On “Quotes” and Reconstructed Dialogue in Journalism

It bothers me to read, in your standard Bob Woodward style insider book or personal memoirs by retired officials, dialogue from private conversations that has quotation marks around it. To me, quotation marks are for verbatim comments. In reporting out behind-the-scenes stuff, we journalists can reconstruct approximate dialogue drawn from people’s memories (ideally, cross-referencing multiple witnesses) or scribbled meeting notes. But unless we were there, or someone recorded it, or there was a trained stenographer, what we’re doing is capturing the gist of what was said in approximate form – not quoting what was literally actually said. It’s different from a quotation from a document or from a public speech or from a direct interview.

I have to obey the New York Times‘ stylistic conventions when writing for the newspaper, but I had more flexibility in writing my own book, so I decided to use italicized text to be up front about when dialogue was reconstructed rather than verbatim. In places I drew on memories of conversations as recounted in officials’ memoirs or as reported in fellow journalists’ work, and I turned their fake quotes into italicized dialogue, too. I explain this in a note in the front, reproduced below.



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