Plain talk, redacted

One of the earliest and most fundamental lessons I learned in journalism was that no one outside of the newsroom gets prior approval or restraint of anything we published. Period.

A corollary was that sources didn’t get to approve or change their quotes. You might read quotes back to them to make sure that you got them right. You might read a section of your own writing to a source to make sure you characterized a technical issue clearly. But any changes made to a quote or a story were made by the writer not by the source. You never gave away that power or responsibility.

So what are we to make of this New York Times story that says the Times, the Washington Post, Bloomberg and Reuters have agreed to allow campaigns to approve the quotes of their aides before publication? I don’t know. Hell, I had to read the story twice because it was so hard for me to believe.

Oddly, the story doesn’t actually say why the news organizations agree to such restrictions. This is the closest reference: Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree.

Campaign strategists wouldn’t talk to the New York Times or the Washington Post? Do you really believe that? They wouldn’t talk to the two most powerful political media outlets in the nation? I don’t, but for fun, let’s play it out. If campaign stategists won’t talk to you, what that really means is that you will get beat on a story because the strategist will talk to your competition. And no news organization wants to get beat. (This, despite the fact that no one really ever remembers who had what scoop because news becomes a commodity in about two seconds these days.)

They could say what every editor I’ve known would have said: “Hell, no, we won’t give you prior approval over your quotes. We’re going to tape it. If you say it, it’s on the record. Be responsible for your words, don’t say something stupid and you’ve got no problem.” The source could say no interview and that’d be that. But if your competitor gives in, well, you lose the story.

Would we worry about that? Probably. Would that cause us to compromise a principle? No. We’d just try to get another story.

Most media organizations have ethics policies. I would love to see the wording on an item that explains when, why and which sources get the authority to review, approve or strike through their quotes before publication. Bet no self-respecting media organization would put that in writing.

Much of the public doesn’t trust what newspapers print. The public thinks reporters are biased. This is a step in the wrong direction.

8 thoughts on “Plain talk, redacted

  1. I had similar reaction to that story. Whatever happened to holding power to account? You can bet these media organizations don’t give quote approval to less powerful sources.

  2. Not quite as offensive, but just as inexcusable, is the practice of routinely granting campaign aides anonymity for even the most innocuous quotes and comments. It reduces reader trust: “Gee, if they’re letting an aide say anonymously that the campaign has no events scheduled today, what is the aide telling them that they’re not even reporting?”

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  4. It’s one helluva slippery slope. I see trade publications sell their covers and allow sources to preview and alter quotes as well as the tone of stories. Pretty soon individuals and companies in the industry being covered expect similar treatment from all trade press. Having that privilege should only come with writing bigs checks for PR.

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  6. I guess this is no more of a shock to me than “fact-checkers” on large newspapers, when they hold up publication of a story until its quotes and contextual sections have been read to the sources, so they can influence how the story finally appears in the paper.
    Does this help catch reporting errors? Probably. Does it give more control to the sources and sometimes let them edit the stories? I think so.
    So maybe it’s a wash.
    I don’t like any of it.
    I teach my college reporting students to bust their butts and double-check to get the stories right, come hell or high water. But they still sometimes make glaring mistakes that get printed and then I wish the stories had been fact-checked with a fine-toothed comb.
    Maybe we should lean towards more checking, including involving sources more. At times, it may be the lesser of two evils.

  7. At the very least, each story in which a person demanding this control has changed or altered a quote in any way needs to have a disclaimer stating that the person was given prior review of his or her quotes and chose to change them before they were published.

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