Readers' Representative Journal

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What 'he said' really means

November 27, 2007 |  2:10 pm

After a recent story, a source called to complain about the language "he said" at the end of a quotation, noting that he had never actually talked to the writer of the story but had communicated only by e-mail. Do the words "he said" or "she said" imply a face-to-face meeting, a telephone conversation or an exchange of e-mails? Is there a difference?

Following is an e-mail conversation among a number of staffers presented with this question.

From  Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Tracy Weber: "My policy, generally, is to identify that a quote came from an e-mail. People respond differently and less spontaneously in an e-mail than they would in person or on the phone. Moreover, one can never be sure if the thoughts expressed in an e-mail are the interviewee's alone, or crafted by committee -- particularly if a public official or ranking business executive is involved. Even checking the accuracy of an e-mail via phone does not always clear this up. I also don't think it detracts from a story to include the attribution and adds welcome precision to investigative pieces.  Unless absolutely forced to interview someone via e-mail, I don't do it. [But] When I've had to call back to confirm an e-mail I have almost always gotten a better quote!"

From Clark Stevens, who oversees style and usage for The Times: “I think it's good practice to identify e-mail communications as such, as a tacit acknowledgment that we're somewhat less sure of the source, legitimacy and circumstances of the message than if it were delivered face-to-face or by phone (which isn't perfect either, but necessary and widely accepted). I'd be more comfortable if there was at least some brief phone contact with the source to confirm the e-mail and its general content, much as we would check a letter to the editor.”

Roger Smith, editor, Column One: “Clark makes a good point, but we're at the margins of what we expect the reader to take away from a reference to an 'e-mailed,' vs. 'in-person' or telephone interview.  If we are confident enough of the quote to print it, then "said" seems accurate and adequate. When we attribute a quote to a telephone interview, it is usually as way of explanation when the reporter is in one place and the source in another, not because we are signaling a level of reliability of the quote itself.  I think we could use the same criteria for e-mail. There may be other circumstances when noting an e-mail quote would be helpful: for example, when the quote is so detailed or extensive that it would raise a question in a reasonable reader as to whether it was delivered orally.   But I don't think we need a rule governing all e-mailed quotes.”

From Marc Duvoisin, deputy managing editor (projects): “I think we would all agree reporters should always verify e-mail quotes (unless they arise from an established relationship of trust). That is, pick up a phone to make sure the person identified as the author actually sent the message. In addition to the circumstance Roger cites, I would acknowledge the e-mail origin of any quote whose syntax or word choice was characteristically e-mail-ish -- slangy and clipped. We wouldn't want to leave impression that someone uttered such a quotation.”

From Melissa McCoy, deputy managing editor (copy desks, design and production): “I agree with Marc's assessment. But I would add that we probably underuse the e-mail attribution. We do, in fact, sometimes allow a subject to make a point in writing that he might never be able to make as well orally. Who among us could? But does this make the guy who answers his questions in person sound LESS sure than the subject who gets to think about his answers and write them down?”