How the words you didn’t say can end up in quotes (and headlines)

The negative language journalists use in their questions is something we explore regularly during our media training courses.

We do this because we so often see and hear spokespeople repeating or agreeing with the phrases and words reporters use.

And it is a serious - yet easily avoidable - mistake, as one spokesperson found out this week.

Step forward Brendan Clarke-Smith.

The politician made the gaffe during an interview with Channel 4 News, which you can see here at 7.24, where he was grilled about the latest ‘partygate’ photographs and revelations surrounding Boris Johnson.

Presenter Cathy Newman asked the Bassetlaw MP if he is “content to back a law-breaker in office”.

“I certainly am,” he replied.

“And I think the Prime Minister’s done many achievements so far. I think he’s still got a long time in office as well.”


Those comments were later reported on the broadcaster’s website under the headline “’I’m certainly content backing a lawbreaker in office,’ says Tory MP” –it always looks worse written down.

Now, you might think that, at this point, Mr Clarke-Smith may have thought enough damage had been done and decided to cut his losses.

You would be wrong. Instead, he took to social media to suggest his views had been misinterpreted – an approach always likely to trigger an angry reaction from a journalist. And prolong the pain.

He tweeted Ms Newman, saying: “Not sure why your sub-editor is using quotation marks here”.

And he was quickly slapped down by the presenter, who replied: “I asked if you were ‘content to back a lawbreaker in office’. You said ‘I certainly am’.”

That tweet serves as a reminder of the risk posed by negative language, especially when it includes accusations and insinuations.

We tell delegates on our media training courses that when you do this, you start telling the story in someone else’s words.

Those words tend to be controversial or loaded and something you would not have set out to say.

Let’s say the interview was on another subject, and the reporter said something different to "lawbreaker". Perhaps "catastrophe", "nightmare" or "embarrassed".

Repeating or agreeing with any of those words would ensure they were used in unflattering quotes, headlines and story angles, rather than the message you intended to get across. It is a headline writer’s dream.

And, just like the Channel 4 interview, in the age of digital journalism, the footage would be extensively shared on social media. The problem spokespeople face is it is natural to use the same words and phrases to rebut them.

We all do it in everyday conversation. It shows we are listening and understand the other person’s concerns. 

So, it takes discipline, control and high-quality media training to avoid the temptation to repeat that language or agree with it in an interview. And you need to listen carefully to the question asked rather than attempt to jump straight to your message.



We are now accepting applications to join the next cohort of The Media Team Academy. For just £595 (+VAT), up to eight members of your comms team could benefit from live masterclasses, a dedicated resource hub, online training courses, and much more. Join now.

Let’s give you a couple of negative language examples from our courses.

You or your spokesperson could be talking about the latest performance results.

A journalist might say, "these results are a disaster, aren’t they?". And the interviewee begins their response by saying, "I wouldn’t say it is a disaster”.

A similar example is when an organisation is accused of being "incompetent", and the instinct is to say something like, "I wouldn’t agree that we are incompetent."

In both those scenarios, the journalist’s negative language can now be attributed to the spokesperson, and they have said what you were trying to avoid. 

You could, in the case of the first scenario, see a headline along the lines of: Boss says results ‘not a disaster’.

We tell our delegates the key is for spokespeople to listen carefully to questions and mentally edit their responses before delivering them.

Instead of repeating or agreeing with the language you are trying to rebut, use phrases like "on the contrary", "I wouldn’t put it like that", "those are your words – I think", "You might say that – I would say" or "What I would say is".

Why let the journalist choose the words for you? Use your language, not their ones. Replace rather than repeat.

It is also worth pointing out that if the reporter paraphrases your answer, you must be careful not to agree with their summary unless you are happy to be quoted.

A simple "yes" and you are on record agreeing to their words, which can be just as damaging.

If the interview takes place on TV, spokespeople also need to avoid nodding their head during a negative question. Otherwise, it will look like they agree with what is said.

Ultimately, if you say something you later regret or that looks a lot worse in print than your thought it did in your head, what you say has probably not been misconstrued or misinterpreted. It is often poor media interview technique.

And that’s a negative we can all agree with.

About to face the media? Get your media interview homework off to the best start by downloading your copy of our free media interview preparation eBook.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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