Ethical implications of letting journalistic sources review a story prior to publication?
November 12, 2008 8:11 AM   Subscribe

Journalists: is it ever acceptable to share a copy of your story with a source prior to its publication, if you are asked to do so? What are the ethical considerations involved and does it make a difference if you know the story will never see the light of day?

I'm a journalism student and occasional student journalist for a college newspaper. There are two scenarios here:

1. In some of my reporting classes, we're assigned to write specific stories for a grade, rather than for publication. These stories are not seen by anyone other than the professor and teaching assistant. However, they do involve interviewing sources, just like any other story. Often times, when I'm wrapping up an interview with one of these sources, they request that I send them a copy of the story upon completion. In this case, I don't really see any ethical implications and consider it more of a personal choice as to whether I agree to do so.

So, would you be likely to grant this request and what would factor into your decision?

2. When writing for student newspapers, I have been asked by sources to provide them with a copy of the story prior to publication. Presumably, they want to review and/or "vet" the piece, or otherwise offer input. I've never granted these requests.

In professional journalism, is it ever acceptable to do so? If so, when? I believe there is a standard "media ethics" answer to that question, but I'm curious to hear from working journalists on their real-world experiences therein.
posted by iamisaid to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
1. I'd share it with them after submitting it for a grade -- the equivalent of publication if it were a "real" article.

2. I'd not agree to this. If they were persistent about it, I'd refer them to the editor -- not only is the editor the one in charge of any review that should happen, but the editor is the one in charge of maintaining the publication's standards (your interviewee shouldn't get any more or less ability to vet than any other writer's interviewee).
posted by winston at 8:27 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

1) is a gray area, I think. Sounds like you are on the right track.

2) I think generally this is frowned upon. It can only create more headaches for you. Your job is to write the best, most accurate story you can, and submit it. If you've done that, you don't have to have them vet the piece. If you haven' need to do more work. I think very rarely would any professional journalist do this, and under only extreme circumstances.

Aren't your teachers giving you this information?
posted by sully75 at 8:38 AM on November 12, 2008

Conceivably you may find yourself in a position someday where a source will only agree to go on record in exchange for access to the final draft, before publication - it happens - but rarely, and the story or source has to be exceptional. We're talking top tier reporting here, with news writing that has national security implications and the like. In other words, you're very unlikely to find yourself in such a position.

Otherwise the standard operating procedure is to not share stories or allow this type of "source oversight" prior to publication (or in your case grading.)

If someone ever asks, just mumble something about journalistic ethics and move on.

There are other implications though: what if the source leaks it before publication? What if it's somehow used against you or your paper? The list of what-ifs is endless...
posted by wfrgms at 8:43 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would explore the nature your sources' concern with them. They may simply be worried about being misquoted. If that's the case, then see if you can assure them that you will quote them accurately -- for example by recording the conversation.
posted by footnote at 8:53 AM on November 12, 2008

In both my classes at j-school and in my work as a journalist, it was generally verboten to share a pre-publication copy of a story with a source. The reasons are numerous: it gives the source enormous power to hold your story hostage or to demand changes they are uncomfortable with, it may delay the publication of the article, it will piss off your editor (it's his article, not the sources), and any number of other reasons.

The normal exception to this general guideline is portions of an article, dealing with complex or technical matters that the reporter is not confident of his or expertise in explaining (imagine a reporter writing a story about a recent development in particle physics, or some other exceedingly complex story: the reporter could easily make serious errors without knowing it). In those cases, it's acceptable to share just that portion of the story with the source: "Did I get this right?"

So, as others have suggested, the best course of action is to treat your journalism assignment just like a reporting assignment: ironclad deadlines, strict ethical scrutiny, and no pre-publication copies of the story, except in excerpts, and only to verify technical material.
posted by Eldritch at 8:54 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

In print journalism, it is generally not acceptable to let sources read, or vet a story before publication. I've been asked many times, but sources rarely seem surprised when the request is denied.

In some cases, I've called a source back and let them know what quotes of theirs I used in a story that hasn't been published yet, but that's about as far as I'd let it go.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:55 AM on November 12, 2008

If the President of the US doesn't enjoy the luxury of reading editorial about him prior to publication, your sources don't get to either.
posted by zoomorphic at 9:00 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's generally not done for all the reasons outlined above. When it was requested of me, I always promised to send a copy of the final article in the publication and then I did so. Often, they just wanted to make sure they'd get a copy of the article.

However, when I was editor of my university's newspaper, I did share one entire issue with many faculty and staff before we went to press--our April Fool's edition, which had fake news stories and quotes attributed to them. I wanted to make sure no one was surprised or offended. One teacher preferred we'd not do the story on a well-known quirk of his, and I pulled it. No one else cared, but many appreciated the gesture.

My point is, there are times when it might be ok to do this, depending on the publication and the topic of the story.

I agree with finding out why your sources want to see the article. It might just be that they've never been interviewed before and want to see their names in print.
posted by purplecurlygirl at 9:27 AM on November 12, 2008

When I worked as a journalist, it was pretty common for souces to ask to read the article before publication. What I did was, I'd tell them I'd send them a copy of their direct quotes. This was all anyone was ever interested in reading anyway, so they'd accept. Oddly enough, it never occured that someone would omit something damning - they would usually actually expand upon it, by way of further explanation. Most of the time, though, they'd usually shoot the quotes back via email with a short "yeah looks fine to me".

I found this practice benefits the reader, the subject(s) of the interview, and the journalist.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:46 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was a writer for a while, working on some pretty low budget blog projects and stuff.

Anyway, I did an interview with this woman who had a clothing store, who had all this colorful stuff to say about selling clothing, her neighbors (other clothing stores) and stuff like that. Nothing off the mark or scandalous, just funny and interesting.

I can't remember if she asked or I offered, but I sent her a transcript of the interview, and she blacked out pretty much anything of interest.

In the end, we remained friends...I wonder if she would have hated me if I'd written the article based on what she really said. This is perhaps why I decided in the end not to go to journalism school. I couldn't deal with that stress all the time.
posted by sully75 at 9:48 AM on November 12, 2008

I know journalists who do advocate habitually checking with sources quoted prior to publication as a last step in making sure the story is accurate, i.e. making sure that the person feels the quotes they've got are more or less what they said. However, they certainly feel no obligation to show them the story pre-publication in that context.
posted by scribbler at 9:55 AM on November 12, 2008

Yeah, it's generally against the spirit of journalism to let a source read a story in advance. Even quote-checking can threaten the spontaneity of your reporting, and I would only advise it in the case of very sensitive information, when it is a condition of a person's agreeing to talk to you.

One time, after months building up a friendly relationship with a source, I sent her a casual e-mail with a list of quotes I was using in a long piece, which I was just about done with. None of them were inflammatory or controversial, but were just sort of human observations of a Washington dinner party she'd been to, the color of which I was trying to capture, in describing an unusual keynote speech. Her quotes were along the lines of, "I could barely keep my mouth zippered!"

Well, her reply was furious: an identical e-mail, fax and letter, full of underlines and ALL CAPS, warning that I could be subject to legal repercussions if I used any of the quotes I'd mentioned. She provided a list of substitute quotes, which were bland and terrible, and instructed me to , "J.A." This was not really acceptable so at the 11th hour I took her out of the piece completely, except for one anonymous quote.

This is pretty unusual, but it shows the kind of interference from sources you risk when you give them a chance to play editor.
posted by Kirklander at 10:05 AM on November 12, 2008

Oops, I meant to say, she instructed me only to quote her by her initials, which were "J.A."
posted by Kirklander at 10:06 AM on November 12, 2008

Now that it's clear that you have no obligation to submit an unpublished article to your sources, you should also know how to tell them this without ruffling feathers. Not everyone went to journalism school (yours truly included) where they should, ahem, familiarize students with the basic tenets of Freedom of the Press. As a journalist, you should make your sources feel at ease (unless you're publishing a scathing exposé) so they're not hassling you about the outcome. I generally tell my sources, "I've done my absolute best to represent X Topic in a fair way, and I'm sure you'll agree when we send over a copy of the issue next week." If they get bitchy or anxious, give as much information about the tone and voice as you can that would presumably soothe them. If all else fails, then you invoke the Bill of Rights and hang up.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:16 AM on November 12, 2008

My approach on this is simple; quotes sometimes, story no.

It's fine to verify the accuracy of quotes with a source, but that should not replace a good record of the original conversation. There are sources that will use a quote review as a way to try and rework the quote to their advantage. The bottom line should be that, if someone said something to you in your research when you are working as a journalist, it's fair game to quote. It's very bad practice to do what some people describe above; people cannot "unsay" things; instead they should think before they open their mouths in the first place.

Never, ever, ever share an article with a source prior to publication; that is just asking for trouble. At the very least, you are going to have to then deal with all of the crap that they will try and load in, and if the article is critical, you are going to have to deal with their attempts to get you to change it, or their attempts to quash it. They'll call you, call your boss, call your bosses boss, call the advertising department and threaten to pull ads, call your family and complain, etc (believe me, I have had all of these happen).

If you are dealing with technical articles, a fact review is a good idea. But keep that to the facts; instead of sending someone the article, send them the specific facts: "I wanted to confirm that your splunger has 3 reverse polarization weezits". This will avoid all of the crap that will inevitably result if you send them the article that says "the splunger has only 3 reverse polarization weezits, while the spadger has 5, which means it works faster".
posted by baggers at 10:22 AM on November 12, 2008

2. Is tantamount to copy approval, which is not an area you want to be in. But, if you're going to work in celebrity journalism, know that this is pretty much par for the course there, even at the top magazines like Vanity Fair.
posted by bonaldi at 10:28 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

In print journalism, it is generally not acceptable to let sources read, or vet a story before publication. I've been asked many times, but sources rarely seem surprised when the request is denied.

Seconding this. When I was a reporter, I routinely denied this request, which mostly came from officials/politicians who weren't nearly as important as they thought they were.

My stories were vetted by my editors and I found that sufficient. If I had a particularly squeamish source, I'd call him or her and make assurances that the story was written with care and that he or she was welcome to call my editor if they'd been misquoted.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 10:49 AM on November 12, 2008

You don't have to. You should not. They should not be surprised when you say no.

Here's why - Say you e-mail them a draft. They can then forward it to the whole world. If you made a mistake/slanderous comment about someone else, you can then be sued, even if it was never technically "published."

Do I do it on fluff pieces sometimes when the subject is shy/self conscious? Yes. But for a company that can afford media consulting/legal advice, do not do it. If you're not sure about your facts, then they're not facts: don't print them. The company/subject knew they were speaking with a journalist, and they will try to "clarify" and reword your piece to cast themselves in a better light. Welcome to the world of spin.

As for your journalism class, stress that the story will not see the light of day, and send them a copy after it has been marked if you wish.
posted by Brodiggitty at 10:54 AM on November 12, 2008

Regarding #2, standard practice is to discuss the story with all of your sources, tell them what you'll be saying in the story and ask for their on-the-record comment. You don't give them a copy or tell them how the story will be worded, you just tell them what "facts" the story will consist of, and only for the purpose of getting a quotable response.
posted by randomstriker at 11:21 AM on November 12, 2008

I have been asked by sources to provide them with a copy of the story prior to publication. Presumably, they want to review and/or "vet" the piece, or otherwise offer input. [...] In professional journalism, is it ever acceptable to do so? If so, when?

Well, you've heard plenty of people telling you why you shouldn't do this. Allow me to offer a contrary opinion.

I've been in a few newspaper stories in my time; mostly things about minor awards being given out, and university research I'm involved in. Not front page stories, or the kind of story where I would want to insert bias or lies. I would say about 1 in every 2 of these stories has contained factual errors, usually trivial things.

There's also no feedback mechanism - the journalists who wrote those articles probably don't realise they are writing articles with errors in.

Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is: The subjects of your articles can point out errors. You might think you can write error-free articles without doing this check, but can you be confident in this when, if you were making errors, you'd never know about it?
posted by Mike1024 at 11:48 AM on November 12, 2008

This just happened to me while working on a story in China a couple weeks ago and I scrapped the story. Allowing a subject to review the journalism (photos, in my case) before publication undermines credibility and reduces the work to PR. When I told the subject that I couldn't give up the photos before publication the subject brought up the fact that last year a tv crew filmed their story and gave them the videos before they were broadcast; i.e., once one journalist does it, the practice becomes expected. You'll be doing a favor both to yourself and to future journalists by not giving the full story to your subjects before publication.

The fact-checking problem mentioned by Mike1024 is a valid concern, but can easily be remedied without giving the story to subjects. Write the story, then call up all of your interviewees and ask if you can run through the numbers (or whatever) one more time to make sure your facts are straight.

Another analog to the question is that my photo subjects almost always ask for copies of the photos. I'd be spending a small fortune making prints of all of my photos and mailing them to my subjects; I really just can't send prints to everyone I photograph. However, I make an exception if I've spent a long time photographing the same subject or the subject has been particularly useful/integral to a larger piece. You can do the same by offering to send a copy of the publication after it's been printed/graded.
posted by msbrauer at 2:35 PM on November 12, 2008


Just a note that many journalists treat the premise that you don't let a source vet an article as synonymous with not fact-checking an article. Since most media orgs these days don't have separate fact checkers, you have to do it. In our case, that usually means calling sources and checking that ideas are accurately communicated. In some cases, that ends up as essentially reading sizable chunks of the article to a source. Part of your job is accepting factual edits and evaluating stylistic or editorial edits for yourself. Sure, it can get weird to have a source demand an editorial change, but real life is hard and your job is to deal with it, so deal with it.
posted by ericc at 3:53 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nope nope nope. Give 'em the quotes (and this is why you ideally have a tape recording of the conversation, because sources can be fucking liars about what they actually said) and feel free to talk about dry facts with them, but the only way they see my copy is if they're either paying me for it or buying the magazine. (Well, to be fair, I do usually send around free copies of the mag after a piece has run).
posted by klangklangston at 4:00 PM on November 12, 2008

Official policy in journalism is usually "no peeking beforehand," for the reasons said above. I do like the "send them a list of their quotes" idea, though.

That said, I was told that the university staff newsletter actually DID let the subjects of their articles read the story first. Then again, that's probably more of a "puff piece"/promotion sort of logic.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:04 PM on November 12, 2008

Yes, there are situations where it can be acceptable. But I can guarantee you, 9 times out of 10 that you decide to share your story pre-publication with a source, you'll wish you hadn't. There are simply too many things that can go wrong and too many ways you can get screwed.

Many newspapers have a policy about this anyway. If the college paper you work for doesn't have this policy, then make it your own personal policy. "Sorry, I never show any stories pre-publication to anyone outside of the newsroom." Make up any reason you want for why you have this policy, but stick with it. Then if you have a really finicky source you really need who won't talk to you any other way, break the rule. But don't break it until then. And don't break it ever again after that.

I was a journalist for about 5 years, and the best way I found to deal with this was to tell the source about the procedures I used to ensure accuracy. (How you verify your quotes, how you transcribe the information you receive when you write the story, what the editing process is like, what you do to ensure that both sides of a story have input, etc.) If the source was really concerned, I promised that I after the interview, I would read back any quotes I had written and might use. This assurance, while seldom employed, worked wonderfully for those rare sources who really, really wanted to ensure accuracy. (Some of them were simply paranoid, while others had been burned by other reporters in the past and were gunshy about a second go-around with the media.)

Oh, and I feel all this applies equally to student journalism. You're learning how to be a professional. So act like it, even if you're not getting paid or getting a byline in a real publication for your student work.
posted by Happydaz at 5:06 PM on November 12, 2008

From the other side of the table, I had a journalist run parts of an article by me recently to check my quotes, and it came as a real surprise -- no one else has done that with any of my previous interviews. I also wasn't sure what exactly I was supposed to do in checking my quotes. I didn't record the interview, so I have no idea if those are the precise words I said. I wasn't brazenly misquoted, so I guess I don't care if I was moderately misquoted.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:07 PM on November 12, 2008

Only in celebrity journalism do sources (most frequently A-list interview subjects) often get peekaboo privileges. The tacit agreement is: "I, MegaStar, will offer you a cover shot and quotes so you, Slick Zine, can sell a gazillion copies this month. In exchange, you, Slick Zine, will photoshop and airbrush me to perfection and allow my publicists to rewrite my unintelligible comments and infuse your article with hyperbolic sycophancy."

All in all, the parties involved consider this a fair trade.
posted by terranova at 9:49 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd never show them the article, and I also don't provide an email with quotes-- it's too easy for them to retract all the juicy comments if they look at them in cold hard text.
I do, however, read back what they've said to me and make sure it's all accurate. Usually they end up elaborating, as others have said.
posted by indienial at 1:23 AM on November 13, 2008

Seconding Mike1024 and ericc - I am not a journalist, but I've been interviewed and quoted a few times, mostly for stories on Scientology. (I'm a semi-well-known Scientology watcher and researcher.) No one's ever done any fact-checking of any kind, which has always disappointed me, because there are so often small (or even medium-sized) errors in the story.

There's only one occasion when I wish I'd had the chance to correct something about myself - a reporter described me as an ex-Scientologist when I'd stated, word for word in an email to him, "I read Dianetics and had one auditing session, but I never considered myself a Scientologist." (He was very apologetic, and seriously, no harm done, but come on, people, could we have some fact-checking, please?)

It's the REST of the story I wish I'd be able to help with - pointing out errors about what a particular job in Scientology entails, or when an event happened, or whatever. Again, the errors don't invalidate the story, but it bugs me to see journalists get stuff wrong, and it'd be nice if there were an opportunity to just provide better facts before the story goes to print - obviously, with the clear understanding that I'm just providing input, it's not up to me whether something gets changed, and I expect the reporter to verify what I've said with another reliable source.
posted by kristi at 1:55 PM on November 13, 2008

As someone who has been interviewed dozens of times, and been misquoted and misrepresented dozens of times (including in the New York Times and on NPR) you get no sympathy from me.

My policy is that I get to see the questions in advance, to review an example or two of your earlier published work, to record our interview myself so I can prove it if you misquote me, and to review any quotation or paraphrasing of my ideas before the article is published (I don't care about the whole piece, just my quotes).

You don't meet these conditions, you don't get an interview with me. It's made my life blessedly freer of students and freelancers breathlessly presenting the same old hackneyed story ideas as if they were brilliant original concepts and wasting my time with questions they could have answered by reading my published work.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:53 PM on November 13, 2008

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