Washington Post reporter sent drafts to sources

Texas Observer | Politico | The Washington Post | AJR
Washington Post higher education reporter Daniel de Vise “employed some unusual, perhaps even unethical, techniques” while preparing a piece about the Collegiate Learning Assessment, writes the Texas Observer’s Forrest Wilder: He allowed officials at the University of Texas at Austin who were quoted in the piece to review the draft of his story and suggest changes.

Wilder obtained emails between de Vise and the UT brass via a public-records request, and the quotes he chooses make de Vise look eager to please: “Everything here is negotiable,” he told the school’s director of media outreach. “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!”

De Vise also stressed his track record, Wilder writes:

In another email, de Vise wrote that he’s “never had a dissatisfied customer in this process. And that includes an article a few months ago about a school with one of the nation’s worst graduation rates.”

Two journalism profs (one at UT Austin!) criticized de Vise’s process. Wilder also spoke to my Poynter colleague Kelly McBride, who disagreed: “I actually think that what those emails show is a very genuine effort on the part of the reporter to get not only the facts right but get the truth while remaining independent.” McBride, Wilder says, told him that “the survival of the print news business has caused her and others to rethink the rules.”

Writing in Politico late Tuesday, Dylan Byers called Wilder’s story “pretty damning.” De Vise’s actions “went beyond getting the truth: UT officials wanted to scrub or alter quotes because they reflected poorly on the institution,” Byers says.

Indeed, the emails Wilder got (any chance they’ll be posted online so the rest of us can see them in full?) show university officials pushing back especially hard on two points: They felt it wasn’t fair to use one staffer’s quote as reflecting the university as a whole, and they took issue with de Vise’s characterization of her feelings about the CLA.

“De Vise bowed to many of UT’s demands,” Wilder writes. The objectionable quote vanished from the final version.

Whenever journalistic ethics are being discussed post-facto, I think it’s crucial to look at the work involved. De Vise may have listened to UT’s objections, but his story includes:

  • The unwelcome news that “seniors fared little better than freshmen” on the test, which measures, as de Vise puts it, “gains in critical thinking and communication skills.” The author of a book about academic stagnation tells him, “The seniors have spent four years there, and the scores have not gone up that much.”
  • The unwelcome news that “for learning gains from freshman to senior year, UT ranked in the 23rd percentile among like institutions. In other words, 77 percent of universities with similar students performed better.”
  • Unwelcome irony:

One recent morning, instructor Mary Worthy told [Nicole] Scallan and her classmates that they would be sharing drafts of a protest song with each other.

“Did any of you participate in writing workshops when you were in high school or middle school?” Worthy asked, to a collective shaking of heads. “That’s kind of what the idea is.”

The quote deletion is borderline, but on the whole it looks like De Vise didn’t allow UT officials to massage the news; he allowed them to inform how he characterized their reaction. Was he being spineless or just careful?

Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple writes that he frequently shares full or partial drafts of stories. He believes sharing drafts is a superior form of fact-checking.

Not only does sharing unpublished work ensure factual accuracy, interpretive accuracy, trust, balance and comprehensiveness, it serves as an avenue to deeper inquiry. …

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.

In 1996, Alicia Shepard wrote a story for AJR about sharing drafts with sources. (Quaintly, it includes debates over whether to read sections of stories over the phone to sources or to fax them a whole story outright.) The only thing most people she interviewed agreed on was that it’s OK to share drafts when you might not understand the subject matter as well as your sources, as in a science story. Shepard wrote that not showing stories to sources is a taboo:

No one quite knows how the newsroom taboo originated. It’s transmitted more through osmosis and lore than handbooks and ethics codes. Somewhere along the line most journalists have it hammered into their heads that when sources ask to see a story before publication, you stifle a laugh and inform them that it just isn’t done.

In the piece, Washington Post copy editor Alex Johnson said, “Extending a courtesy is not extending editorial control.” That seems like where the rubber hits the road on this question. Publishing a story gives news organizations a certain degree of power over their sources. How that power gets shared is a fascinating issue. || Live chat: Join Poynter’s Kelly McBride for a live chat Wednesday at 3 p.m. EDT to discuss arguments for and against this practice.

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  • http://twitter.com/cliffordanthony Cliff Anthony

    if reporters followed  Daniel de Vise’s example, newspapers will be full of fluff. It’s OK to read back the quotes to sources for accuracy, but not the full story for prepublication approval. It shows the reporter’s lack of self confidence. Cliff Anthony. http://www.page-a1.com. 

  • Gerald Grow

    On complicated stories, I often sent passages to the sources to vet for accuracy, to save having to run corrections later. That did not give them any control over content. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/gatoredie Edie Gross

    I’ve read quotes back to sources before, though I haven’t allowed them to change them. And if I’m covering a topic that’s complex, I’ve occasionally sent an explanatory paragraph or two to a source to make sure I’ve got the concept correct. But reporting and writing is my job, and editing the copy is my editor’s job. I am confident enough in my own abilities that I don’t feel any need to run my entire story past a flack or a source. If they want editorial control over something published in the newspaper, they can buy an ad. And if I’m not well-informed enough to write a decent and fair story about a topic I’ve researched, then perhaps I shouldn’t be working as a reporter to begin with.

    I’m not opposed to having this conversation — I could be dead wrong about all of this. But prior review makes me pretty uncomfortable because it’s a slippery slope that seems to border on censorship, which can lead to watered-down coverage in the best case and PR fluff/outright lies in the worst. This, along with the recent revelation that some newspapers (ahem, The New York Times) are OK with letting sources edit their quotes, makes me wonder what the hell we’re doing.

  • Anonymous

    I have no problem with the practice in theory.

    On each story, it depends on how the reporter used the comments from whoever the drafts were sent to to edit the story.
    Did the revised story get more facts straight (or did it obfuscate more)?
    Did the revised story get closer to (or further from) the truth?
    Was the revised story more (or less) complete?
    Did it empower people to make more informed (or less informed) decisions?
    Questions like that. And not Yes or No. More “to what extent”.

    If I were in charge of a news outlet, I would allow it. BUT,  I would also have all the versions available through links, along with the suggestions by those to whom the drafts were sent. That would help when a reader/listener/viewer wanted to find out more about everyone’s intent.

  • http://twitter.com/dancow Dan Nguyen

    In terms of getting the facts right, organizations have used fact-checking processes that don’t involve giving drafts to the sources. I’m not privy to how the New Yorker fact-checkers work; do they give drafts out?

    But there’s more to accuracy than just getting the facts right. In a narrative story, it’s accepted that frequency and placement of facts and statements is important. The nutgraph, for instance, sums up the general direction and thesis statement of a story. In fact, an assertion in the headline may have more impact than all the facts in the entire story.
    It is naive to assume that a subject with a lot of stake in the story can objectively guide you to whatever the absolute truth is. In the Texas Observer article, the college administrators were clearly trying to get the reporter to put a politically-favorable spin on it. Of course no one is truly against the idea of “accountability”; but their actions to oppose certain reforms may, for all intents and purposes, stem the greater good of accountability. It’s the reporter’s job to balance what the administrators *think* is right against the consequences of their actions and policies.
    But let’s pretend that the administrators in a hypothetical article have the objective sense to accept that their actions may undercut their public relations messages; how could they possibly gauge that without not just seeing the draft, but seeing the entire body of evidence and interviews that the reporter has gathered in order to complete the draft? Maybe de Vise shared all of his notes and records to the administrators? If not, it’s impossible to imagine that the administrators are in the same observant position to be able to make worthwhile revisions to a draft.

    And we can’t ignore basic human psychology here. You rub elbows with someone enough and you will subconsciously give them a break. If someone continues to rag on you over a controversial issue you may subconsciously soften your view just because you think, “They must be kind of right to be pushing this hard.” And even if someone makes an extreme demand for a revision, it’s likely that your end product will be more biased toward that viewpoint than if no demand had been made at all (this is how bartering works, see Kahneman’s work on the anchoring effect http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/16/in-praise-of-daniel-kahneman)

    Most importantly, how do you decide which sources to share the drafts with? The ones with the most at stake? The ones who you’re most friendly with? I’m assuming that one major factor is how adversarial and brief your relationship is with a source: if this story justifiably burns a bridge, you are justified in worrying that your source will leak the story in an attempt to damage you. So basically, everyone who plays nice with the reporter will get a “fairer” shake.

    Without judging if this is good or bad for journalism, it obviously adds a whole new meta-layer to the act of journalism that, for reasons of logistics and resource constraints, is impossible to implement on a regular basis. It’s already a juggling act to give equal time in interviewing/researching certain sides, now you have a new phase of giving equal editing time to them. 

    Most news organizations can barely employ copy-editors these days, nevermind the kind of fact-checking layer that the New Yorker uses. So how would this be beneficial to a news organization’s bottom-line? Is the proposition that sources pay-to-play(/prior-review)?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Hamer/1654932749 John Hamer

    If more reporters/editors did this, their stories would be more factual and accurate, likely more detailed and nuanced — and therefore more credible. Every time anyone writes about the Washington News Council (http://wanewscouncil.org), I offer to read their drafts in advance of publication to fact-check and suggest edits if needed, while noting that they still make all the final decisions. Every time a reporter has agreed, I have found some errors and pointed them out. So their stories were better in the end. The knee-jerk opposition among many journalists and academics to draft review is arrogant and ultimately counterproductive. Kelly McBride, Erik Wemple and Alicia Shepard are absolutely right that it’s time to rethink moldy old rules and foolish news taboos. It’s a conversation. Engage. 

  • http://twitter.com/dancow Dan Nguyen

    Would love to see @poynter elaborate on this idea of rethinking ethics rules for news industry to stay alive.