Some Americans have become so disillusioned with the mainstream press that they refuse to trust basic reporting, assuming that even direct quotations may have been taken out of context.
Cherry-picked quotations are an old problem, but one which digital tools are uniquely suited to combat. In this article I’m going to demonstrate how a new set of authoring tools I’ve developed can allow authors to establish greater credibility, by providing readers the additional context they need to quickly evaluate a quotation’s context.
Take for example, the following cherry-picked quotation about slavery from Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography:
Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.
In this selective quotation, Jefferson appears to be a foreword-looking man, anticipating the emancipation of African-Americans. But if you click on the above down arrow, you can see that the text expands to reveal subsequent sentences which describe Jefferson’s desire to deport all the freed slaves, a part of history which is often omitted from our founding myths. 1
Quotations that appear in print are frequently devoid of context, requiring the reader to trust the author or follow a footnote. I call these “severed quotations” because the context necessary for readers to evaluate them has been chopped off. I use the term “severed” as a way to suggest that we need to establish a new norm for quotations — a norm which the digital medium has only now made possible, where the text surrounding a quotation can be expanded to provide readers with a fuller context. This new norm can help readers distinguish between those authors who desire to live to a higher standard of accountability, from those who play fast and lose with the record.
Out of Context Quotations in the Media
Take for example, the Saturday Night Live Sketch that Parodied Sarah Palin:
I can see Russia from my house!
This line was actually a exaggerated paraphrase from Sarah Palin that makes more sense if you read the original ABC News interview’s full transcript.
ABC New’s Actual Interview:
The interview was conducted in Alaska; and early in the interview ABC anchor Charles Gibson raised the topic of Russia’s proximity to Alaska:
GIBSON: Let’s start, because we are near Russia, let’s start with Russia and Georgia.
Later in the exchange, Alaska’s proximity comes up again, with Palin answering Gibson, by saying:
PALIN: They’re our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.
I was not a Palin supporter, but I am sympathetic to conservatives who say that, whatever faults Palin may have had, ABC News and Saturday Night Live treated her unfairly by taking an otherwise innocuous statement out of context. It is an accumulation of many of these sorts of incidents that degrades conservatives’ trust in mainstream media sources like ABC News.2
If media outlets want to distinguish themselves from the competition, one visible way of doing this would be to adopt the sort of expanding quotations I’ve demonstrated and coupling this with a campaign to regain public trust.
I created the open-source Neotext project as a way to demonstrate the technical feasibility of this form of expanding quotations, and as a project to develop working implementations on many platforms.
You can experience what it is like to create your own Neotext quotations on my demo site by clicking on the “Test Drive” button below.
The goal of the Neotext project is to provide authors with tools that allow their readers to make an informed evaluation of sources, and to inspire greater confidence in the works of authors who are willing to hold themselves to a higher standard of accountability. I’ve made all the code for Neotext open source (MIT) in the hope that a free license will speed Neotext’s adoption by authoring platforms like Medium.
How Medium could adopt Neotext
Medium could be the first platform to adopt this digital writing feature, if it:
- added a source URL field to their blockquotes and
- incorporated a citation web service, like the one I developed.
The Technology behind this Open Source Library
I’ve created the above prototype as a proof of concept using a custom jquery library and Python web service to demonstrate how this idea could be implemented as a WordPress plugin. Neotext is currently alpha-quality code, but all the code is free to build off of and is available under an open source license (MIT) at GitHub.
How to Help This Project:
If you don’t work at Medium.com and want to help on the WordPress plugin, I’m looking for:
- Programming collaborators to help me improve the code, and
- WordPress authors who are interested in being alpha-testers of my plugin.
If you’re interested in staying up to date with the latest news, join my email newsletter or subscribe to the RSS feed.
How the Code Works:
The plugin I created takes advantage of standard html’s blockquote cite attribute, where the url is specified with the “cite” attribute. Platforms like Medium would need to modify their editors to allow the author to specify a URL with their blockquotes:
- When the article is published, the Web Authoring Tool (either WordPress or Medium) scans published articles and checks to see if the article contains a <blockquote cite= “url”> tag. If the article does, it uses the HTTP POST command to programmatically send the article’s url to the Python web service I created.
- The Python Web Service gets the submitted url, downloads the specified article, and for every cited blockquote url it finds:
- it retrieves the cited document,
- creates a text-version of the cited source, and
- locates the quotation starting position.
- After the web service locates the quotation, it copies the 500 characters of text before and after the quotation.
- The web service saves the 500-character contextual text snippets to a json file on Amazon S3, constructing an identifier from a hash of the quoted text and the page’s url.
- When a reader views the citation on the published page, their browser:
- uses jquery to find any <blockquote> tags with the “cite” attribute,
- looks up the json file in the Amazon cloud, and
- injects the json content into hidden <divs> on the citing page and displays arrows above and below each <blockquote>
Related: Download Sample HTML template
What’s in it for Medium and Me:
My goal is to bring this functionality to every significant online writing platform. Medium could strengthen the credibility of its platform by being an early adopter.
I’m not looking for fortune or fame. There’s an old quote that says:
A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.
- Journalists and Technologists Should Collaborate to Build More Trustworthy Media, which I also wrote.
- Review: Ted Nelson’s Philosophy of Hypertext: I was inspired while writing this article to create Neotext, as a way to evoke and eventually transition to a hypertext more like Nelson’s original vision.
This Jefferson quotation can be found in multiple sources, including the Jefferson Memorial, but if we draw in the full context of the quote from page 68 of Jefferson’s 1821 autobiography, we find that additional context reveals a more complicated history.↩
Distrust is also caused by conservative outlets continual promotions portraying the competition as unfair and biased.↩