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.
The seminarian told Cupich he was a young boy during the last scandal, in the early 2000s — amid a renewed wave of child-rape allegations against priests and cover-ups by their bishop bosses — and “thought this was over,” that the bishops had done their jobs.
Cupich thanked the man for speaking up and said he, too, was sick over the situation.
Minutes later, though, the cardinal said something that struck some of the seminarians as “tone-deaf.”
“I feel very much at peace at this moment. I am sleeping OK,” Cupich said, according to the person in attendance, a man studying to be a priest, who recalled that some fellow seminarians shook their heads in “disbelief.”
Now, when I was in journalism school — undergraduate and graduate school — there was an almost-written rule about this sort of thing: You needed three or more sources inside the meeting to use direct quotations based on their memories. Or, in this case, are we talking about an anonymous seminarian with a recording app on his smartphone? Maybe just a pad and pencil? We are talking about several hundred words worth of verbatim and paraphrased quotations.
The Sun-Times story did add this:
That account was confirmed by other sources, including another seminarian also present at the gathering.
So other sources who were in the meeting or there were sources who talked to seminarians after the meetings and heard these second-hand Cupich quotes repeated?
Let me be clear: This is a very important story, since Cupich is a key player in the discussions of what church officials did or did not know about McCarrick and his sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians. The career of Cupich is also a hot topic in that 11-page testimony (full text here) released by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican’s U.S. ambassador from 2011-2016.
This is a big story and almost everything newsworthy in it is based on the memory of people who were in or connected to that one meeting.
This is understandable, since Cupich needed to have a confidential talk with his future priests. At the same time, this makes it easy for shepherds to hide their views from the sheep who pass the offering plates. Trust me: I have done my share of sitting outside closed doors at meetings of U.S. Catholic bishops. It’s frustrating.
So what is the motive of this seminarian?
One of them said he decided to speak with the Sun-Times because so many Catholics “are hurting,” the cardinal’s remarks were so “non-pastoral,” and “the people of God need to know that their seminarians care” and “aren’t going to repeat the mistakes of the past — not only not repeat them but have them cleaned up.” …
The tone of some of their questions, according to people who were there, indicated the sex-abuse crisis is very much on their minds — and that, even as Cupich urged them to trust him and Pope Francis, some seemed reluctant to put blind trust in bishops to fix things.
Cupich’s comments were notable to some in the audience for appearing to focus more on wrongdoing by seminarians and less on them being victimized, as allegedly occurred with McCarrick, who resigned from the College of Cardinals in July and was ordered by the pope to a “life of prayer and penance” over accusations that he sexually abused minors and adult seminarians over a span of decades.
Let me stress that this is a long, long story — 1,700-plus words — packed with opinion and information from one of the major players in the McCarrick story.
That’s news. At the same time, I wondered about the validity of all of those direct quotes.
Let me ask a blunt question: Is it time to apply Donald Trump-era journalism methodology to controversial events on the religion beat?
My feelings are mixed, big time. Readers: What are your thoughts?
FIRST IMAGE: Cardinal Blase Cupich receives the “Spirit of Francis” award, from Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.