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Salon’s Ask the Pilot column offers a textbook example of the dial-a-quote syndrome, which occurs when a reporter needs a quote from an expert to flesh out a breaking story.

Earlier this month, the column’s author, pilot and aviation expert Patrick Smith, was interviewed by the Associated Press for a story about the crash of a Kenya Airways 737.

Over the course of a 20-minute interview, Smith provides the reporter (who Smith describes as “surprisingly knowledgeable”) with a lot of background information and warns the reporter that, “one of the worst things we can do so shortly after an accident — any accident, no matter how revealing the circumstances might appear — is start mouthing off about probable cause.”

However, Smith is quoted in the AP story as saying, “Whatever happened must have happened very fast, which is usually a sign of catastrophic structural failure.”

In his column, Smith admits to using the phrase “catastrophic structural failure,” but says he was referring to another crash.

So what can you take away from this?

First, when a reporter calls in the middle of a major breaking story, chances are, they’re looking for a short, snappy quote, not detailed background. If you offer the quote and little else, you are less likely to be misquoted.

Second, know what you are going to say, before you say it. An interview is a lousy place to improvise.

Third, unless you have a recording of the interview, if something goes wrong it’s your word against the reporter’s. The story will be on page one, and the correction (should it ever appear) will be on page 42. In short, nothing is going to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Finally, being quoted as an expert in a news story is a great way to promote yourself and your business. But it’s not risk free, and sometimes you just have to take your lumps.


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