A recent article in the Texas Observer brought up the question that I hear a lot in my media trainings: will reporters share their story pre-publication with me? If you’re talking to the Texas Observer, the answer is an emphatic “no.” If you’re talking to The Washington Post, the answer is “maybe” – an answer that so galls the Texas Observer that they wrote about it.
Some background: reporters see themselves almost akin to umpires; they call ‘em as they see ‘em. Good journalists take the responsibility seriously and work hard to get it right – the first time. They also work very hard to get people to speak openly and freely. Most reporters worry that if they let a source – the people they are interviewing – review an article before it’s published, the source will see what others are saying and decide he or she needs to be more circumspect. Hence the open and free conversation the reporter was seeking becomes restrained and cautious and the source might demand unwarranted changes that will affect the tone and tenor of the story. Fact checking is different. Facts are either right or wrong, how a person comes across in a quote is up for a lot of interpretation. That is why most reporters pride themselves on being good interpreters: of politics, of science, of business, and learn to stand by what they heard.
Back to the current discussion: so a Post reporter visited the University of Texas and interviewed a bunch of administrators about their testing policy. He then wrote his story and sent it to the people there and told them, “everything here is negotiable” – before The Post published it – on the front page no less. According to public emails acquired by the Texas Observer, the school did change the original copy to softened their criticism of the current tests being used.
The Texas Observer saw this as an abrogation of a reporter’s duty to get it right the first time and to “call ‘em as he sees ‘em.” Surprisingly, The Post wrote their own article about the Texas Observer piece and headlined it with: “Should a reporter’s source get a preview of the story?” The Post stands by the article saying it still had comments in it that criticized testing. But the article admits that even though The Post allows reporters to “fact check” stories particularly in complex science stories, “it is not our policy (The Post’s) to routinely read stories or parts of stories to sources or to share copy with outsiders…”
One of our clients recently worked with The Wall Street Journal on a complicated science story and was amazed at how much they got to see of the article before the story was published. This, however, is an exception to the rule. In general, don’t expect reporters to share their article with you before they go to print. Most reporters won’t do it, and those who will do it, will be excoriated by their colleagues.
The Post advanced the story after I posted this. Their ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, didn’t like what happened and was appalled with the quote from the reporter (now that’s a switch) indicating, “everything’s negotiable” to his source. He said it was “time for some backbone,” and that “because of the changes in technology (i.e. the Internet) and relentless financial pressures, the press is weaker that it has been in many years. We look over our shoulders too much, we bow to the wises of officialdom too often, we yield too readily to ideologues.”
He seems to see it as “old school” vs. “new school” journalism. If that’s the case, my clients might be reviewing a lot more copy in the future. This gives a new dimension to the cliche, “can I quote you on that?”