Getting great quotes (updated)

quotesWhen I was a cub reporter lo many years ago, I was advised to get great quotes. Getting the full context of the story was important; ensuring that the story was accurate and fair was important; but nothing was quite as important as getting great quotes. Great quotes, and only great quotes, made the Story. My editors pounded this message home; journalism experts pounded this message home; Tom Wolfe pounded this message home. This was in the era of journalism right before the dawn of the Internet, so the message has lost cachet. Yet the message is no less important or relevant, though perhaps not as critical as I was told.

As an example, consider the following story by Daniel Burke of Religion News Service. Burke wrote about the origins of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' decision to change a line in the Catholic Church's catechism and the response of American Jewish leaders. Burke's use of quotes elevated the story, turning what could have been a ho-hum article into an excellent one.

Most importantly, Burke's quotes were revealing. The first half of his story addresses why Catholic bishops voted to change a line in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults about the Catholic Church's interpretation of Jews' relationship with God. As you might imagine, the topic is a sensitive one, and Burke's quote from a top U.S. Catholic official highlights the political and social calculations involved:

Deleting the sentence allows U.S. bishops to dodge the controversy, said Monsignor Daniel Kutys, executive director of evangelization and catechesis at the USCCB's committee on the catechism.

"Part of the decision was to skirt the issue rather than explain it," said Kutys.

The second half of Burke's story addresses the roots of the change. It discusses the role of Robert Sungenis, an amateur Catholic apologist. Burke got a great quote from Sungenis' bishop questioning the apologists' writings.

Sungenis's writings on Jews have been sharply criticized by fellow Catholics, who accuse him of anti-Semitism. His local bishop, Kevin Rhoades of Harrisburg, has demanded that Sungenis stop writing about Jews and made him stop using the word "Catholic" in his organization's name.

"I had hoped that he would cease from speaking or writing about Judaism and the Jewish people in a hostile, uncharitable, and un-Christian manner," Rhoades wrote to a former colleague of Sungenis last February.

In addition, Burke's quotes had variety. He talked to top Catholic prelates; he talked to top Jewish leaders; he talked to Sungenis and quoted from Sungenis' bishop. In all, he quoted from seven people. His story was not, in other words, a cut-and-paste job.

However, Burke's use of quotes was not perfect.

His story suggests that Sungenis played a key role in changing a line in the catechism; the caption in the photo accompanying the story attributes a larger role to him, stating that Sungenis "helped lead the charge." Yet Sungenis' role is perhaps more ambiguous than Burke's story implies. Burke quotes from an official with the Catholic bishops' conference who suggests that Sungenis' role was overstated:

Sungenis may have been the first to raise the issue, but he shouldn't be given credit for revising the catechism, said the USCCB's Kutys.

"It was changed, but not because of what he said," Kutys said. "People were misunderstanding it, and through that blog spreading that misunderstanding to other people."

Kutys' quote, while revealing, throws into doubt Sungenis' role. Does Kutys believe that Sungenis played any role at all? As is, Kutys' quote implies that Sungenis did not play a major role. The reader is left scratching his or her head.

Despite this one misstep, Burke's story deserves praise. As a rule, Catholic prelates are wary of the press and so don't give interesting quotes, let alone revealing ones. Yet somehow Burke got them.

UPDATE: I should have described the dispute in question. The USCCB voted to remove the following passage from the adult catechism:

Pending Vatican approval, this sentence will be deleted from the text: "Thus the covenant that God made with the Jewish people through Moses remains eternally valid for them."

In its place, the USCCB approved this passage:

"To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his word, belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ."

Also, I should have explained the reason that some Catholics consider Sungenis' writing anti-Semitic. Below is Burke's evidence:

[Sungenis] also asserts that "an anti-Christian, Jewish influence has infiltrated the Catholic Church at the very highest levels."

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