It’s hard to imagine a topic that causes more debates in newsrooms than this one: Under what circumstances should reporters and editors trust second-hand quotes?
Here’s the context: What do you do when sources on only one side of a debate will talk with you? Or what about this: There is a crucial meeting and the powers that be will not include reporters. Do you print direct quotations based on the memories of participants (who almost always have an axe to grind, or they wouldn’t be talking to the press in the first place)?
If you’ve worked in Washington, D.C., you know that journalists sit around after the release of each Bob Woodward book (yeah, like this one) and discuss the status of his second-hand or even third-hand material — that ends up inside quotation marks as verbatim quotes.
Most of the time, reporters (including me every now and then) argue that this is a first-person quote about what a person heard someone say to them or these were words spoken in their presence. It may be is acceptable to quote them if you give the reader precise information about the identity of the person providing the second-hand quote and their link to the story.
But what about anonymous quotes of second-hand material?
Editors at The Chicago Sun-Times ventured deep into this minefield the other day on a high-profile story linked the the scandal surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and his friends and disciples in the halls of Catholic power. The headline: “Cupich on scandal: ‘We have a bigger agenda than to be distracted by all of this’.”
Spot the journalism questions in this overture:
The young man studying at Mundelein Seminary to become a Catholic priest seemed anguished as he vented to Cardinal Blase Cupich about the clergy sex-abuse scandal that threatens to topple Pope Francis and drive more people away from the faith.
“I’m hurting, I can’t sleep, I’m sick,” the seminarian told Cupich during an Aug. 29 gathering at which the cardinal spoke to about 200 future priests enrolled at the seminary, according to another person who was there and spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times but asked not to be identified.