The idea of prepublication review makes some reporters cringe in revulsion or puff up in righteous indignation, but in this complicated world, it should be done more often.
The stories we cover are more complex. Our sources, and our readers and viewers, don’t trust us as much as they used to. It’s important to have, and to show, more concern about truth and accuracy.
But I can hear the spluttering now. Are you nuts? You can’t let your sources edit your articles. They’ll always try to put themselves in the best light. You’ll lose control of your story. Your sources will change what you’ve written. They, and your newsroom colleagues, will think you have no backbone or professional pride.
Please, no spluttering. It’s unbecoming. But so is arrogance. Don’t let your pride prevent you from getting it right.
Accuracy is the No. 1 criterion for responsible journalism. When you’re not sure you heard right or that what you’ve written makes sense, why not go back to the source and double-check?
We’re not talking about turning over your story to your source. There are rules, after all. And the No. 1 rule is “no editing.” You’re not going to let a source edit your copy — or change its tone, context or organization, either. You’re just checking the facts.
Make that clear to your source. Accuracy is your motivation; not accommodation.
There are other rules, too:
* Don’t change direct quotes, especially if you have them on tape. Sometimes a source will say that isn’t really what he intended to say and will want to rephrase it. You can either play “gotcha” or negotiate — especially if the rephrasing is more accurate or pertinent. After all, the source did say both the old and the new versions.
The best time to double-check is during the initial interview.
“I think I understood what you said about bird flu and down pillows, but let me read it back to you to be sure I have it right.”
* You might occasionally want a source to review an entire story, but it’s better practice to go over specific passages. You can do it by phone or by e-mail — or, better yet, e-mail the snippets to the source and then discuss it over the telephone.
A few journalists routinely ask their sources to review entire stories to see if there are any errors. Jay Matthews of The Washington Post is one of them, he said in a May 2003 article he wrote for the newspaper.
“I have shown every story I have written to all the sources I could find,” he said. “… 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.”
As an occasional news source, I’ve been telephoned from time to time by magazine fact-checkers. They read me quotes that are about to be credited to me, and they ask if that’s what I said. It can be embarrassing to hear the ineloquence, but it’s also most likely accurate. And I appreciate the concern for accuracy.
Prepublication review gives sources confidence that the reporter cares about getting it right. Offering to let them check what you’ve written gets them to open up. It enhances your credibility and reputation.
You won’t lose control of your story. You’re still the one who has the final say on what goes into your story before it’s submitted to an editor — who is, other than you, the only one who can change what you’ve written.
Fred Brown, an SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver. He can be reached at EthicalFred@aol.com.