No, sources don’t get to approve quotes or drafts

Two weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story with the dismaying revelation that many Washington journalists had grown accustomed to allowing political officials and staffers–especially those in the Obama administration and campaign–to approve and even edit their own quotes. Jeremy Peters described at length how much wit, profanity and, ultimately, life get sucked out of the words you see presented without indication that they’d been massaged.

This week, I read something just as odd: One of my former colleagues at the Post, education writer Daniel de Vise, had shared complete drafts of a story with sources at the University of Texas at Austin. Forrest Wilder’s post for the Texas Observer’s story quotes de Vise telling a UT spokeswoman that “Everything here is negotiable.”

Both of these stories do not represent the kind of journalism I’m used to.

Although I’ve been at plenty of background interviews that ended with reporters asking to put parts of the meeting on the record, I don’t remember anybody letting those sources veto or polish those quotes after the fact. (I have, however, gotten quotes from company executives relayed through PR people, which I haven’t always accurately described as secondhand material.) If I thought a source might quibble with quotes afterwards, I’d record the interview.

As for sharing a draft of a story with a source, I always thought was not just a bad idea but quite possibly a firing offense. I mean, I won’t even tell people about the tone of a review before it runs.

(When Apple PR types asked that question, I took pleasure in replying with one of their regular lines: “I can’t comment on unreleased products.”)

Since the NYT’s story, news organizations such as the National Journal and the McClatchy newspaper chain have located a backbone and said they will no longer allow sources to alter quotes. The Times is apparently still considering this, while my old shop has now said quote approval is off-limits… unless a source insists on it and an editor authorizes it.

To me, the best response to somebody demanding quote approval is “no,” followed by paraphrasing their words without giving them the dignity of quotation marks–or not quoting them at all. You have to be prepared to work around an uncooperative source in the first place, lest you fall into practicing single-point-of-failure journalism.

As for story sharing, it was odd to see Post media blogger Erik Wemple defend it as merely another form of fact-checking earlier this week, after which other reporters admitted to the same practice. Since then, the paper’s editors have said that will require advance permission–to be granted “extremely rarely”–from the managing or executive editor.

It’s not as if sources don’t have enough ways to control what gets in a story. They can conduct an interview by e-mail (which I often prefer because that’s easier than a phone call) or simply, you know, choose their words with care. Inviting sources to edit their own quotes or go over a complete draft gives them too much power. Check your facts with your sources and bounce interpretations off them if you’re not sure how to read the situation, but don’t let them litigate the exact words.

I have another reason not to share story drafts with sources: Before I could do that, I’d need to finish a story ahead of time.

7 thoughts on “No, sources don’t get to approve quotes or drafts

  1. Hmmm..interesting that this is coming out now…how long has this been going on…my mother, a journalist for many years at a Mid-western daily, I am sure would not have approved….she always said don’t fight with the papers…they always get the last word…:) And…when I worked for a federal agency, if we had a newsworthy item, we did ‘quotes’ from agency executives for any releases…I assume that is quite common….

  2. Disclaimer: I’m not a journalist.

    I agree that in general the practice of approving and editing quotes by the quotee is questionable at best. (And even that’s being charitable.)

    But I think the practice of providing an advance copy of the story to those interviewed for it may have some use, albeit with very strict ground rules. I work in a moderately complex field that’s not infrequently in the news, and sometimes (albeit even less frequently) misrepresented in those stories. If I’m explaining some very technical aspects, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for the reporter to share those parts of the story with me in some form, though with very clear guidelines that I would not have veto power and that any editing by me would be for scientific/technical accuracy of an aspect that the reporter clearly got wrong. This, too, I think should require editorial approval, and should come with zero guarantee that the changes suggested will be made. But doing so can save hours of heartache on either end.

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  4. I certainly understand the ethical concerns, but as someone who’s been interviewed for newspaper articles on a few occasions, I can also say that reporters frequently misquote people or make boneheaded mistakes. Example: I take pains to make clear to a Washington Post reporter that my company doesn’t design products; we only manufacture them. But when the story gets published, I am quoted as a person who designs products. Sure would’ve been nice to see a draft before it went to press!

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