This was a handout I developed in 2006 for a series of ethics seminars for the American Press Institute. It appeared online originally at No Train, No Gain, but has not been available online for the last couple of years. I am republishing it without updating to accompany a new blog post of the issue of advance review of news stories by sources.
Some ethical issues in journalism are black-and-white: Every newspaper agrees that you don’t fabricate and you don’t plagiarize. Do either and your career may be over. Advance review of copy is an area of wide disagreement. For some editors, it would be a firing offense for a reporter to show a story to a source prior to publication. Other editors want their reporters to show stories to sources before publication, at least in some circumstances. Some prominent reporters make it a regular practice. We’re not going to resolve that issue here. That’s for your editors and you to decide. We will examine arguments on both sides of the issue and things to consider if you do show stories to sources, either as a routine or in special cases.
Why you shouldn’t show
For many years, journalists had pretty strong agreement on this subject: You didn’t show stories to sources before publication. Many journalists, probably a majority, still feel this way in most, if not all, cases. These journalists cite multiple reasons not to disclose the contents of stories in advance of publication:
Sources may edit. Opponents of this practice worry that giving the source advance review gives the source an implied or de facto opportunity to edit the story. Even if a reporter insists that the reporter, not the source, maintains control of the story, the opportunity to review may also be an opportunity to revise. That’s good if the source identifies errors in fact that the reporter can correct. But what if the source doesn’t like how an accurate quote sounds? The opportunity for advance review can give the source a chance to claim that she didn’t say that, argue that she didn’t mean that or request inclusion of some additional information that skews the balance of the story to favor the source, even subtly. If you don’t change anything at a source’s request, you won’t be fixing those errors that are the whole reason for doing this. If you make every change a source requests, you have given up control of the story. The question is whether you know where to draw the line? Does every reporter draw the line the same place with every source? Even if you discuss as a staff where to draw the line, does a pushy source or a reporter who lacks experience or confidence result in a different line for some stories?
Sources may interfere. Even if the reporter stands up to a source trying to alter the content of a fair and accurate but unflattering story, the reporter may not have the last word. The source, or an attorney, may contact the reporter’s editor or publisher with a threat to sue, a denial that he said what he’s quoted as saying or a contention that comments were misunderstood or taken out of context. If the story is fair and accurate and the editor or publisher does not stand up to the source, you’ve given the source an opportunity to change the story or delay its publication.
Sources may scoop you. If the source sees how the story is going to look, the source may decide to take control of the story. The source may call a press conference and announce your biggest news before you can publish it (though online publishing gives you a chance to rush a story onto the web if you see this happening). Or the source might give your competition an exclusive interview. By knowing what you are going to publish, the source can disclose your big news, put her own spin on the story and accuse you of a vendetta or twisting the facts before your story even comes out.
Sources may change the facts. Depending on the content of your story, the source might be able to stop the practice you have been investigating or do some other work that will make your story outdated or inaccurate. Larry King, executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald*, is pushing his staff to seek advance review from more sources, but with caution: “We do not show stories to sources who we think might blow a scoop for us by issuing a press release or calling a press conference. We don’t show stories to those sources who might go to another news outlet in an attempt to manage the news before we can publish our version. We don’t show it to sources who could change a behavior or situation prior to publication and then claim the story was out of date and thus inaccurate.”
Advance review is time-consuming. Deadlines and/or overworked news staffs can make advance review impractical. You need to arrange the review and discuss the terms. You need to deliver the story to the source in some form, wait for the source to read or hear the story, receive feedback from the source and discuss any concerns the source has with the story. Steve Weinberg, an advocate of advance review who has worked primarily on investigative projects, magazine stories and books, concedes, “I’m not sure it’s very practical to do on deadline stories.”
Sources may misunderstand editing. Because of the time that advance review takes, you often will ask the source to review an unedited story. Either late in your writing process or after you have turned the story in for editing, you seek the source’s feedback on an unedited story. If your editors cut the story for length (or to make room for something the source suggests or insists that you add), the source might misunderstand the editing process. In a letter to the editor or a public statement or just in idle gossip in the community, something you cut for space reasons might become something your editors “censored” for some nefarious reason. Or maybe editors ask some valid questions and you do some more reporting or just add some more information from your notes. These could become things that, in the source’s view, you didn’t have the guts to show the source or that your editors snuck into the story after you wrote it. Either way, you could be accused of misleading the source about the story. Even if you give the source edited stories, the time involved in the process (especially if you have multiple sources) allows for breaking news or other sources finally returning calls to change the story after a source reviews it.
Sources may misrepresent the process. Even if you make clear to the source that you control the story, the source controls how he discusses this process with others in the community. Your credibility could be damaged if the source tells readers or other sources that he “let” you write something, “approved” the story prior to publication or “made” you change something. Such statements can shape how others view your story or how other sources expect you to deal with them.
Precedents can be troublesome. Unless you show all stories to all sources, the source who isn’t shown a story can claim, accurately, that you are discriminating against her. The source can supply her own reason for the discrimination and, even if that’s not the reason, the facts support her: You showed stories to other sources but not to her. If different reporters at the same newspaper follow different practices, that also gives sources room to complain that you are being inconsistent or showing bias in whom you let review stories before publication.
Why you should show
The best reason to show stories to sources in advance of publication is that they can help you catch errors – not just the big errors that will result in angry calls and embarrassing corrections, but the small errors that no one will call to your attention after publication. Those mistakes still erode your credibility with people who know they are errors. Weinberg, former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, wrote in The Reporter’s Handbook that he has asked sources to preview his work for years. “Not once has it backfired,” Weinberg wrote. “Almost every time it has improved fairness and accuracy.” King, who used to oppose advance review, echoes that view: “I cannot think of one instance in which showing a story to a source ahead of time caused us to kill a story, pull punches or otherwise minimize the impact or effectiveness of that story.”
Complicated issues can trip you up. If you are writing about complex matters such as medicine, science, technology, law or confusing processes, running the copy past the experts can save you from embarrassing errors. Newspapers often ask reporters to become instant experts on the subjects they are covering and no one can gain true expertise that fast. Using the expertise of your sources provides a valuable backstop. “We now rarely have a complaint about a medical, technical or business story because we show most of them to sources ahead of time,” King says. “And those previously were major categories for corrections. Our clarity also has improved. A source, for example, might explain a point more clearly after seeing what we wrote.”
Chronologies can trip you up. A source might have recounted events to you in a particular order, jumping out of chronological order because two events were related in some way in the source’s mind. You may have things out of order and the source can easily correct you if he sees how you wrote the story.
Casts of characters can trip you up. Sometimes you are trying to simplify stories involving lots of characters. When the source said “he,” or even when the source innocently misspoke (did your mother ever call you by a sibling’s name?), you might have thought the source was talking about a different character than the one who actually did the action the source is describing. Again, the source can easily correct your mistake.
Numbers can trip you up. Maybe you wrote down the number right but misunderstood the unit in question. Maybe you wrote down two numbers right and did some math to relate them and the source can give you a third number that would change that equation.
Names can trip you up. Maybe you misspelled a name or used a nickname (or formal name) the source would never use.
Advance review can build trust. You are asking the source to trust you. Trusting the source to review the story before publication can help build that trust. A 1992 survey of regular sources of the Columbia Missourian found that two-thirds said the newspaper’s policy of requiring advance review of non-breaking stories made them more likely to give information to reporters from the paper, Missourian Managing Editor George Kennedy reported in the Newspaper Research Journal.
Advance review can stimulate memory. When the source sees the full story, he may remember things that he didn’t think of when you were interviewing that add depth or balance to the story. Maybe you skimmed over something in the interview and make brief reference to it in the story. And that reminds the source of more details that you are glad to add to the story.
Advance review can produce documentation. Seeing your story, the source might become uncomfortable with being your source for a particular fact (or the whole story) and may provide documentation that he was reluctant to provide before. The documentation strengthens your story and allows you to downplay this source or drop the source from the story altogether.
Advance review can push a source on the record. If you give advance review to a source who is not named in the story, the source might become more comfortable with identification upon seeing the context in which you are using the information or upon seeing that other sources are on the record.
Advance review can turn a non-source into a source. Try offering an advance look at the story to someone who would not comment for the story. Sometimes hearing that you have your facts straight (or that you don’t) will prompt the source to comment.
Advance review can head off complaints. Of course the advance review heads off complaints when it helps you catch errors in fact. It also can head off complaints when the source doesn’t like the way you tell the story. If the source got to make her case before publication and feels like she was listened to, she may be less likely to complain after the fact, even if she still doesn’t like the story. King said the litigious subject of a recent investigation by the World-Herald “tried to intimidate us into not running the story. We tweaked a few things in areas they pointed out, but basically the story ran as it was. We heard nothing from them post-publication.”
Readers’ views of advance review
Since the 1970s, the Columbia Missourian has required reporters to seek advance review by sources to check for accuracy. (See update note at the end of this post.**) A 1994 Newspaper Research Journal article by Missourian Managing Editor George Kennedy reported that a poll of Columbia residents found that 90 percent would be more likely to read a newspaper if they knew it had an accuracy-check policy. On the other hand, 58 percent agreed with the statement, “I think the accuracy-check policy could make reporters less likely to write news that their sources didn’t like.”
How to do advance review
Make the ground rules clear. Weinberg spells out in writing that he is not giving the source the authority to edit the story. “I maintain total control,” he says. He will listen to any corrections, suggestions or criticism the source offers, but he makes clear that he and his editors make the final decision about what is in the story and how it is worded. King said advance review has improved accuracy at the World-Herald without sacrificing control: “We have overcome (largely) the apprehension by some reporters and editors that allowing news sources to read our stories before publication would result in the stories being overly influenced or watered down by the sources. If we are strong-minded, understand our subject matter and believe in what we do as journalists, we should not be intimidated or allow the sources to unduly influence how we tell stories.”
Avoid e-mailing unpublished stories. If you e-mail a story to a source, you are inviting advance review not only by the source, but by her lawyer, spouse, PR flak or whomever she feels like forwarding the story to. You really lose control of the handling of a story when you e-mail it out.
Consider previewing just a passage. Both to save time and to avoid inviting comment on parts of the story that don’t involve the source, you might preview only the passage in which you quote this source or write about his subject of expertise. Be sure that you explain accurately the context – both where this passage is in the story and what information leads up to and follows it. A disadvantage to reading only a passage is that the source might be able to correct errors in other parts of the story or might feel that he is reading or hearing the passage out of context.
Try reading the story over the phone. Especially if the story is brief or if the source is not available in person, read the story or passage to the source. This saves time and inhibits interference beyond correcting factual errors.
Take a printout to the source. One of the best ways to handle advance review is to take a printout of the story to the source’s home or office. You wait until the source reads the story and discuss any corrections or concerns the source raises. Then you take the printout with you, so the source doesn’t have a copy to show to other people. The source also doesn’t have time to reread the story and fret over how it will look. If you are asking someone to check your accuracy, that most likely will be the purpose of the first reading. If you allow the source to keep a copy a while, subsequent readings might focus on perceptions, “slant” and other issues that are less helpful and more argumentative. In your written invitation to review the story in advance, spell out this process, so the source will understand and know that you will take the printout back.
Explain the editing process. Tell the source that she is reading a draft that has not been edited. Explain that editors change stories for matters such as clarity and grammar. Explain also that the space available for a story doesn’t always match what the reporter has written. Explain that in a tight newspaper or a busy news day, the editors might not have space for all that you have written.
Other resources on advance review
The Reporter’s Handbook, Steve Weinberg, pp. 494-496. (Those were the correct pages when I wrote this originally in 2006. If there is a more recent edition, it might have changed.)
“Newspaper Accuracy: A new approach,” by George Kennedy, Newspaper Research Journal, Winter 1994.
*Update: Larry King is now Vice President of News and Content at the Omaha World-Herald Co.
**Update: Katherine Reed, an editor at the Missourian, sent the following elaboration:
I’ve been an editor at the Missourian and a professor in the journalism school since 2004. I believe you’re thinking of our accuracy check policy, but we don’t read stories to sources. We accuracy check facts, quotes and context to the source who provided the information. So it’s a bit more nuanced than the way it was described in your email.
On rare occasions, sources see large portions of the entire story IF there is highly technical, scientific or sensitive information in the story that we think the source has expertise to double check — to prevent errors. But I can think of no occasions in the past eight years when any of the reporters I’ve worked with have read the entire story to a source.
Tom Warhover, executive editor of the Missourian, also explained the policy in this column.