Students who are new to journalism often introduce a quote like this:
|When I asked him about a habit he’d most like his journalism students to break, Dennis Jerz wasted no time giving a quick response: “Usually when I see the phrase ‘when asked about,’ I look for things to throw.” Clearly, one can see that the issue is important to him. (50 words)|
|We would expect the gossipy Rita Skeeter to write this way; it’s also how a daytime TV talk show host or a radio talk show host might talk. But it’s very wordy. Let’s cut it down to the essentials.|
|When asked what habit he’d most like his journalism students to break, Dennis Jerz said, “Usually when I see the phrase ‘when asked about,’ I look for things to throw.” (30 words)|
The revision is less wasteful, but what is that “When asked about” doing there?
We mostly only encounter the phrase “when asked about” in reporting, so when students start writing news reports, they tend to gravitate towards that phrase in order to signal to the world, “I am doing journalism now.”
Even if you avoid those specific words, variations such as “Commenting on topic X” or “On the subject of Y” are awkward transitions that break, rather than preserve, the flow of a story.
Journalists introduce a quote only in very specific circumstances, when omitting crucial information would give a distorted impression of the truth. Usually, my students can revise so that the quote does more of the work, making the phrase “when asked about” unnecessary:
|“Usually when I see the phrase ‘when asked about,’ I look for things to throw,” said Dennis Jerz, a journalism professor. (21 words)|
|“Usually when I see the phrase ‘when asked about,’ I look for things to throw,” said Dennis Jerz, who says his students tend to overuse the phrase in journalism classes at Seton Hill University. (34 words)|
|News writing is good when it is brief and informative. The final example delivers more information, in fewer words, than the wordy first example. It demonstrates much better writing skill.|
When Asking the Question Is Part of the News
Very rarely is the asking of the question part of the news, but when it is, a good reporter will work it into the story.
Here is an example showing when leaving out the question would convey an inaccurate picture. (It’s a fake story — I made it up.)
Obama Shares Bizarre Bunny Wish
American president Barack Obama stunned a Paris crowd when he expressed a desire to be transformed into a small furry animal.
“I would like to be a fuzzy bunny,” said Obama upon arriving at the Paris Convention Hall, where hundreds of European educators and financiers gathered for a United Nations conference on childhood poverty.
Obama also expressed dissatisfaction with his human ears.
“I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy.”
|Sounds pretty bizarre, right? Don’t worry, I’ve also made up a transcript of what really happened, on the sidewalk outside the Paris Convention Hall, as Obama was rushing from his limo into the front lobby:
Reporter: Mr. President! Mr. President!
Obama: There’s time for just one question today, folks. Yes?
Reporter: Mr. President, if you had to choose between being a giant robot with laser beam eyes, or a fuzzy little bunny with floppy ears, what would you be?
Obama: (Laughing.) Those are my only two choices?
Obama. Well, then. Lasers and robots are too scary, too scary for children. It’s hard to do my job and help people if they’re scared of you. So okay then. I would like to be a fuzzy bunny. I’ve been told I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy. When it comes to listening to solutions to the problems faced by the world’s children, I’m all ears. (Laughs.)
Other reporters: Mr. President! Mr. President!
Obama: Sorry, sorry. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to hop to it.
There are no lies in the “Bizarre Bunny Wish” story, but there are important omissions. The casual reader might assume the bunny statement was part of Obama’s prepared speech.
Here are several ways you might introduce this odd detail, if for some reason you felt it was newsworthy.
Barack Obama let his playful side show when a grade-school reporter asked him to pick whether he would rather be a “giant robot” or a “fuzzy little bunny.”
Quipping that being a “scary” robot would make it harder to do his job, the president chose the bunny. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to hop to it,” he said, before disappearing into the convention hall.
|You might instead try the more stark:|
|Offered the choice of being a robot or a bunny, Barack Obama chose the bunny. “I’ve been told I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy. When it comes to listening to solutions to the problems faced by the world’s children, I’m all ears,” he told reporters as he arrived at an economic summit in Paris.|
But if it turns out that the context in which the question was asked reveals something about the answer, and you’re looking for some “color” to humanize a routine event, you might want to play up this little incident.
|On the steps outside the convention hall, Obama took a question from Pierre Clouseau, 7.
Clouseau, with a pencil perched behind his ear, shouted in perfect English: “Mr. President, if you had to choose between being a giant robot with laser beam eyes, or a fuzzy little bunny with floppy ears, what would you be?”
“I would like to be a fuzzy bunny. I’ve been told I have big ears, but they’re not floppy and fuzzy,” the president quipped.
The above example was lighthearted, but the question can become part of the news in more serious stations, as well.
When a 2-year-old was mauled to death by wild dogs at the Pittsburgh Zoo in 2012, a zoo official who is probably more used to delivering cheerful news about frolicking polar bears and baby elephants faced some unusually aggressive questions from a reporter. She is quoted as saying “There is no such thing as a failproof exhibit,” which, out of context, could be seen as harsh or dismissive of the tragic loss of a human life.
In order to avoid the potential misunderstanding, a journalist is ethically obligated to be proactive, describing the situation, so that the readers can put the quote in its proper context.
|One reporter asked Baker whether she took responsibility for not creating a fail-proof exhibit.
“Life is full of risk,” she said. “There’s no failproof part of risk in life. We do everything we possibly can and evaluate it every day. The safety not only of our visitors but our staff as well. We work with wild animals, we work with dangerous animals every day.”
The reporter interrupted and pressed her: Do you take responsibility for not creating a failproof exhibit?
“There is no such thing as a failproof exhibit,” she said.
|The LA Times did not include the reporter’s question as a lazy way of introducing what happened next; rather, details about the way the question was asked provide important context — the zoo spokesperson was being pushed to make an extreme statement, and she pushed back a little. (Good for her! She’s doing her job.)
This is a real-world example of a rare case when it is appropriate to mention the reporter’s question in order to help the reader understand the response. (See also “The Invisible Observer.”)