One 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.