September 15, 2003

Cranking up the Quote Machine

A San Francisco Chronicle story about the popularity of a few particular political pundits among journalists covering the state's recall election offers a telling glimpse into the reporting process from the source's perspective and explains why so many news stories seem based on the same tired set of talking heads - because they are.

Berkeley political professor Bruce Cain, for example, "has appeared in more than 200 articles in the past two months, and has done scores of television and radio interviews" and in one stretch appeared in print 28 days in a row.

Cain's biggest complaint, according to Chron writer Peter Hartlaub: "Reporters who are blatantly fishing for a quote that will fit the premises to their stories." He didn't say whether he takes the bait or not.

Former pundit Arianna Huffington, now a candidate for governor, calls the use of quotemeisters "an inevitable part of the political-journalistic theater."

I call it lazy reporting and formulaic journalism.

The now-rote deadline search for "perspective" following a political debate or press conference results in anything but. It produces canned quotes from "experts" who've said the same thing so many times previously one must wonder if they have a collection of standard quotes they draw upon when a reporter calls.

Here's Cain talking about how recall campaigns could increase in number.

On ABC News: "If this recall is successful, then the recall will be used in other states to recall other political officials, and we will have permanent campaigns."

In the Sacramento Bee: "But it certainly will go from zero usage to occasional usage, and the key here is that we now know you can run it like an initiative."

In the New York Times: ''Once it gets on the ballot, it is a purely ingenious piece of mischief. And it could happen anywhere. If it were to succeed here, I think it would be widely copied. It is one of those innovations that the rest of the country could come to regret.''

In fact, a quick search of the Chronicle's archives for "Bruce Cain" produced 27 hits for this year, including today's piece about how popular he is.

Proponents of more ethnic diversity in the news pages have complained for years that most reporters return to the same rolodex when they need a quote, excluding newer sources that might include minorities or women.

But the reliance on a subset of quotemeisters harms more than diversity efforts. It reduces original thinking in newspapers - both on behalf of the reporter, who should be displaying more innovative skills than simply dialing the number of someone he saw quoted in another story, and on behalf of the source, who finds himself deluged with media calls and forced to condense whatever sophisticated thoughts he might have had about the issue into one-paragraph bites.

The result is tired journalism and readers who are tired of newspapers. You can quote me.

 San Francisco Chronicle Journalists' need for quotes swamps pundits

Posted by Tim Porter at September 15, 2003 07:10 AM