Sunday, May 22, 2005

Misquoted by the press 

Huichieh Loy at From a Singapore Angle writes about a scholar who tries to defend herself regarding comments about males becoming whiny after national service. She now says that she was misquoted by The Straits Times or quoted out of context. It reminds me of another recent incident involving Today.

I have three comments on the matter.

First of all, The Straits Times always seems to want to have the last say on disputes regarding the accuracy of its reports. This particular report is one example (see the editor’s note at the end), but note also how often it gives replies immediately below letters that try to portray anything it writes as inaccurate. It is understandable behaviour, perhaps, since most people would want to protect their reputations, but since such disputes largely revolve around one person’s word against another’s, I doubt that many readers would be too impressed by its continued assertions of its own accuracy. Furthermore, as a newspaper, The Straits Times already has a natural advantage in such disputes as it controls what is published (see for example, a recent case highlighted by Steven McDermott), and when it exploits this advantage by having the last say, its action risks being construed by others as bullying. The fact that in this case — as pointed out by Wows and Huichieh — the editor’s note also apparently does not make much sense makes things worse.

Secondly, it would be interesting to know why there seems to be so many “misquotes” in the newspapers. Verbal interviews tend to generate misquotes, since the interviewee does not have enough time to think through what he says. If The Straits Times is really interested in accuracy, it might want to rethink how it conducts interviews. On the other hand, if The Straits Times is intentionally trying to elicit juicy “misquotes” in disregard of the true, complete views of the originators — with all their associated nuances — then it might want to consider what such disputes over the accuracy of its quotes can do to its credibility and whether such potential loss of credibility is worth the attention that such “misquotes” garners.

Thirdly, these incidents should serve as a lesson to all those being interviewed by The Straits Times and, in fact, any media organisation. Be careful what you say to them. To be safe, avoid giving interviews altogether, especially those where you don’t have a chance to vet what is to be published before publication. But this advice may be a bit difficult for some people to follow. After all, many people do want to have their minute of fame.


Great post, but I don't know if it's about getting your "minute of fame." maybe you contributes on the assumption that the reporter is trying to get a spread of opinions. If in the end the reporter just sells his/her agenda and you are royally misrepresented, I don't think it's your fault for wanting to be (in)famous. I think that was what happened to mr brown and Mr. Miyagi.


Yes, agreed. The point about “minute of fame” would only apply to some people. Also, some who originally have good intentions about contributing opinions but are otherwise hesitant about being misquoted might ultimately be swayed by the “minute of fame”.

Regarding your three comments:

1. It is customary for a publication to print its response to a reader's letter about said publication immediately after the letter. Since Ms Chng says she was "misquoted", it would be necessary for the ST to state for the record that they hadn't misquoted her in the original article. I also don't think this qualifies as a "dispute", given that Ms Chng does not actually seem to have been "misquoted" nor "quoted out of context". Whatever she meant to imply should have been made clearer by her.

2. "Verbal interviews" are the main way in which any newspaper conducts interviews. As you say, they tend to generate "misquotes" - but not by the newspaper as much as by the interviewee him/herself - because, again as you've already noted, he/she doesn't have the time to think through the quote. But this doesn't mean that the ST is "intentionally trying to elicit juicy 'misquotes'". If Ms Chng had realized the error of her statement during the interview, she could have requested that quote struck off the record, which she didn't.

I believe that in light of recent true misquotes in the ST (e.g. mrbrown and mr miyagi), people have started giving too much credibility to interviewees who can now disclaim responsibility for their statements via the convenient and readily acceptable justification of "I was misquoted lah, the ST always like that one." Ms Chng did not actually provide proof that she was indeed misquoted.


Your comments are interesting. But I thought I should clarify the three comments in the original post.

The three comments above were directed at The Straits Times and applies to its situation generally. They were not specifically directed at Ms Chng’s predicament, her case being mentioned only as an example. There was no presumption that Ms Chng was actually misquoted or quoted out of context.

Generally, in fact, I do agree with you that we should not always assume that The Straits Times is the one at fault. But as you note yourself, there has apparently been a trend of misquotes, so I think a wider perspective is called for. Hence, the three comments.

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