Politico’s Harris: ‘Quote doctoring does bother me’

Poynter | The Washington Examiner | AJR | The Huffington Post
News organizations continue to react to New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters’ story about campaigns “routinely demanding that reporters allow them final editing power over any published quotations.” Or, to use the term AJR’s Carl Sessions Stepp coined for this practice: “revise and consent.”

AP spokesman Paul Colford and AP Washington bureau chief Sally Buzbee told Poynter in no uncertain terms that their reporters shouldn’t and don’t do this. The Washington Examiner took a similar stance, saying it won’t allow sources to “review, veto or edit the quotes that we plan to publish, even if it means we are denied interviews.”

Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris told Poynter that background interviews have their place, but it would concern him if they were becoming the default. “I talked about it with a couple of reporters,” he said. “I have confidence that the practice [of background interviews] isn’t being abused here on the basis of those conversations.”

But “quote doctoring does bother me, or anything that does smack of not looking out for readers’ interest,” he said. “That has to be judged by the journalists, and particularly journalists who remember who their first obligation is to, which is not to sources, it’s to their readers.”

Asked if quote approval is as widespread on the campaign trail as Peters reported, Harris said, “I just don’t know.”

“If someone says, ‘Can you clean up that split infinitive; I sound completely inarticulate,’ that’s one thing,” Harris said. But if someone “fundamentally changes” their quote “in a way that their meaning is altered, I’d say that’s not fair dealing between reporters and sources.”

Peters reported that journalists who described having their quotations modified said the changes did not alter “the meaning of a quote. The changes were almost always small and seemingly unnecessary, they said.”

Though the attention is on “revise and consent,” Harris said he’s far more concerned with “the lack of on-the-record accessibility and access to the candidates themselves in regular and spontaneous ways.”

Huffington Post political reporter Sam Stein said in a live video chat on Tuesday that he’s shown up for an interview only to learn that it will be conducted on background.

You have the ability … to take the quotes, send back to your source and ask that those quotes be put on the record. Oftentimes the campaign, the person who was interviewed, will say, “Yes you can use that.” They might even be doing that in real-time so you don’t even have to go back to them for clearance.

On occasion, however, they will tinker with the quote, and that’s what The New York Times referred [to], I think accurately, as veto power. It’s a very frustrating aspect for us journalists, because obviously you want to have the most candid thing possible on the record. The question is, at what point do you risk your access for the purity of the on-the-record conversation?

Reuters, one of the outlets that Peters reported has agreed to quote approval, declined to make an editor available to discuss the issue. Spokeswoman Barb Burg offered only a statement saying, “Except in rare instances that specifically require further accuracy and comprehensibility, Reuters regards the practice of letting sources approve and materially change quotes as wholly unacceptable.”

The Washington Post, also mentioned in Peters’ story, offered a statement from National Editor Kevin Merida that didn’t shed much light on the issue. He said reporters aggressively try to get sources on the record, and “in dealing with sources, we trust our reporters to make decisions that uphold the Post’s high journalistic standards and are in the best interests of our readers.”

Live chat: Join Jack Shafer and Karen Tumulty, Washington Post national political correspondent, to discuss this issue at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    this is a major major story with legs. i hope you follow it. the NYT is completely wrong to allow sources to revise their quotes………a reporter can make a quote sound smoother yes, but only the reporter can do this. the sources can never be allowed to do this! What is the NYT thinking? this is the end of journalism as we know if this passes muster. This is PR not news reporting. Get me BILL SAFIRE!