Q: Aren’t partial quotations taken out of context and therefore unreliable?


Not if it’s done right. Selecting only a phrase or even a single word from what a source said to use in a verbatim quote doesn’t mean the reporter is fundamentally misrepresenting what the source said. It just means that the rest of what the source said was either too wordy or muddled to add to the quote, so the reporter paraphrased that part instead. Other times, partial quotes might allow a reporter to provide an overview of opinions or thoughts without adding a ton of text to an article.

Let’s look at each example separately.

For starters, most people are not very articulate. They ramble, speak in incomplete sentences, jump from one topic to the next, and often don’t finish a thought before moving on, etc. If you were to quote almost anyone at length, you’d have a big bowl of word soup on your hands. In short, a hot mess. So a good reporter will isolate the words or phrases that really capture the essence of what the source said and then contextualize those partial quotes in her own words while still being true to the essence of the source’s statement.

That last part is key. For instance, take this quote: “The restaurant was a dump, there weren’t any napkins and my seat was broken, plus the noise, oh and Carol’s burger was underdone, it looked like straight blood, but the kids had fun so I guess it was OK but I wouldn’t go back.” An editor would say, “Clean this up.”

The reporter could have avoided that rebuke by turning in a sentence like this:

One patron described the restaurant as “a dump,” noting a lack of napkins, broken furniture in the dining room and under-cooked food, but added that his “kids had fun” so it wasn’t all bad.

The partial quote allows the reporter to articulate what the source meant more efficiently than if she had quoted the source verbatim from start to finish.

Other times, partial quotes allow a reporter to incorporate many viewpoints into one sentence. For example: Democrats in Congress have expressed a renewed sense of urgency with the impeachment proceedings against President Trump, characterizing the situation as “dire” and “of grave national importance.”

In both cases, the partial quotes still faithfully represent what the sources said, but the reporter maintains control over the delivery of that information and selects the most memorable and effective phrases to quote.

Without partial quotes or partial soundbites, every article and news broadcast would be an incoherent cacophony of nonsense.