Back your claim

1 May

Paid millions“! That’s interesting:

Picture 53

A huge appearance fee for a reclusive star in an advert largely made up of silence or verbal nonsense: that’s a good light story (or piece of “Joy/Culture”, as the Tribune newslist terms it) for the entertainment page.

Of course, “paid millions” is in quotes, so it’s only a claim and not absolutely definitive, but let’s see what the Hollywood pundit being quoted has to say:

Given his box office pulling power, it’s thought that Oldman would’ve received a handsome fee for his contribution to the project, which is likely one of his easier roles.

And – that’s it. That’s all there is. You can hunt all through the article, but there is no external source for the claim in the headline at all. No third party has offered any view on what it might cost to get Oldman as a spokesman. “It’s thought” means “it’s thought by the reporter who wrote the story”.

Claim quotes are a distinctly British convention whose use is not universally understood in other news cultures so, to be clear – no. This is not what claim quotes are for.  Claim quotes indicate the presence in a story of a newsworthy assertion made by a third party about which the news organisation is reserving judgment. They are not “scare quotes”, used to draw attention to new, unusual or significant phrases. They are not “I give up” quotes, used for indicating a headline writer’s dissatisfaction with his or her own choice of words.  They are not “guess quotes”, used to shamefacedly hint at unsupported speculation. They are for claims. Specifically, claims made by somebody else.

Heaven knows, if you must write the story this way,  it’s not that difficult to do it properly. The bar for claim quotes is not very high. Just phone up any showbiz contact at all – actor, agent, ad executive, or even another media journalist – and invite them to speculate. “What do you think they had to pay Oldman to get him to do this?” “Well, hard to say.” “It could easily have been millions, though, right?” “Yes, I suppose it could.” And there you have your claim: “Oldman’s fee could easily have been millions, according to a leading advertising executive who wished to remain anonymous.”

It’s not exactly going to win a Pulitzer, but it passes the first, basic legitimacy test. If a journalist’s sources are presented honestly, for better or worse, readers are happy to make their own judgment about the strength of the story and credit it more or less accordingly. But if you’re going to speculate about likely news angles arising out of the known facts, you have to run it past someone else first. You can’t be your own source. And you certainly can’t quote yourself in your own headlines.

With thanks to the Memphis bureau, who spotted this one from across the Atlantic

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One Response to “Back your claim”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. From our own correspondent | Ten minutes past deadline - January 26, 2015

    […] while ago, we caught the Daily Mail using claim quotes for an assertion that only the writer of the story had made. This is almost the opposite: the quoting of a fellow journalist at the same  news organisation as […]

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