It used to be an unwritten rule in journalism: You would never EVER ask a source to review something you were planning to put in the paper. Prepublication review was strictly taboo.
There’s still a lot of resistance to the idea. And of course it’s possible to take it too far. You never EVER want to give a source the idea that he or she has the same power your editor does to change what you’ve written.
But we’ve come a long way over the past couple of decades. We’ve put accuracy above independence, and we’ve decided it’s more important to serve our readers than to be overly protective of what we’re writing.
This comes to mind because of a flap in Texas last month. A media watch organization was up in arms because a reporter/columnist had let a local district attorney review the content of his columns. Texas Media Watch hinted at collusion. The writer says he only wanted to be accurate.
As it is with many ethical questions, there is no clear way to judge who’s right. So it’s best not to be too specific. But the issue is ripe for a general discussion, because it raises some basic questions.
Should reporters let sources review what they plan to write? And, if they should, what are the ethical boundaries?
A journalism text I use in my classes points out there has been a major change in the acceptance of prepublication review (or PPR for short).
Steve Weinberg, former head of Investigative Reporters and Editors, writes, “I have practiced PPR as a newspaper staff writer, a magazine freelancer and a book author. Never have I regretted my practice. What I do regret is failing to do it during the first decade of my mindless adherence to tradition.”
Weinberg says the offer of review makes sources more willing to talk on the record. And it doesn’t compromise the writers’ control over their stories. If a source wants to change a story, remind the source the review is only for accuracy, not for interpretation or tone.
Jay Mathews, a veteran education reporter for The Washington Post, shows whole stories to sources, even though it makes his editors uneasy.
“I have shown every story I have written to all the sources I could find,” he wrote in The Post’s May 31, 2003, edition.
“At first I had to read them over the phone, but now I can e-mail them. I ask the people mentioned in the story if they see any errors. They are welcome to argue about the tone, the analysis or anything else that bothers them, but I change only the things that I am convinced are inaccurate. I’ve found that all the newsroom fears about doing this have proved to be wrong. The sources have not complained to my editors or given my information to the competition or done much else other than thank me for getting their words right.
“The more I have done this, the more I’ve realized that the unwritten rule against checking stories this way is an unfortunate byproduct of that sense of entitlement that animated the stories I heard during my intern summer. We journalists feel that the First Amendment makes us arbiters of fact and that outsiders have no legitimate role after we’ve finished interviewing them.”
Among members of the SPJ Ethics Committee, there’s widespread agreement that it’s a good idea to review specific facts with a source. But there are some strong objections to letting the source see the whole story.
“I would not allow one of my reporters to let someone out of the newsroom read a story before publication, said one member. “The practice … is wrong, and I’ve never understood it,” said another.
Some members aren’t so absolute in their objections. But they say if the writer is going to let one side check what he has written – for whatever reason – he should extend the same courtesy (or concession) to the other.
Ethics Committee member Peter Sussman suggests a two-pronged test. Don’t be overly generous in offering to let the source check facts, or review and comment. Second, don’t go running back to your source with questions you should be able to answer yourself. “The facts have to be difficult enough in some way to justify checking,” Sussman said.
Kevin Smith, a committee member and former ethics chairman, says it’s a balancing act between truth and independence.
A reporter’s first obligation is to the truth, he points out, and that often requires double-checking facts and quotations. Don’t make the mistake of thinking additional contact with sources beyond the initial reporting jeopardizes your need to be free from outside influence, he says. “You don’t want a reporter who is always second-guessing his material, but you don’t want someone who remains so steadfastly independent he refuses to consult sources.”
And it’s not just facts. When I was an editorial writer, I would sometimes test an opinion with a source to see if the argument was sound.
But whenever any of this is done, the writer needs to make clear that he or she retains the absolute right to decide what is submitted for publication.
Ethical journalists should do everything they can to ensure that they’re accurate. If you’re writing about a complicated tax policy or cold fusion, you’re going to need help. Sometimes that means saying, “Here’s how I interpreted what you told me. Did I make any mistakes?”
Fred Brown, co-chair of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in Denver. You can e-mail him at EthicalFred@aol.com.