As every journalist knows, second-hand quotes can be dynamite. After all, one highly biased person can totally twist what another person said. They can even make up quotes out of whole cloth.
How do you know what was really said? You try to find out if there is other evidence to back them up. You look for patterns in encounters with other people. You ask the person in question to verify the quotes, or the person's press aide. You try to do the right thing.
But, sometimes, all of this fails. So, you bite your lip and try to signal to the reader, "Look. This story does not claim to tell you what the following newsworthy person said. I am telling you what this other clearly labeled person SAYS that they said in their one-on-one conversation. Is that clear?"
We have a classic example of this problem unfolding right now over in London at The Times and it is a deusy.
So check this out, from veteran reporter Ruth Gledhill. The lede is that Barack Obama has held several meetings with the controversial gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Oh my, is it time to talk about the next primary there? No, Robinson says they have been talking about what it means to be "the first" at something important and symbolic.
Bishop Robinson, who received death threats after his election as Bishop of New Hampshire and was advised by police to wear a bullet-proof vest at his consecration, also discussed with Mr Obama the risks incumbent upon being a high-profile leader in a country such as the US.
Bishop Robinson said: "At the end of the day you have to decide whether or not you are going to be paralysed by threats and by violent possibilities or whether you just move on and do what you feel called to do despite the risks."
Bishop Robinson, in London as a guest of the gay rights group Stonewall for its annual "Hero of the Year" awards dinner at the Victoria and Albert Museum tonight, said that Mr Obama's campaign team had sought him last year and he had the "honour" of three private conversations with the future president of the United States last May and June.
"The first words out of his mouth were: 'Well you're certainly causing a lot of trouble,' My response to him was: 'Well that makes two of us.' " He said that Mr Obama had indicated his support for equal civil rights for gay and lesbian people and described the election as a "religious experience."
Writing to the British audience, Gledhill explains that Obama is not an Episcopalian, but active in the United Church of Christ. She does not explain that, when it comes to advocacy of gay rights, the Church of Christ has been much more open and candid than the Episcopalians.
Robinson said that they talked more about economics than social issues. Then he adds this, drawing on his memories of the meetings:
"... He and I would agree about the rightful place of religion vis-a-vis the secular state. That is to say, we don't impose our religious values on the secular state because God said so. Our faith informs our own values and then we take those values into the civil market place, the civil discourse, and then you argue for them based on the Constitution. You don't say to someone, you must believe this because this is what God believes.
"I think God gives us our values and then we argue for those on the basis of the Constitution and care of our neighbour. And I think the Bush administration got very very close to the line if not going over the line in terms of offering support to religious-based groups who were using their social service arms to proselytise and evangelise which I would say is inappropriate."
This is all well and good, but it is interesting that the meetings did not draw coverage on this side of the Atlantic before the election. Was this at the request of the bishop or the Obama campaign? There are plenty of questions about these highly symbolic meetings on the Christian left.
Now, since this is the WWW age, Gledhill adds many more details to the coverage -- including the actual chat with Robinson -- in a follow-up post at her "Articles of Faith" weblog. All well and good.
Still, you can't help but as the question that I ask myself whenever I am put into this second-hand quote scenario. How do we know that Obama said what the bishop says that he said? Could this information have been verified by the staff of the now president-elect?