attribution

Who said that?

We’ve already discussed a few of the ways in which direct quotes are used differently in broadcast scripts from the way they’re handled in print. We’ve talked about dangling attributions, signifying the start of a direct quote and paraphrasing.

Another important difference is the necessity to restate — frequently — who’s being quoted. This is very simply because listeners have no quotation marks to tell them when a quote begins and ends. As I mentioned before, the best way to signal the start of a quote is with a slight pause, or with a phrase like “in his words.” Don’t use the word “quote.” Likewise, we don’t use “unquote” to end a quotation — that’s even hokier than using “quote” at the beginning.

Instead, we rely on the modern audience’s default assumption that direct quotes in broadcast news stories are short — one or two sentences at most. This means that for quotes longer than one long sentence or two short sentences, you must re-identify the speaker.

WRONG: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

Using long quotes works even better if you reduce the number of times you use the word “says.” For example, because the first sentence is fairly short and pithy, you can replace one attribution with the word “adding”.

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe says, “This is a really exciting political season for the LGBT community,” adding, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

(Of course, in this example, the second sentence is on the long side, which makes the “adding” formulation less than ideal.)

Another way to prune back the use of “says” is to use the paraphrase that’s really a direct quote.

BETTER: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe calls this “a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says, “We’re extremely proud of the out candidates who are stepping up to run for office all across America, and of the role that the Victory Fund plays in preparing and supporting these candidates.”

Don’t use the quote-ees name every time, nor a pronoun (e.g. “he”) every time. Instead, ping-pong back and forth between the last name and a pronoun.

The last point I should make is that it’s best not to overuse direct quotes in broadcast copy. Again, broadcast isn’t print. Ideally, you should have actuality (i.e. “sound bites”). If you don’t limit your direct quotes to only the pithiest stuff, and paraphrase the rest.

BEST: Victory Fund President Chuck Wolfe calls this “a really exciting political season for the LGBT community.” He says he’s proud of the out candidates who are “stepping up to run for office,” and of his group’s role in backing them.

Attribution, attribution, attribution

An essential part of journalism is saying how or from whom we know what we know — in other words, attribution. This means that the source for every fact or assertion must be clear to the audience. This doesn’t mean reporters have to tell “who says” in every sentence. But it’s vital to establish the source for a set of facts in a way that is clear and unambiguous.

WRONG: This week, Darryl Hopkins told the story from his point of view. Clark Rockefeller told him the person hanging on to the vehicle was a “gay friend” that he wanted to lose.

RIGHT: This week, Darryl Hopkins told WBZ-TV the story from his point of view. He said Clark Rockefeller told him the person hanging on to the vehicle was a “gay friend” that he wanted to lose.

The differences between the versions of this (randomly selected) paragraph seem minor at first glance — just a few words. But they convey very important information that gives credit where it’s due (to WBZ, in this case) and more importantly, helps the audience judge the credibility of the assertions. How do we know what Clark Rockefeller allegedly told Darryl Hopkins? Because Hopkins said so. The audience can then judge the claim on the basis of whether it thinks Hopkins is credible, a publicity hound, a guy trying save his own neck, or whatever.

So when in doubt, attribute, attribute, attribute. There should be at least one source attribution per story (more if you used more), and one for each controversial assertion in the story (i.e. every statement in the script that someone might quarrel with). Generally speaking, the place to put your source attribution is early on in the script, connected to a controversial assertion, or at least with some newsy, up-to-date fact that you got from the source.

No mind reading allowed

While we’re on the subject of “says” and similar verbs of expression…

In addition to all the silly synonyms I listed in my previous post on the subject, it’s also wise–journalistically–to avoid words that imply you have mind reading skills and actually know what the speaker is thinking. That means “thinks,” “feels,” “believes,” “understands,” and so on are O-U-T, out. If the subject says he feels relieved… Then. Say. That.

WRONG: Senator Cornwall feels the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

BETTER: Senator Cornall says he feels the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

PROBABLY BEST: Senator Cornwall says the fight for the nomination has gone on too long.

In some cases, where you really are dealing with Senator Cornwall’s interior, emotional state, the middle form, “says he feels,” is a better choice than just plain “says.”

Senator Cornwall says he thinks both candidates have turned in disappointing performances.

Consider this practice another form of accurate attribution… a subject we’ll come to soon.

Say “says”

One of the imperatives of good writing that’s drilled into beginner’s heads is not to repeat the same word or phrase too often. If a sentence has the word “ability” in it, the next sentence shouldn’t use the same word. I agree that this is generally good practice. But I make a big exception for all forms of the word “says” — especially in the case of broadcast writing.

It’s tempting to cook up a bunch of synonyms to avoid saying “said” over and over again: “He laughed,” “He announced,” “He revealed,” “He exclaimed,” “He chuckled,” “He sighed,” “He intoned,” and so on and on. Don’t.

Unless you have a synonym for “said” that is absolutely on-point and accurate, that just cries out to be used instead of “said” because it is just right… then use “said” instead. Feel absolutely free to formulate a paragraph that uses “says” over and over again.

Governor Smith says the state treasury is nearly empty. He says tax and fee income has “totally failed” to keep up with expenditures. Smith says he plans to call a special session of the legislature to deal with the state’s financial crisis.

As you can see from this example, “says” is such a ‘null’ word that — as long as there’s enough going on in the story — its repetition will bother absolutely nobody. Also notice that it’s good practice to restate the speaker’s name once in a while, to create variety in the shape of the sentence, and so that you don’t give listeners a chance to actually forget who’s talking.

To coin a paraphrase

I’ve laid out some kinda complicated rules about how to handle quotes in broadcast copy, but really, it can be simplified to this:

  1. In general, you should use exact quotes sparingly (don’t be promiscuous about them; limit yourself only to the best and pithiest quotes)
  2. When you do use exact quotes, treat them as if they were paraphrases.

For example:

Governor Fletcher said, “Kentucky has not discriminated against the gay community.”

This follows the rules I’ve laid out for quote handling. But read aloud it seems stilted and awkward. The following much smoother and more natural:

Governor Fletcher said that Kentucky has “not discriminated against the gay community.”

The difference between these two is very subtle (really, just a “that” versus a comma). But syntactically it’s all the difference in the world.

Note that in the second case, it would not necessarily be clear to the audience that they’re hearing an exact quote, which makes this approach unsuitable for cases where the audience really needs to know that.

In such instances, you’ll need to signal an exact quote, as discussed previously:

Over the weekend, in the words of a Beshear campaign spokeswoman, the “Fletcher camp hit the panic button.”

Cody Castgna’s lawyer said, “Unfortunately, I mean I hate to admit this on behalf of my client, but it’s a prostitution case. And frankly my client didn’t offer it or solicit it.”

In the second example, we didn’t use a ‘flag phrase’ like “in his words.” But it’s immediately clear it’s an exact quote because the speaker uses the first person right at the beginning of the sentence.

Citing foreign press agencies

When citing a foreign wire service, I find it best to use an English language reference. Sometimes that’s the agency’s name in translation. “Agence France-Presse” (AFP) becomes “the French Press Agency,” and “Deutsche Presse Agentur” (DPA) becomes “the German Press Agency.” Or sometimes it’s the name in the original language, with an English description tacked on: “The Xinhua state-controlled news service,” in a story where it’s already established we’re talking about China.

And note that, as in the last example, it’s important to indicate with a word or two (‘state-controlled’, ‘Christian conservative’, etc.) any possible bias a news service (or other source) might have.

That’s quite a dangling attribution you’ve got there

One of the most common problems I see in newbie broadcast newswriting, especially among those who have prior print newswriting experience, is the dreaded ‘dangling attribution.’ That’s where the who-said part of a quote ‘dangles’ off the end. For example:

“That’s the last time we shoot first and ask questions later,” said Sheriff Williams.

This is one of those rare never, never, nevers in broadcast writing, for two simple reasons. First, it isn’t conversational. No one in the history of ever has used this construction in conversation (okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much). The second, related reason is that it makes it hard for the audience to understand who’s talking, the newsreader or the person being quoted.

The correct formulation for broadcast writing is:

Sheriff Williams said, “That’s the last time we shoot first and ask questions later.”

This way, the audience understands who’s talking when they hear the quote.

There’s an additional issue as to the best way to signal that this is an exact quote, or whether that’s even necessary, which I’ll get to in a future entry.