Q: What happens when a source says they’ve been misquoted?

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Fireworks, that’s what! But don’t be fooled when public figures try to malign journalists for accurately conveying things they’ve said. (Politicians, athletes and entertainers do this a lot.) By and large, when a subject makes this accusation, it’s not because the reporter messed up the quotation or the context. It’s because the source is embarrassed by what they said, or is under fire for it. Having shot themselves in the foot, they try to shoot the messenger—that is, the journalist—by claiming a misquote.

Do misquotes in fact happen? Yes. Even in direct quotations, which it is the sacrosanct duty of journalists to get exactly right. But like voter fraud, the myth of rampant misquoting is prevalent when in reality it rarely happens at serious news organizations. Professional journalists make constant efforts to confirm controversial material by recording interviews and checking facts. (Supermarket tabloids and dark-web conspiracy sites, which make up nonsense with impunity at both extreme ends of the left-right political spectrum, are another matter.)

Oh, Steve… Credit: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Case in point: Rep. Steve King of Iowa. In January, The New York Times published an article titled “Timeline of Steve King’s Racist Remarks and Divisive Actions,” including a statement wherein King defended the term “white supremacist” as innocuous. The Republican Steering Committee in the House of Representatives promptly removed King from all House committee positions. King didn’t deny the remarks, but insisted in a long statement that they had been misunderstood. In August, King was quoted making offensive remarks about the important role of rape and incest in global genealogy, this time in the Des Moines Register. He claimed this was “a misquote.” He pointed to a correction in the Register as proof, claiming the paper, as well as the Associated Press, had “retracted” its initial report. While there was indeed a correction issued by the Register to one of the other quotations in that article because it had been slightly abridged, though it was substantially intact, King’s most scabrous comments were confirmed by the paper as complete, in context, and accurately presented. So King’s tactic failed, but not before it was repeated and echoed in social media.

You’ve been served: Serena Williams faulted Rolling Stone for printing “what I supposedly said;” Rolling Stone put the ball back in her court insisting it’s all on tape. Photo credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

In a milder instance of look-over-there deflection, tennis pro Serena Williams basically threw a Rolling Stone magazine journalist under the bus this past summer for speaking more bluntly than was prudent. In a lengthy June 2019 interview, Williams made some controversial comments about the young woman at the center of the Steubenville rape case. Many people considered them insensitive, an example of blame-the-victim thinking. In apologizing for the remarks, Williams tried to roll back that she’d made them. “I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article,” Williams said in a statement released on her website. “What was written — what I supposedly said — is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.” The reporter in question, Stephen Rodrick, was said by CNN to have responded to the Poynter Institute. His answer was, “The interview is on tape. Other than that, I’ll let the story speak for itself.”

Why would Williams and King resort to castigating reporters who appear to have accurately conveyed their comments? One theory is that public figures and their handlers know the general public does not currently have a very high opinion of journalists. If a celebrity attacks the media, it will probably play well. And if they deliver such a message directly through the unfiltered platform of proprietary websites or social-media channels, there is no V-I-A to get in the way. By the time the outlet or reporter steps up to counter the untruth, the web has usually moved on to another, hotter story.

So how should a news consumer navigate these situations? By following such accusations over time. Look for evidence provided by the journalist or the outlet that the original quotation was accurate. Not just accurate word for word, but accurate in the full context of all the comments the source made in a given interview or situation. Only then can you ask has this source actually been misquoted? Or are they just backpedaling? Mostly, you’ll find it’s the latter. You can quote us on that.