ESPN columnist Rick Reilly has had it rough recently, but more importantly I thought it raised an interesting question about the responsibility journalists have in including comments from sources when it may potentially contradict the tone or message of their story.
To quickly set the stage: Back in September, Reilly, an award-winning sports columnist, wrote an article for ESPN.com that discussed the ongoing controversy surrounding the use of the name “Redskins” by the Washington NFL team.
In that article, Reilly argued that the controversy is being overblown and that Native Americans aren’t nearly as offended as our society thinks they are.
He supports his point by quoting his own father-in-law (a member of the Blackfeet Indian tribe), saying that the name isn’t really offensive and shouldn’t be a big deal.
Then things got a little hairy for Reilly. His father-in-law published an essay claiming that not only was he misquoted in the article, but also important comments he made denouncing the use of the word “Redskins” were omitted from the column.
Claims of misquotes or having comments taken out of context are nothing new in the world of journalism. Many PR people and reporters have battled this out through the years, so I wasn’t so bothered by that part of the father-in-law’s accusation.
However, to have a whole aspect of an interview left on the cutting floor, especially when it drastically impacts the content of the article, is alarming and severely undermines the journalist/source relationship. As a PR professional, I understand that while all my clients “message points” may not get included in the finished article, I do expect honesty when it comes to how my client is portrayed.
To get some additional perspective on this controversy, I reached out to Doug Hanks, a 20-year business writer at The Miami Herald, to get his thoughts. He said that while many quotes are somewhat taken out of context because the information from interviews needs to be condensed, a journalist must accurately report his source’s true feelings.
“Yes, you are ethically obligated to reflect a person’s position on a subject,” Hanks said. “You can’t publish them saying one thing when they mean another, and you can’t leave something out of your article if it impacts that position.”
It seems that most journalists and PR professionals would agree with this opinion.
For the record, Reilly responded to the controversy on his Twitter account, claiming he thought he had quoted his father-in-law accurately, but made no mention of the omission.
How do you think journalists should strike a balance when it comes to quoting their sources? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, you can follow Doug Hanks on Twitter.