On more than one occasion, reporters have screwed up facts when writing about me. At least once I knew I was misquoted. So I have some empathy for Washington Post reporter Daniel de Vise, who is being taken to task for his fact-checking technique.
Getting our facts straight should be a top priority of every journalist. We get them wrong more often than we know (I usually have not corrected the journalists who reported inaccurately about me). We should weigh all factors in considering efforts to ensure accuracy.
As recounted in a story by the Texas Observer, de Vise emailed an unpublished draft of a story to University of Texas officials, inviting them to raise with him any concerns they had about it. The Observer obtained copies of emails between de Vise and university officials through an open records request and quoted extensively from the emails, which indicated this was a common practice for de Vise.
A Thursday memo to the Post staff from Editor Marcus Brauchli, reported by Jim Romenesko, makes clear that Post reporters should not share drafts of stories with sources except with Brauchli’s permission.
I question de Vise’s judgment, and I would have handled things differently. But people who reject the notion of sharing a story in advance with a source as unethical are trying to simplify journalism ethics to matters of black and white. Way too often journalism ethics are murky shades of gray or any of the many colors of the rainbow. We often wish life were simple. But it’s not, especially in many of the tough questions of journalism ethics.
Brauchli’s memo recognizes the multiple shades, discussing circumstances when reporters might be justified in reading passages to sources.
You can read from several critics of advance review in the links at the end of this post and some of the links in the post, but I won’t quote them here. I’m not trying to criticize those people, just to encourage more thoughtful consideration and discussion.
I discussed the good reasons not to share story drafts with sources and the good reasons to review stories in advance with sources in a 2006 handout for a series of ethics seminars I presented for the American Press Institute. I am republishing that post today, given the timeliness of the issue. I will repeat and elaborate on some of those points here.
De Vise did not comment for the Observer story, but his editor, Nick Anderson said the reporter interacted with sources “in an effort to be fair, complete and accurate as possible.”
Clearly, sources can help us before publication with the accuracy of our stories. We know this because of how often they call us with corrections after we publish.
The fairness and completeness issues can be more troublesome. Those are matters of judgment, and I think the biggest concern journalists about reviewing stories in advance with sources is that this gives them a chance to unduly influence the fairness and completeness of the story.
Journalists should rightly be concerned about anything that gives sources or public-relations officials the opportunity or the appearance of an opportunity to twist our stories. But let’s acknowledge that every interview provides that opportunity (and believe me, sources take advantage more than most journalists will admit). Let’s not pretend that de Vise first crossed the influence line when he emailed his draft to the sources.
In many of the tough cases of journalism ethics, good decisions come from strong principles and thoughtful discussions that apply those principles to the unique cases that journalists face, not from following a list of thou-shalt-not or thou-shalt-always commandments.
We have some absolute rules in journalism (don’t fabricate; don’t plagiarize). But advance review is a matter more like granting confidentiality to sources: It can hurt your credibility, but doing it right can help you do better journalism, particularly in difficult situations.
I cannot recall ever emailing a story to a source, as de Vise did. It would be too easy for someone to forward your story to someone who might want to call their lawyer or your editor or publisher to create pre-publication trouble. It would be too easy for someone to scoop you on your own story by announcing what you were going to report or by tipping a competitor to the story or dropping a piece of the story in a competitor’s lap (you have that risk with the interviews anyway, but seeing the actual draft answers the questions they have about how your story is going to turn out). You invite speculation about the reasons for editing changes. Every word or sentence that an editor cuts from the story or that you add due to further reporting will be subject to suspicious speculation by the sources. (And don’t think they won’t compare the draft to the published story. Line by line.) And, as the Texas Observer showed, if you’re emailing a public official, your email becomes a public record.
De Vise’s email plea to the university PR person reveals his awareness of the risk by sending an unpublished draft:
Help me out by not circulating this material very far and by stressing that it is an unpublished draft. If you or anyone at the university has any concerns about it, I implore you to direct them to me. I’m one of a very few reporters here who send drafts to sources!
I cannot specifically recall, but I have some vague recollection that I have emailed passages to sources, perhaps from a story that involved a complicated process or explanation. Maybe I was trying to explain something in plain English that had been explained to me in jargon. Perhaps I worried about my understanding of a technical passage. I think I might have emailed a passage, asking whether I was explaining accurately. And I think I got some helpful explanation from sources. At any rate, I would approve of that kind of limited emailing of a passage on which a source had expertise.
If you’re going to allow any kind of advance review of a story, I would follow these steps:
- Consult with your editor. Unless you have a policy that allows or requires advance review, this kind of decision should not be made in isolation. Discuss why you would ask or allow a source to review a story or part of a story in advance of publication. If unusual circumstances prompt you to make such an agreement on the spur of the minute, inform your editor right away. This is a controversial and risky practice and journalists should collaborate (and cover their asses) on these decisions
- Be explicit and emphatic with the source that you will have the final say about how the story is written, and that the story or passages you are sharing are not edited and may not show up in the final story.
- Be explicit and emphatic with the source that he or she is seeing/hearing an unpublished draft and that you are sharing the draft on the condition that he or she will not pass it along to anyone else.
- Consider sharing only passages that relate to the source, so he or she does not have the whole picture of the story. (This may not be the best idea in each case; the source may understand more than you know and may be able to improve your accuracy in other respects.)
- Share in a way that you limit what the source can do with the draft. Two such ways that I have used have been to read the story (or passage) to the source over the phone and to take a printout and visit the source, with the explicit agreement that I will sit there while the source reads it and will take it with me when I leave.
I will give an example of a situation when I gave sources extraordinary latitude and how I handled it: When I was at the Omaha World-Herald 15 years ago, I was writing a story about the decision of whether to have an abortion. I wanted to interview a range of women who had experienced difficult pregnancy situations and discuss with them what they decided and why and the consequences of their decisions. And I wanted to do all of the interviews on the record. Given the controversial nature of the issue, getting women on the record on that topic was going to be a challenge.
I proposed to my editors that I would offer women unusual control in seeking interviews for that story: They could decide after the fact whether the interview was on the record. I wanted an opportunity to hear their story and win their trust. I felt that I could get most of them to trust me with their stories if we spent some time together discussing that difficult issue. But if we insisted up front on being on the record, I might have no chance of getting the interviews. I would not offer them the chance to edit the story in any way, just to decide whether the interview was on the record.
I ended up interviewing 11 women and getting six of them to go on the record. I featured the six at length in a package that included photos and summarized some points from the other five, without using names, in a sidebar. In one case (perhaps the best interview I had), the woman asked to read the story before deciding whether the interview was on the record. I countered that I would read to her any sections that were about her and she agreed (and so did my editor). I read that to her over the phone. She made one small factual clarification and put the interview on the record.
(I considered posting that clip on Scribd and linking to it here, but then decided that publishing a 15-year-old story, putting their names out there for search engines this long after the fact, would not be fair to the women. Obviously their stories were on the record and can still be looked up. But they can’t be Googled, and I don’t think I should change that now. If you’re interested in reading the story, email me, stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com, and I’ll send you the clip.)
While I don’t favor emailing stories to sources, I do encourage thorough fact-checking, and reading a story to a source is a great way to check facts. When magazines quote me, I usually get a call from a fact-checker, and I know in some cases, I have helped them correct facts. They don’t read me the whole story, but they do read quotes and facts attributed to me. I think more journalists should check facts this thoroughly and more newsrooms should encourage some level of advance review to improve their accuracy.
As my former TBD colleague Erik Wemple (now de Vise’s colleague at the Post) noted in a blog post on the de Vise controversy:
The convention that journos shouldn’t share unpublished work affirms their native arrogance. It’s a convention built on the idea that journalists are so brilliant that they can get a complicated set of facts and circumstances dead-bang right on the first try without feedback from the people who know the topic best.
I’ll contrast de Vise’s practice with an incident that involved one of his Post colleagues. When we were launching TBD in 2010, I invited reporters who wrote about the news media to a press briefing in advance of our launch. Paul Farhi of the Post, who recently won the Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism, failed to check one of his facts and wrote that Mark Potts was an “adviser” to TBD. Potts, who was running a company called GrowthSpur, was helping our blog network in an informal partnership with TBD. But he wasn’t advising us. In an email to me after the Post story ran, Potts said he didn’t know where Farhi got the notion that he was advising us. How Farhi made the error is irrelevant (he didn’t explain it to me when I pointed the error out to him and the Post never corrected it). It was wrong.
If Farhi had emailed his story to me in advance of publishing it or had read a draft to me, I easily could have corrected him (I spotted the mistake immediately when I read the story online and emailed Farhi about the error minutes after the story appeared on the Post’s website). Might I have tried to “spin” him if he had emailed me the story in advance by arguing some points about how he portrayed the TBD launch? Maybe. I think I have a thicker skin than the University of Texas officials De Vise dealt with and I think Farhi’s a pretty tough reporter who could have deflected my efforts to spin him. But I also might have been able to persuade him to address a point or two differently (I have a pretty good understanding of how reporters think and work). We’ll never know.
I’m not bringing this up to fault Farhi. I suppose every story is imperfect in some way. Which Post story was more flawed: the Farhi story that contained an easily preventable factual error or the De Vise story that presumably was more accurate but that might have reflected some influence from university sources? To me, that’s not a simple question to answer. The Potts error was pretty small, except that every factual error is big (I remember it clearly nearly two years later). If de Vise’s story was more accurate on the facts and not substantially altered in response to complaints by university officials, I think he had the better story. If de Vise got his facts right but university officials talked him into a spin that didn’t reflect the greater truth as well as his original draft, Farhi probably had a better story, even with his factual error.
I will be emailing Farhi and De Vise, inviting them to respond to this post. If either responds, I will update.
A final point: The practice by some reporters (I hope it’s not as common as it appears) of allowing politicians to pre-approve quotes before publication goes too far. Politicians should speak on the record and journalists should quote them accurately. If a politician ever demanded advance approval of quotes, I would tell that spokesperson that I would not interview the politician and that the story would say why he or she was not quoted. I would check quotes with a politician or a spokesperson if I was unsure what he or she said or meant. But I cannot imagine ever agreeing to such a condition. I was pleased to see McClatchy and National Journal say that they won’t allow politicians to pre-approve quotes.
Washington Post reporter sent drafts to sources by Andrew Beaujon
Show and print by Alicia Shepard
Insecure reporters need to stiffen their backbone by Patrick B. Pexton (He makes a lot of good points about the specific situations he’s addressing, but his sweeping blanket statements wish for a simpler world than we live in.)