Quotations: Using them Effectively in Journalism

Jerz > Writing > Journalism

Use direct quotations to record the opinions, emotions, and unique expressions of your sources. A news story lets the direct quotes do as much of the work as possible.

Avoid pulling your punches by summarizing the quote before introducing it.

Avoid transitions like “When asked about…” unless you are an actor playing a journalist in a 1940s movie. (See “When is Asking the Question Part of the News?“)

A direct quotation that conveys a fact is usually boring.

Bad Example

journalism-quotesMany members of the Elizabeth Mount community are excited about new dorms scheduled to open before next semester. Sally Smith, director of residence life, is no exception.

“The new dorm will house 36 students in apartment-style units,” Smith said.

Snooze! That opening paragraph is filler. In eighth grade you may have been rewarded for introducing a quote this way, but a news story is not a middle school book report.

And the quote is just a dry fact. There’s nothing unusual or newsworthy about the exact wording of Smith’s statement.

Paraphrase those dry facts, and use direct quotes to present the opinions, emotions, and promises of your sources. Don’t force emotion into a dry story; but don’t bury the emotions that are there.

Iffy Example“I think students will love the layout,” said Sally Smith, the director of Student Life, who is already planning to help students reduce clutter in their individual units by placing a communal Christmas tree in the lobby.
A little better, but we expect a Student Life employee to say her dorms are great; we learn very little from this direct quotation. This part of the quote isn’t newsworthy, and the Christmas tree detail seems kind of random.

Rather than introducing the general concept of “helping students reduce clutter” and the specific example of a communal Christmas tree, try to let the source’s words do more of the work.

A good reporter can set the stage in such a way that even a fairly brief quote can have dramatic impact.


Good ExampleCollege students have barely moved in, but one college administrator has already figured out how she can help 120 residents of a new dorm, some of them packed 6 to a unit, decorate for the holidays.

“Living on campus gets real cozy, real quick,” according to Sally Smith, director of Student Life at Elizabeth Mount University. By December, students can barely fit tiny Christmas trees in their units.

“So we’re putting a Godzilla tree in the lobby,” she said.

Journalists are experts at slipping in concrete details unobtrusively. This revision conveys some factual information about the dorm (the number of residents, the fact that it’s not an old-fashioned floor-style residence, but rather apartments), but the quote works because it expresses some of the speaker’s opinions and personality.

In general, a journalist should paraphrase dry facts, but directly quote emotions, opinions, and promises voiced by sources.

Bad ExampleFred Jones is eager to move into Newcomb Hall. “It’s supposed to be ready October 15, but I can’t wait that long,” he said. “It’s gonna be a sweet dorm.”
In this example, Jones does give a quote-worthy opinion of the new dorm, but because the reporter has already told us that Jones is “eager to move in,” that dry introduction steals the punch from the direct quotes “I can’t wait” and “it’s gonna be a sweet dorm,” both of which already convey eagerness.

Much more serious is quoting random student Fred Jones as the source of the the Oct 15 date. Jones is here just passing along something he heard; he could be spreading a rumor.

Keep Jones for his opinion and his enthusiasm, but cite an authority for facts like the date.

Iffy ExampleThe dorm, which will open on Oct. 15, will house 72 undergraduates in apartment-style units.
Will it? Who says?

This is a promise, even a prediction. It’s not a fact yet — it’s something that the school administration hopes will happen. It’s a kind of opinion.

Since there is no way for you, as the reporter, to hop into time machine and found out whether the dorm really will open on time and as planned, you should treat it the same way you would treat an opinion.

Iffy ExampleOfficials claim the facility will open Oct 15 and house 72 students.


Officials plan to house 72 students in the facility, if it opens as scheduled Oct 15.

Words like “claim” or “if” convey doubt. (Avoid bias in your reporting.)

While a reporter cannot report future events as facts, a reporter can report that a credible source expects or predicts something to happen.

Bad Example“The new dorm will house 72 students in apartment-style units,” said Sally Smith, director of Residence Life.
But wait a minute! Now we’re back with a boring quote!
Good ExampleThe plans call for a new 72-bed residential facility, with individual units housing 6 students, opening Oct. 15.
That’s better. We don’t need to add “according to Smith,” because the reporter is citing the plans, which are a credible source if the reporter has consulted them directly (rather than just listened to what an employee says about the plans).

Smith didn’t invent those plans herself; these details were probably part of a university budget proposal a year or more ago, and there are probably artist renderings of the finished building on the university website.

We’ve already mentioned “the plans,” and in context it should be clear we’re talking about the university’s plans.

The Reporter as Invisible Observer

In traditional journalism, reporters are invisible observers. They should not casually refer to their own participation in the events they describe.

Bad ExampleWhen I climbed the stairs to John Smith’s apartment, I heard a strange, rhythmic thumping. Could it be bongo drums? I opened the door, and saw Smith sitting on the floor, banging away. He smiled at me and told me to come in.
In traditional news, a good reporter is an invisible observer, Readers of a restaurant review want to know your opinion, and readers of travel journalism want to know what you did, but in hard news, the journalist does not appear as a character. The above sample refers to the reporter as a character in the story, which distracts from the story.
Iffy ExampleOutside John Smith’s apartment, a strange thumping could be heard. Could it be bongo drums? When the door was opened, Smith could be seen sitting on the floor, banging away. A visitor is smiled at and welcomed.
When editing to remove self-references, avoid the quick fix of resorting to passive verbs.
Good ExampleThe thump of bongos fills the stairwell outside John Smith’s apartment. Pounding away, Smith welcomes a visitor without missing a beat.
The revision captures the energy of the scene; it aims to insert the reader directly into the reporter’s sensory experiences, while also enriching the description of an experience with precise, relevant details that would not be obvious to a visitor who just happened upon the scene.For more, see

 Is the Question Part of the News? (Rarely!) 



7 thoughts on “Quotations: Using them Effectively in Journalism

  1. I feel that this is a great source if you are looking for more information about writing a journalism paper or in fact a paper for school. These writing tips can really help you in the long run.

  2. This was good. I have been told I am using too many quotes in my stories but since I tape them all, why not use as many as possible in the story? Since I’m paraphrasing the quotes, anyway, what is the big deal?

    • Of course I don’t know exactly why you were told you use too many quotes, but this article recommends paraphrasing boring and dry quotes, using the exact words of sources when those words help to tell the story.

      Sources can ramble, or speculate overconfidently about things about which they have only partial knowledge, and they can confidently pass along hearsay phrased as if they witnessed an event themselves. They might conversationally repeat unconfirmed rumors or say things that fact-checking reveals is wrong. Those are just a handful of reasons why a good reporter will be selective about which quotes to use.

    • I would say though, if you were using the quotes to try and get to a certain conclusion it would be bad, conversely, if you didn’t, then it probably broke the flow of the story. Either way we can’t win.

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