The power of the first quote

August 14, 2017

When I met the author James McGrath Morris, he had been touring for months speaking to audiences about his brilliant biography of the legendary journalist Ethel Payne.

He was accustomed to a usual set of routine questions, both about his work on the book and about Payne’s adventures as one of the first Black women to work as a White House correspondent.

But then I asked him a question that later he admitted stumped him for weeks.

Why, I wanted to know, had he decided to begin his fantastic, groundbreaking book about an iconic, pioneering Black woman, by quoting a White man: President Lyndon B. Johnson, who gave the pens he used to sign the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act to Payne? I mainly wanted to know if the move was a deliberate effort to validate Payne to his White readers and draw their interest. If so, why did he think the strategy was necessary?

At the time, Morris, who is White, admitted he hadn’t thought that deeply about it.

The question of who gets to speak first in a narrative is one that has plagued me for years.

It’s an issue I find myself returning to each time I read a newspaper story, magazine article and even a biography.

If the story is about her, I think to myself, then why am I hearing from him first? If this piece is about children, where are their voices? Why are the people affected by this legislation tucked way down at the bottom of this story?

The order of speakers in a news story matters.

I found myself emphasizing this to my young journalism students at Harvard University this past summer over and over again.

On a ceremony program, the speakers are carefully arranged so that the most fiery, theatrical ones appear last. At awards events and galas, the most influential, accomplished, even politically connected speakers are highlighted and held from the stage until closer to the end.

But in a written narrative, who we allow to get the first quote signals not only who is the protagonist in the story, but the choice reveals whose voice we want to empower and uplift.

And if we are writing about typically voiceless, disenfranchised residents, who don’t normally get to air their feelings on a large platform, shouldn’t we allow them to speak first? Shouldn’t we consider giving them the first and even the last word on a topic?

There’s not a definite answer.

But I’m afraid that all too often, when we write, we don’t even think about it.

And there’s where the trouble lies. Too often, we haven’t thoughtfully considered what it means when we locate quotes or source appearances in our stories.

Yes: It’s important to have robust quotes and use the voices that make statements and move our stories forward. But if we wait too long to bring in the voices of the often voiceless, we risk losing our reader before they get to meet them.

Again: There’s no formula. But it’s something we have to think more about as we approach storytelling.

I admit my interest in the matter is deeply personal: As a Black woman, early on I couldn’t help but notice when we didn’t get to speak up for ourselves and when narratives about our experiences were framed from the perspective of outsiders. Then I noticed it happening to other marginalized groups: homeless citizens, residents living with AIDS, women, children, Muslim-Americans, our LGBTQ residents and too many others. Their quotes, their voices, were pushed way down in the story — sometimes so far down that it made me worry that less engaged readers would never get to hear what they had to say.

It would be another two years before I encountered Morris again. He told me he reflected on my question for a long time. He even discussed it with his editor.

In the end, he feels he made the right decision — leading his narrative with a story about Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act. And he would do it again because the anecdote was the strongest indicator of how Payne used her influence as a reporter for The Chicago Defender, he said.

When I was lecturing my students, I tried to be honest with them:

As reporters, many of the major decisions are out of our hands, I said. We don’t write the headlines and we don’t select where the stories will play in the news pages or on the website.

But the one, small bit of control we do have is to amplify voices within our stories.

Let’s use that power consciously. And wisely.