, more articulate — than the literal transcript would suggest. Almost nobody gets quoted word for word, unless they are a) sound byte machines, or b) being quoted from written material. That’s because almost no one speaks in complete sentences, or articulates a thought from start to finish in one go.

    I will often cobble together a quote from two or three partial ones, then send it back to my source and say “is this what you said?” 95% of the time they say yes, with one or two minor changes. The fact is, they don’t remember exactly what they said themselves, but they remember what they meant. That’s the important part.



  11. Stephen Seckler
    Stephen Seckler says:

    I would be very careful about leaving material facts off of a resume. If you are an accountant and you are applying for a job with a large accounting firm, you are probably not making a material misrepresentation if you fail to list your waitering jobs on your resume.

    But if you fail to list a job you held in your industry (or in your profession), then you are taking a big gamble.

    Last year, I worked with a real estate lawyer who had been fired from a law firm after a month. Apparently, she had been advised by a recruiter (NOT ME), that since it was such a short period of time, it was okay to leave it off the resume.

    I placed this candidate at another firm and never knew about this omission on the resume (the candidate made up a story about getting her family settled.) On her second day of employment, the new firm found out about the omission and she was fired.

    The sad thing is that she had probably been treated unfairly by the first firm (there were questions about how they treated her when she ended up in the hospital with a miscarriage.) But lying is what did this candidate in.

  12. steven
    steven says:

    Is there a way to work with the interviewer to minimize the surprise at publication? Is my only approach to reduce my expectations?

    * * * * * *

    This is a good question. I posted a big about this topic here:http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2002/10/14/if-you-want-to-be-well-known-learn-to-talk-to-the-press/

    In general, though, I think you should decide why you are talking to the press in the first place? You should only do it if you will somehow benefit from being mentioned in the press. And if you will benefit from mention, then stop being so uptight about how you are quoted since it’s a known tradeoff — you get your name mentioned in exchange for giving up the right to control the story.



  13. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    While this isn’t my absolute favourite posting of yours but, at the same time, it’s you at your best, telling a funny story from your life and drawing some reasonable and quirky conclusions.

    What do I mean by quirky? Telling only a part of the story is lying. That’s why recruiters hate functional resumes. They are merely an attempt to pull one over on the poor recruiter by erasing all context. “Ran a ship-shape organization that delivered all projects on time and under budget” can mean that you were a housewife taking care of three kids for ten years.

    PS: If you liked Mr Brazen from the get-go why didn’t you call him? No answer required. That’s just the thought that came to mind.

    PPS: A number of journalists, of course, have been exposed as complete and active liars. And others are so deliberately one-sided in their analyses that you have to read a number of them to try to patch an objective picture together.

    * * * * * *
    Mr. Brazen? That’s great. Vintage Recruiting Animal.


  14. The Editorialiste
    The Editorialiste says:


    Fabulous blog and good point about journalist quotes. You’re right – sometimes the journalist doesn’t see it the same way. And sometimes they get it plain wrong. There’s a difference to mark there.

    The best “quoters” are the ones who can listen until they absolutely understand. Is it possible to completely understand all the time? No; sometimes you just don’t have that breadth of knowledge and you try your best. But making quick assumptions is the mark of an inexperienced interviewer. (Of course, sometimes a misquote is the result of editing by someone else altogether.)

    Nevertheless, you’re right – when a journalist must shorten a story, it’s inevitable that his or her source won’t be happy that something was left out. Such is the “different story” paradox of your post!

    All the best,
    The Editorialiste.

  15. klein
    klein says:

    What you have described bears no resemblance to Journalism and only bears a passing resemblance to fiction writing.

    If a journalist cannot get a simple quote right then they should be fired on the spot. And you keep certain information from a recruiter or anyone else for that matter is, indeed, a lie of omission. Certainly, you get to make that choice, but do not pretend that it is ok.

  16. madeleine
    madeleine says:

    I am so glad to see this article, and the accompanying intelligent comments. I feel like I should print it out and send it to every person I’ve written about.

    Not that I am not telling their story, just my version of it: edited to length and content.

    thank you!

  17. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    "These are terrible. He missed all the good photos."
    The professional photographer has the most technically correct photos with the customary moments for a given event. The best photos can be had by the amateurs who know you and capture those moments that reflect the real you. They are not constrained to convention. They can be real eye openers (and funny) if everyone isn’t asked to pose for the camera – surprise!

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