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What happened to direct quotes in journalism?

Journalism is the art of telling stories and thus good scribes are those who tell stories well. Experts in the art of story telling advice a mix of devices as part of telling a story. Avoid passive voice unless absolutely necessary, they say. Use active voice—they stress the importance of direct quotes.

In this area of direct quotes, Kenyan journalists and particularly those on TV and radio, are often disappointing. Not everything that a source says is newsworthy. Good journalists are always on the lookout for quotable portions of the speech. There are silent rules on what is quotable and what is not.

We quote directly the controversial statements that people make so that we do not get them wrong, but also so that people do not assume that somebody else could have made the remarks. We avoid any doubts by attributing them to the person who made them.

Those who have long memory would remember a politician who, at one time annoyed by scribes, said on camera, that journalists were conceived by the riverbed. Such is not a  statement you would want to leave it there – you have to attribute it.

The second rule of direct quote is when someone makes a phrase in such a novel way that we are impressed. Putting words together is an art and when somebody excels in it we want to appreciate that. That is why there are phrases that we often repeat because of the way the original speaker made them.

Examples are many. Take the case of ndani, ndani, ndani fame. People get what you mean by you simply stating it once. But the original speaker was not satisfied with one-off stating, thus the repeat of ndani. The rendition creates a completely different meaning than simply saying ndani. It qualifies for a direct quote.

We also quote to give authority to a statement. It is nice to simply know that Kenya’s economy is going to grow by a certain percentage, but it is even better to know who said it. If I, for example, a mere teacher of journalism, was to make this statement the audience would take it with a pinch of salt. But imagine the statement coming from the Cabinet secretary in charge of Treasury, or Central Bank governor. The statement takes a completely different weight and is more believable.

It is this that brings me to the challenge we have with Kenyan journalism, especially on electronic media. They would be reporting a story, following a certain narrative that is based on a statement made by a source, then they do a cut to the source, and then the problem begins.

It would be the source alright, but they could be saying in the clip inserted, something that may be completely different from what the narrative on the screen is. Essentially the quote is simply out of context.

In print, a reporter would look at the string of words and thought being expressed and would make sure that the quote flows with the statement and with the thought. If we were discussing alcohol, it is not enough that the quote is about alcohol, but that the thought flows from the story that the journalist was telling.

Kenyan journalism must broadly go back to this basic tenet in telling a story by ensuring that the source who is being quoted directly, by the act of redirecting the camera to the person, does not only add value to the narrative, but is at least saying something that relates to the story being told. Too often the quote, or the cut-off to the source, is nothing but graphics that the producer is playing with. Do your audience a favour: make the quote relevant.

The writer is Dean, School of Communication at Daystar University

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