What are the arguments for, against sending stories to sources before publication?

Washington Post reporter Daniel de Vise is under the spotlight for allowing sources to review one of his stories and suggest changes prior to publication.

Forrest Wilder of the Texas Observer outed de Vise Tuesday after obtaining email exchanges between him and and his sources at the University of Texas at Austin. The emails reveal that de Vise sent his story to UT’s director of media outreach, telling her:

“Everything here is negotiable. … 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!”

Wilder’s piece has continued a recent debate about whether it’s OK to let sources approve quotes and information prior to publication. In a live chat, Poynter’s Kelly McBride discussed the controversy surrounding this issue, sought input from the audience and offered related advice.

You can replay the chat here:

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  • Anonymous

    here’s what Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli want to say

  • Nguyen An

    It’s a pretty bad situation for what was once described as “the truth.”As to buying cosmetics, remember http://high-end-cosmetics.com/

  • http://twitter.com/ChesterfldPatch Chesterfield Patch

    I was of course trained old school—source be damned, they’ll see it when it’s published. But now, doing community journalism, the sources get all hostile, angry and vengeful if it isn’t their PR angle you publish, and then you can’t do your job (web journalist.) And the sources seem to think they are in the right. It’s a pretty bad situation for what was once described as “the truth.”

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    @thx2600:disqus, here’s what Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli has to say about it: http://journ.us/QGHKZg


  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

     Hi Dan,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that reading quotes and excerpts of stories is a better option than sending entire stories to sources. There’s a middle ground journalists can strike here.


  • James N Crutchfield

    I know Dan, and I know Gene. I respect them both. They’d both agree getting the story right is the goal. The reporter is the position of power here. He doesn’t have to agree to anything a source says. He is simply opening himself to argument, to being convinced he should add, subtract or change — which he always should be willing to do in the interest of getting a story right. It is possible to have all of the facts and the quotes correct and the story dead wrong. A source can tell you if the story is wrong. You don’t have to be convinced. You don’t have to agree. A source can’t change the story. Only a reporter or editor can. Whether the source reads a word, a paragraph or the story, there’s little difference. The argument against sharing the whole story is the same as sharing a portion. That’s why there was a time when even Gene’s view was heresy. We weren’t to let a source see or hear anything, and we got things wrong because we were unwilling to listen. I don’t believe smart, committed journalists are too weak to stand up to an unhappy source. I hope they’re willing to listen to reason to avoid mistakes. It’s got nothing to do with the times. It’s got everything to do with doing the best journalism possible.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Weingarten, since you signed your comment with your name and publication, is this your opinion or the official stance of the Washington Post? Was just hoping you could clarify. Many thanks

  • http://twitter.com/PCMC1 Parents’ Coalition

    In 2009, Mr de Vise wrote, and The Washington Post printed, an article based on a fictitious person as if the person were real. Mr. de Vise stated that he never spoke to the person on the phone and never met the person, but completely relied on e-mails to write the story. The person was attacking a very active parent group in Montgomery County, Maryland.
    The parent group was able to show that the e-mails were coming from a school system IP address. However, Mr de Vise did not state that fact in the article and quoted the fictitious person as if she were real.  
    The e-mails were coming from someone within the public school system or with access to a public school system computer. Yet, the article did not have a response from the public school system to this fact.  
    If, the writer of these e-mails was the school systems public relations department or an administrator, that means that the school system was able to trick the Washington Post into writing an article by using a fictitious parent to attack other parents. Score 1 for the public school system!  
    But, what does this say about The Washington Post and their fact checking?  

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

    I completely agree here, speaking from considerably less experience than Weingarten. I hate to see this spun as “Well, it’s a new, tech savvy way of doing journalism” when it opens you up to even more old fashioned psychological coercion to slant a story in the favor of a stakeholder. Why can’t the fact-checking that was reportedly done in the WP article in question be done through quote/excerpt-reading, rather than showing the entire draft?

    Nevermind that doing this fairly and regularly is a huge logistics challenge that is not sustainable for newsrooms, who currently struggle with hiring copy-editors.

  • Gene Weingarten

    Sorry, there are no legitimate arguments for showing a source an entire story before publication.   As a reporter I was taught that, as an editor I enforced that with a blanket ban. 

    You want to get the story right.   You do that by double-checking and triple-checking facts.   You can read back sections if you are worried you haven’t got it quite right — I have done that many times, particularly with complex economic or scientific things. I have double-checked quotes. 

    But to share an entire story is inviting a degree of coercion that can only work to your disadvantage, and against the strength of the story.   You are asking a source, in effect, to approve something in its entirety — your characterizations, your conclusions, your judgments — on a subject about which he is by definition incapable of objectivity. 

    You are grateful to this source, perhaps.  You don’t want to seem churlish or defensive.  You want his cooperation in the future.   You are likely to compromise, to make small changes that war with how you perceive the story (your objective effort at truth) in favor of how he would like it to be perceived.  It is only natural.

    Why on Earth would we put ourselves in such an untenable position, placing our stories “up for negotiation” with a highly biased person?   Are you that unsure of your ability to get it right?   This is the sort of thing trade publications, perhaps a bit in bed with industry — might do.   No us.  No way. 

    This would not even have been discussed 20 years ago, when we swaggered.   Now we’re all fearful.  It’s a spineless, fearful impulse, a desire to ingratiate.   

    – Gene Weingarten, The Washington Post