Questions have arisen in recent weeks about the propriety of showing a story to sources before publication. And now Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli has explicitly brought science writing into the conversation.
A quick recap: On July 15, Jeremy M. Peters of The New York Times reported the increasingly restrictive practice by the Obama and Romney presidential campaigns to require that all quotes be approved by the press office before they can be published. "The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative," Peters wrote. Most reporters, eager for access to campaign officials, "grudgingly agree" to the practice, he wrote.
The practice precisely illustrates the problems that arise when copy is shown to sources. The sources have undue influence over what is finally published, and what is published does not reflect what was actually said.
Then, on July 24, Forrest Wilder of The Texas Observer obtained emails (through a freedom-of-information request) related to a story that Washington Post reporter Daniel de Vise was writing about the University of Texas. The emails revealed that de Vise "shared at least two complete drafts" of the article with UT's press officers. And, Wilder continued, de Vise "allowed them to suggest critical edits, some of which ended up in the published story."
Again, the incident makes the point that sources, when shown copy, have undue influence over the final copy.
Even so, it's fair to ask whether such practices improve the accuracy of the copy. When a source says one thing in an interview, and another after being shown the draft of a story, which of the two statements is more accurate? That can be a tough decision to make.
Reporters differ on whether copy should be shown to sources before publication. (See the comments on this Jim Romenesko story for some interesting opinions.) Traditionally, news organizations have opposed the practice. On the other hand, book authors--some of whom are journalists--routinely show chapters or manuscripts to sources to check for accuracy.
I will admit to having shown copy to sources on occasion, when I felt that was the best way to arrive at an accurate piece of copy. But I haven't done it often, and I have done it only in copy dealing with matters of fact. I have strictly avoided showing one source what another source said about him or her, for example.
This discussion is occurring against a background in which sources often ask to see drafts to assure accuracy, and often do not understand why we say no. Scientists are particularly likely to ask to see the copy before publication, in my experience.
The Washington Post's Brauchli has now issued a memo clarifying the paper's position on this practice. The memo is not terribly satisfying. While noting that accuracy is the goal of the Post's reporting, Brauchli says that if a source requires quote approval before speaking, reporters "should not allow sources to change what was said in an original interview, although accuracy or the risk of losing an on-the-record quote from a crucial source may sometimes require it." That is not the clear direction I had expected.
A bit later, Brauchli wrote this:
Some reporters share sections of stories with sources before publication, to ensure accuracy on technical points or to catch errors. A science writer, for instance, may read to a source a passage, or even much of a story, about a complex subject to make sure that it is accurate.
Why would science writers be held to a different standard? Are science stories uniquely difficult? Stories on hedge-fund manipulations, economic policies, lengthy Supreme Court decisions, and intricate government policies can be as complex and subtle as anything that science writers produce.
I think Brauchli's special distinction for science writers reflects a common perception in newsrooms, namely that science is too difficult for most reporters to understand. News executives often begin their careers as political reporters or foreign correspondents, and so they feel comfortable (rightly or wrongly) discussing politics and global affairs. But if they venture into a discussion about science or medicine, they risk betraying their ignorance, a risk few news executives are willing to take.
In his memo, Brauchli makes an exception for science writers apparently because their task is more difficult. I appreciate the compliment, but I don't like the suggestion that science writers need special help to do their jobs.
I see two issues here.
One is to avoid giving sources undue influence over copy. When we read the news, we want to know that the writer's allegiance was to us, the readers. And that he or she is telling us what happened--not somebody's version of what happened.
The second issue is that sharing copy can lead a reporter, as I suggested above, into contradictions that cannot be resolved. Let's say a reporter gets a particularly inflammatory quote, but doesn't capture it on tape. The reporter calls the author of the quote and reads it back. The source says, "I didn't say that." Or worse, "I said that, but it's wrong. It's not what I meant." How, then, does the reporter arrive at the truth?
I don't think this is a place where we need a hard rule. Sometimes it might be best to keep some distance from sources, and other times sharing some copy or quotes might be appropriate. The key test is: All of this should be done in the service of readers.
- Paul Raeburn