Journalists Prefer Said

Jerz > Writing > Journalism

“A common news formula starts with a newsworthy quote,” said Jim Lee, sports editor of the Greenstown Rag. “The quote can continue in the same paragraph for another sentence. Or two, if they are short.

“If a quote is longer than that, break it up into two paragraphs, but save the close quotation mark until the speaker is finished talking. There’s no need to identify the speaker again.”

Lee, who started working for the Rag the Monday after he graduated from Elizabeth Mount University with a degree in journalism in 1997, uses an occasional paraphrase to break up the monotony.

“But readers respond best to a quoteworthy quote,” he said.

“Traditional news writing is driven by quoted speech,” said Dennis Jerz, a Seton Hill University faculty member. “If you aren’t quoting the sources that you interviewed, then you aren’t doing journalism.”

Journalists prefer the word "said."

Bad ExampleBut not everyone feels the same way about quotes. Jane Lee, a reporter for WTAF-TV, said that her audience values images over words.  “Tape of what a guy in a suit said in his office makes boring TV,” she said. “Visuals help me connect to my audience. They can hold their attention while an important quote plays in voice-over.”
(Transitions are an important part of traditional essay writing; however, they are filler in journalism. Cut the “But not everyone feels the same way,” and simply present a contrasting viewpoint. If you pick a good quote, your reader won’t need you to announce that the viewpoint is contrasting.)

 

Good ExampleAccording to Jane Lee, a crime reporter for WTAF-TV, “Tape of what a guy in a suit said in his office makes boring TV. Visuals help me connect to my audience. They can hold their attention while an important quote plays in voice-over.”
(This version of the Lee quote avoids the default lazy “not everyone feels the same way” transition.)

The journalist’s reliance on the simplicity of “said” is a genre convention that helps avoid bias, according to Jerz.

“A journalist who writes that a source ‘claimed’ something introduces doubt. The word ‘explained’ confers trust,” he said. “Using emotionally loaded alternatives to ‘said’ oversteps the bounds of objective reporting.”

Bad ExampleWhile some students in the room nodded their heads and took notes, not everyone in the class seemed to be following Jerz. Among those who seemed confused was Gus Griffin, a freshman English major who told the class he was taught something very different — he was taught to value variety. “If every paragraph starts with a quote and ends with ‘said whoever,’ wouldn’t that be boring?” he asked.
(Here we have another example of a wordy transition, and an unnecessary introduction of a quote. Summarizing the content of the quote you’re about to introduce steals power from the quoted words. Let the quotes do their job!)

 

Good ExampleGus Griffin, a freshman English major, told the class he was taught to value variety. “If every paragraph starts with a quote and ends with ‘said whoever,’ wouldn’t that be boring?” he asked.
(This revision avoids the filler.)

“You’ll find many good stories that manage to avoid monotony without breaking the rules that make ‘said’ so useful,” said Dennis Jerz, who teaches journalism at Seton Hill University.

An occasional paraphrase is acceptable, especially for dry facts, according to Jerz.

“Sometimes in a serious story you need to use a label like ‘he quipped’ in order to clarify when your reader shouldn’t take a quote literally,” he told his “News Writing” students on a recent Wednesday afternoon. “But reporters shouldn’t reach for synonyms simply to avoid uniformity.”

“Readers of genre fiction would object if a CSI detective used a magic spell to discover a clue, or space aliens showed up at Hogwarts,” said Jerz. “By the same token, doing journalism means working within certain conventions.

“Reporters who use flowery language, like ‘smirked’ or ‘chortled’ instead of ‘said,’ are competing with their sources, whose quotes are supposed to drive the story.”

“Did that help?” Jerz asked.

Bad Example“It sure did!” rejoined Griffin with mock enthusiasm, a plucky glint in his his eye that many a student greeted with merry laughter on this crisp October day.
(Journalists don’t seek out flowery alternatives to the basic storytelling pattern, which is driven by the reliable “said.”)

For a moment Jerz was silent. “Get the hell out of here,” he said.