Land ahoy (transcribe that baby)!

dr1000BOne of the hardest things to teach a journalism student is how to know when to use a paraphrase quote and when to use a direct quote — other than when the length of the story is an issue or you have an out-of-this-world stunner on your hands.

However, here is a good rule of thumb: It is not a good thing when readers stop dead in their tracks and say, “Oh my, did (fill in name of well-known person) really say that? I don’t believe it!”

Wait, I forgot a crucial detail. It’s a good thing when people read one of your direct quotes and say that. It’s a bad thing when they read a paraphrased quote and then yell some similar statement of disbelief.

Here is a case in point, one from early last week that got lost in the understandable wave of Virginia Tech coverage. Consider this passage from a Washington Times story by Ralph Z. Hallow that ran with the (not very shocking) headline “Republican ’08 options disappoint evangelicals”:

Richard Land, president of the Religious and Ethics Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, takes a hard line against virtually all the major Republican candidates. He says he’d vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, over Mr. (Rudy) Giuliani if the 2008 presidential race came down to such a choice. And if Mr. Giuliani wins, “he’ll do so without social conservatives,” Mr. Land said.

Are the gasps still ringing at the Southern Baptist Vatican in Nashville?

But wait. The crucial quote about voting for Rodham Clinton is not inside direct quotation marks. Sure enough, this Baptist Press story hit the wires with great haste.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — Richard Land is asking The Washington Times to set the record straight regarding his assessment of 2008′s potential presidential nominees.

The Times … paraphrased the Southern Baptist ethics leader as saying “he’d vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, over Mr. (Rudy) Giuliani if the 2008 presidential race came down to such a choice.”

“Here is another object lesson in the old saying: ‘Don’t trust everything you read,’” Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a news release.

Land said he has never indicated he would vote for Clinton for president in the 2008 election.

Land said he has repeatedly identified himself as pro-life and “could never vote for a pro-choice candidate.”

Land acknowledged that he is on record as having said that if former New York Mayor Giuliani were the Republican presidential nominee, he would not vote in the presidential election for any candidate.

Journalism students, take note. This is when a reporter wants to be able to produce a recording of the explosive quote. And if you have such a recording, this is a good example of when you want to transcribe that baby and run the direct quote. End of lesson.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Karen B.

    Nice story Tmatt. Glad you pulled this one out of the “nearly got buried under last week’s news” file. It’s important.

    It reminds me of the amazing bit of interviewing Arkansas Democrat Gazette reporter Laura Lynn Brown did with Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

    Not only did she do amazing homework in reading many of +Schori’s prior interviews, and obviously various reactions to them on Anglican and Roman Catholic blogs, and by various leaders like Dr. Al Mohler, she also published a full transcript of what turned out to be a VERY important and revealing interview (with +Schori going into some detail re: her Christology and Soteriology and views about Scripture passages like John 14:6 ( where Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father but through me.)

    I can’t tell you how grateful we concerned Episcopalians/Anglicans were and are to know we were getting +Schori very much in her own words and not getting some reporter’s spin. Wish more reporters and papers would do that when they’ve got a big interview.

    The link to that transcript of the interview with +Schori is here:

  • Maureen

    It would be helpful if, on non-Episcopal or non-Anglican blogs, Anglican/Episcopal commenters would spell out the word “Bishop” instead of using the plus-sign.

    In Catholic parlance, for example, that means “Cross yourself here”. I think on Slashdot it’s something about positive ions…. :)

  • James Davis

    My old j-school instructor put it neatly: Save direct quotes for comments especially colorful or controversial. Seems simple enough.

    That Washington Times article, though, looks more like the reporter asked one of those lifeboat questions: “If you had to choose between Hillary and Rudy, who would you vote for?” Land apparently caught grief for his answer, then claimed he was misquoted.

    Of course, as Terry says, it might have helped had Land been quoted directly.

  • holmegm

    Land apparently caught grief for his answer, then claimed he was misquoted.

    Or, just perhaps, he was misquoted.

    I’m guessing if he really said it, the reporter would have used a real quote.

  • Alan L.

    Land apprently caught grief for his answer, then claimed he was misquoted.

    Why does a journalist assume it was the person being questioned that was a fault? We see this quite ferquently when the question of a misquote comes up and a “journalist” writes on the misquote or alleged misquote. A better way, rather than assuming the interviewee was catching grief for a comment and back tracking, would be to CHECK WITH BOTH OF THE SOURCES. If this can’t be done because of time or unavailiblity then you might consider withholding you comments.
    About a month ago I heard Richard Land on a Saturday morning talk show that he host, talking about the various canidates for president. I was surprised to hear Land say that “if Giuliani were the Republican option for president then he would not be voting for president. That was shocking to hear, but on futher reflection quite principled.