To quote or not to quote

arm comes down

Q. I contribute regularly to several websites.

Someone I interviewed for an article now wants to withdraw a quote. He said it, no question, but now he regrets it. He says it could get him into trouble. Do I take it out?

A. Sorry. That’s a sticky situation.

And the answer is: It depends. It depends on the topic, depends on the quote, depends on how central the quote is to the point you’re trying to make. It depends on whether you can get that information in some other way. Depends on your editor and your audience. Depends on the source and your relationship with her/him.

Each time this situation pops up, I cringe. Last time it happened, I had already submitted the story when one source whined that he had spoken inappropriately. I phoned my editor to explain. “Not a problem,” he replied by e-mail.” And I don’t need to know why. I’ll make that cut.” Bless him.

That’s not a completely satisfying answer, is it? If you are early into your career, delete any quotation when someone backs down on. That will help you not burn bridges, allowing you to interview this person again for the same or another outlet. The repercussions of denying his wish could be unpleasant.

So far, my answer relates only to the process of interviewing and writing the story.

Once you take into account the legal possibilities, though, you will surely comply with the wishes of the interviewee. Unless you are among the rare writers who carry libel insurance, you are asking for trouble by crossing this person. Anyone can sue you for anything, whether or not the complaint is valid, and you need to respond to every suit. The time and money you will expend on defense will far outweigh any efforts for this story.

Even if you are right and your interview subject is wrong, I suggest you delete her/his quotation.