Source relationships

UT official who reviewed Post story didn’t allow that when she was a reporter

Tara Doolittle, one of the University of Texas press officers who recently reviewed a Washington Post story prior to publication, is a former reporter for The Austin American-Statesman. So did she ever allow sources to do what she did?

“The answer has always been no, whether I was the reporter or the editor,” Doolittle said, noting that she spent 10 years as an editor.

Doolittle, who became director of media outreach for UT in November, was a reporter when I worked at the Statesman.

Gary Susswein, director of media relations at UT, went through de Vise’s article “with a heavy red pen,” according to the Texas Observer. He, too, worked at the Statesman, serving for some time as metro editor. (He’s on vacation this week.)

Doolittle said Post reporter Daniel de Vise told UT media representatives that sharing his story drafts was part of his normal process, and his editors knew about it. The Post has since tightened its policy on allowing sources to review stories, saying editors will grant permission to do so “extremely rarely.”

Aside from saying de Vise’s offer was unusual, Doolittle declined to comment on another reporter’s methods. Given the opportunity to review a story again, she’d take it. “I’m not a reporter anymore.”

RelatedWashington Post reporter sent drafts to sources (Texas Observer) | What are the arguments for, against sending stories to sources before publication? (Poynter) Read more


Memo: Washington Post tightens rules on sharing drafts with sources

As Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli promised Wednesday, The Washington Post is tightening its standards regarding whether sources can see stories before publication. Such instances will be permitted “extremely rarely” by the managing or executive editor.

The paper also is clamping down on quote approval:

We 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. A better and more acceptable alternative is to permit a source to add to a quotation and then explain that sequence to readers.

The full memo:

To the staff:

Over the last several days, there have been reports raising compelling questions of journalistic ethics in the practices of allowing sources to set rules on the use of quotations and the sharing of story drafts. We’d like to remind everyone of some core principles and lay down guidelines that should govern those practices at The Post.

The central principle of our journalism is to report the facts as closely as we can ascertain them. We should never do or promise to do anything that would shade the truth or call into question our commitment to reporting the
news accurately and fairly. That is essential to the trust we enjoy from the people we work for, our readers.

In response to the issues raised recently, we are modifying the relevant sections of The Post Stylebook. Please read this carefully. We encourage further discussion and will incorporate these specific points in upcoming sessions of Newsroom University.

Marcus Liz John Shirley Peter

Our objective in quoting people is to capture both their words and intended meaning accurately. That requires care in negotiating ground rules with sources. We do not allow sources to change the rules governing specific
quotations after the fact. Once a quote is on the record, it remains there.

Read more

Brauchli: Washington Post reporters will need editor’s approval to share drafts with sources

Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli says the paper’s policy on sharing drafts with sources will get more restrictive after the Texas Observer reported that Post reporter Daniel de Vise sent drafts of a story to the University of Texas. Brauchli says in an email:

Our current policy doesn’t prohibit a reporter from sharing a story draft with a source, but we intend to tighten it to ensure that such instances are rare without dispensation from a top editor. The practice of sharing unedited, unpublished material with sources is something we discourage. From time to time, when a story is particularly sensitive, as some national-security pieces are, or complex, as some science and policy pieces are, it can be helpful to run some wording or sections of a story past a source. But we should do that only for the sake of accuracy.

Related: Washington Post reporter sent drafts to sources (Texas Observer) | Chat: What are the arguments for, against sending stories to sources before publication? (Poynter) | Post reporter criticized for . . . checking his facts (The Washington Post) | Post reporter may have violated paper’s policy by sharing unpublished story (Washington City Paper) | Editors talked to de Vise about incident Wednesday but support changes made to story (The Washington Post) Read more

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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:

<a href=”″ mce_href=”″ >What are the arguments for, against sending stories to sources before publication?</a> Read more


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. Read more


Anonymous Fox spokesperson bravely talks trash about school behind news habits survey

The Hollywood Reporter
Fairleigh Dickinson University’s recent study about how people’s media diets affects their knowledge of current events didn’t cast a positive light on Fox News: People who watched only that channel scored lower than those who watched no news at all, the study said.

An unnamed Fox spokesperson lowered the boom on the school:

“Considering FDU’s undergraduate school is ranked as one of the worst in the country,” said the FNC spokesperson, “we suggest the school invest in improving its weak academic program instead of spending money on frivolous polling – their student body does not deserve to be so ill-informed.”

Anonymous spokespersoning is SOP at many networks, but it’s especially lame in this case: an ad-schoolinem attack (or whatever you call insulting a university) rather than a response to the survey findings. But as apropos-of-nothing insults go, it’s pretty good!

Fox should be trumpeting the smack-talk mastery of this unnamed flack rather than forcing him or her to hide in the shadows. (Also, reporters: When spokespeople ask to be unnamed, you know you can say no, right?)

Still, we’re talking about a news organization where anonymity is wielded with uncommon agility: Earlier this week Howard Kurtz wrote that a “senior Fox News executive” told him that Fox News chairman Roger Ailes regretted calling New York Times reporters “a bunch of lying scum.” (Note to Kurtz: See above.) Read more


Patriot-News will protect identities of alleged victims during Jerry Sandusky trial

In some ways Jerry Sandusky’s trial on sexual abuse charges is familiar territory for news outlets. Most have policies against naming alleged victims of sexual assault.

But the defendant, the media attention, and the public interest are not at all typical. And between word-of-mouth, social media and Fifth Estate bloggers, the identities of these victims could spread beyond the courtroom.

That’s what prosecutors are telling victims, according to a story published Thursday in the Patriot-News:

Part of the preparation includes the realization that they will have to publicly state their names for the court record. …

When that happens, nothing can stop bloggers, anonymous commenters, Twitter users and anyone with a keyboard and Internet connection from broadcasting their names to the world.

Sara Ganim notes in her story that news organizations generally don’t name victims of sex crimes. But that doesn’t mean news outlets will stick to those policies.

Poynter ethics faculty Kelly McBride said mainstream media sometimes make exceptions in high-profile cases, especially those involving sports figures. One news outlet has asked her for advice on how to handle victims’ names in the Sandusky case.

Her stance: News outlets should stick to their policies. “I can’t imagine any mental gymnastics you could do to justify naming them,” she said, considering that this is a criminal trial, in which the victims are compelled to testify, and that they were children when the alleged crimes occurred.

But it’s quite possible that the names will become public, if not at trial then in numerous court documents. That has happened already; earlier this month prosecutors included the names of alleged victims and witnesses in a public court filing, then asked that it be sealed.

McBride told me in an email:

So it’s very possible that someone will publish the names of the victims on the Internet. Those names and other information about the kids could go viral on Facebook or 4chan or Twitter.

That has happened in just about every case where someone has accused a sports figure of sexual assault, like Kobe Bryant or Ben Roethlisberger.

However, just because the name is readily available, there’s no reason newsrooms should give up their commitment to protecting victims. Editors should be wary of this, especially if they allow the public to comment on their stories about the trial, or if they embed a Twitter feed into their coverage.

News outlets have to keep their eyes on all of the publishing and conversation platforms they use, not just their websites. Should they turn off comments on stories about the Sandusky case? Should they avoid Twitter feeds that pull from people outside their staff? How will they handle their Facebook pages?

Cate Barron, executive editor of the Patriot-News, told me by email and phone that discussions in the newsroom have extended to how they would avoid accidentally photographing one of the victims outside the courthouse. “At this point, we only know the names of a few of the alleged victims, let alone what all eight look like,” Barron said, noting that alleged victims probably will be brought into the courthouse through another entrance.

“We have a longstanding policy not to name victims or alleged victims of sexual assault,” she said. “Our bottom line is, we’re going to stick to our policy as much as we can.”

That policy extends to “everything we do,” she said:

Our online editors in the newsroom and a team at our affiliated website,, will aggressively monitor comments on trial coverage as they have with everything we’ve done on the Sandusky story for the past year.

Is this a perfect system? Of course not. But we’ve been trying our best to honor our policy, and we’ll continue to do so.

A Guardian story published Friday showed how a news organization could inadvertently identify a victim. In April, the U.K.’s Sky News broadcast a story about Twitter users who had revealed the name of a rape victim. In doing so, the news outlet broadcast an image of a Twitter feed with the woman’s name. U.K. law prevents anyone from publishing the names of victims of serious sexual offenses; police are investigating.

News outlets have reached different conclusions on identifying victims in high-profile cases in the U.S.

When the woman who accused Kobe Bryant of rape re-filed her lawsuit under her own name – her first one was filed anonymously – The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News reached opposite conclusions on naming her. The Post didn’t name her; the Rocky did.

Rocky Editor John Temple explained a couple of the key factors: that it was a civil case, not a criminal case, and the woman was seeking monetary damages. Temple told Poynter at the time:

In the criminal case, we did not name the accuser because it was the state of Colorado prosecuting the case. The state, in pursuing the criminal case, was attempting to vindicate a state interest. Her accusations had been filtered and weighed by authorities, who had decided that they passed a threshold that made them worth pursuing. (Even in that case, the judge had ruled that the woman’s name could be used in the courtroom once the trial began. In other words, it would be public once the trial started.)

There remains the possibility that the judge in the Sandusky case will allow the victims’ identity to be shielded in some way. Diane Moyer, legal director for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said she believes the victims’ attorneys will file a brief seeking some measure of protection in the courtroom.

Even so, there’s a limit to how much their identity can be concealed, Ganim wrote: “If the public is allowed to listen to and watch testimony, there is a strong possibility that those who take the stand will be recognized by members of their community.”

Jury selection in the Sandusky trial is expected to begin June 5. Read more


Valérie Trierweiler, France’s new first lady, is a journalist

The New York Times
Maïa de la Baume profiles Valérie Trierweiler, whose partner, François Hollande, was just elected president of France. Trierweiler (her last name will henceforth serve as a useful shibboleth for sorting out who was paying attention in high-school French) has covered politics for Paris Match and continues to do so for French TV channel Direct 8. That’s “not widely regarded in France as posing a potential conflict of interest,” de la Baume writes. “I haven’t been raised to serve a husband,” Trierweiler told de la Baume. “I built my entire life on the idea of independence.”

Journalist-politician pairings occur stateside, despite the former profession’s well-documented handwringing over whether reporters should even register with political parties. Columnist Connie Schultz, who is married to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), saluted Trierweiler on Twitter:

Schultz took a leave of absence from The Plain Dealer in 2006 when her husband, Sherrod Brown, ran for the Senate; she returned after he won the seat. But she decided to resign in September as her husband’s re-election campaign ramped up. She told colleagues in an email: Read more


Study: Twitter users convinced of bin Laden’s death before media, President confirmed it

How did people learn that Osama bin Laden had been killed a year ago? The story is simple: Keith Urbahn, an aide to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “broke” the news on Twitter before any major news outlet reported it, more than an hour before President Barack Obama announced it:

Some people assumed the “reputable person” in Urbahn’s tweet was the former defense secretary himself. But Urbahn later said that a TV news producer, seeking an interview with Rumsfeld, told him that the U.S. may have killed bin Laden. 

In retrospect, Urbahn’s tweet looks less like an instance of breaking news and more like casual conversation. CBS News producer Jill Jackson’s tweet nine minutes later, in which she cited an unnamed House Intelligence Committee aide, appears to be the first to confirm bin Laden’s death.

Jackson may remain a supporting character in media history, however, because Urbahn’s tweet rapidly convinced Twitter users that bin Laden had been killed, according to a new research paper examining how the news spread on Twitter.

In the nine minutes between those two tweets, the percentage of tweets expressing certainty about bin Laden’s death surged. By the time news outlets confirmed bin Laden’s death about 20 minutes after Urbahn’s tweet, 80 percent of Twitter users talking about bin Laden expressed certainty that he was dead.

What made them so sure, so quickly, before the government had announced anything? It was the perceived credibility of Urbahn, whose Twitter bio says that he’s Rumsfeld’s former chief of staff.

Those early Twitter users also were influenced by the credentials of Jackson and New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, who retweeted Jackson and Urbahn.

The study spurs an interesting question: What makes people believe something is true? In this case, the perception of credibility – which can be imparted by a few words in a Twitter bio – rests on new factors rather than traditional ones, like journalistic reporting. As Urbahn shows, someone with impressive credentials can convince people something is true even if he didn’t mean to.

When the audience is more certain than the source

Just a few days after bin Laden’s death, researchers at SocialFlow described the influence of Urbahn’s tweet and Stelter’s role in passing it along. The new study, led by Georgia Tech Ph.D. student Mengdie Hu, carries that forward by assessing Twitter users’ confidence in the early rumors of bin Laden’s death.

The researchers manually classified about 300 tweets according to whether they appeared to be certain that bin Laden had been killed. They used that to train software to analyze about 615,000 tweets, which comprised about 10 percent of all the tweets about bin Laden posted in a two-hour period that night.

At 10:21 p.m., the beginning of the two-hour period they studied, just five percent of tweets that mentioned bin Laden expressed certainty that he was dead, the researchers found. When Urbahn posted his “hot damn” tweet at 10:24 p.m. – followed by Stelter’s tweet about a minute later – that spiked to more than 50 percent.

When Jackson posted her reported confirmation at 10:33 p.m., 60 percent of tweets referring to bin Laden seemed certain that he was dead. That increased to about 80 percent around the time that ABC, CBS and NBC reported bin Laden’s death about 10:45 p.m., according to the study. It rose slightly from there.

This graph shows that tweets expressing certainty about bin Laden death’s spiked after Keith Urbahn’s tweet and before it had been confirmed a CBS News producer. By the time major media outlets reported bin Laden’s death, most people on Twitter already believed it was true.

What does it mean when half of the people talking about a rumor are sure it’s true before there’s a clear reason to believe it? It’s a reminder that people don’t necessarily wait for someone to provide the facts.

“Keith Urbahn tweeted this without really thinking what the consequences could be,” Hu said. “The perceived level of certainty may not reflect the real level of certainty” of a source like Urbahn.

The study doesn’t discount the role of the media, however. Though the people who tweeted about bin Laden’s death in the first few minutes appeared to be quite sure of the rumor, that was a small group compared to the number of people who tweeted about bin Laden’s death after media widely reported the news. That’s when the rate of tweets exploded.

Inferred credibility

Jackson, Urbahn and Stelter were the most-cited users in tweets about bin Laden that were posted between 10:20 and 10:45 p.m., the study notes. Researchers speculate that their professional roles were key in propagating the information across Twitter in such a short time.

It is unlikely that an aide for [former] Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or a CBS News producer would spread groundless rumors of something so important and risk jeopardizing their reputation.

About 30 percent of tweets mentioning Urbahn’s Twitter handle included the word “Rumsfeld”; almost 19 percent of those citing Jackson’s Twitter account mentioned “CBS.”

“These people talking about this news … these are people who we are willing to trust,” Hu said.

But is that trust misplaced? We now know that the source of Urbahn’s credibility was not the source of his information.

Even at the time, he sought to downplay what he had said, tweeting minutes later, “Don’t know if its true, but let’s pray it is,” and urging people to wait to hear the president’s speech.

Urbahn told the New York Observer at the time that he didn’t believe that people relied on his association with Rumsfeld. He said his Twitter account is “very detached from my job … It’s more personal. I don’t see them as linked.”

Hu doesn’t think you can separate the two so easily. “People are using their personal accounts to talk about things,” she said, “and then we associate their personal opinions with their jobs, with their boss.”

Her conclusion challenges journalists’ conception of their “personal” Twitter accounts, which often has a lower threshold of reliability than what they tweet from their employers’ official accounts.

People follow journalists’ personal Twitter accounts because they want to be closer to the source of the information. Some users may be savvy enough to know that the bar is lower than an official news account; others may retweet journalists’ accounts just as they would an official account.

“There was a lot of guessing about bin Laden but no one wanted to say it out loud,” Stelter told the Observer. Urbahn’s tweet “allowed people to take that idea seriously.”

Stelter told me via email Monday that he first saw Urbahn’s tweet without any context tying him to Rumsfeld. He looked at Urbahn’s Twitter profile, Googled him to see if that checked out, and decided to put Urbahn’s statement in front of his 54,000 followers:

Stelter told me what factored into his decision:

I considered the following: his Twitter bio; his number of Twitter followers; his Googleable references; and most importantly, what I tweeted later: that reporters in Washington were hearing whispers about bin Laden.

That’s why I followed up with “The whispers about bin Laden are getting louder in Washington circles. The media is by and large being careful not to jump the gun though.”

The feedback loop

Last May, American Journalism Review editor Rem Reider criticized those who lauded Urbahn for “breaking” the news.

The celebration of Urbahn’s timely tweet sends out precisely the wrong message. It seems to suggest that guessing is good enough, that verification is just so old school, that simply throwing it out there is perfectly fine.

His criticism is well-placed for journalists who use Twitter as a publication platform, but not for the vast majority of users who consider Twitter a conversation platform.

The study hints at a related pitfall: how Twitter can exaggerate the feedback loop between sources and the media.

Consider how the information flowed. A TV producer called an official source to line up an interview, sharing the reason for his request. The official source tweeted what he was told, simply referring to the producer as someone “reputable.” Other media and the public at large saw that tweet as further indication that the rumor of bin Laden’s death was true.

The feedback loop is not new. What is new is that this sort of thing once happened in one-to-one interactions. Now they’re public, where anyone can read them and read into them. (The New York Observer, called Urbahn’s “hot damn” comment a “Rumsfeldian sign-off.”)

But it makes you wonder: Would things have played out differently if Urbahn had said his source was in the media?

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that the 615,000 tweets included in the study comprised 10 percent of all tweets during the two-hour period. The 615,000 tweets were 10 percent of tweets about bin Laden. Read more

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Shield law could protect Fox News mole, Gawker blogger Joe Muto

Roger Ailes may view “Fox Mole” Joe Muto as a disloyal, dishonest  ex-employee, but Muto may be entitled to the same legal protections that prevent the government from raiding the newsroom at Fox News.

If so, Muto, who was served with a search warrant Wednesday, would have something in common with another Gawker employee: Gizmodo’s Jason Chen, whose apartment was searched by police two years ago after he published photos of the iPhone 4 prototype.

The San Mateo County District Attorney later withdrew the search warrant for the evidence in its criminal investigation of the iPhone, which was legally considered stolen. Later, the DA decided there wasn’t enough evidence to indict Chen.

Like California, New York has a shield law that protects journalists from revealing sources and handing over newsgathering materials to law enforcement. Federal law also protects journalists from having their homes or offices raided by police bearing search warrants.

The Citizen Media Law Project’s legal guide says New York’s law should cover online publishing, as long as “such publication is carried out either as a business or to demonstrable professional standards; citizen journalists, as well as amateur reporting and blogging, are unlikely to be protected.”

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said it covers journalists working online because it addresses “people who are gathering and disseminating news in all known ways at the time” that the law was passed.

In introducing “The Fox Mole,” Gawker said he was “our newest hire.” Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici reported that Gawker paid him $5,000. New York’s shield law law says a journalist must be be paid for his work in order to be covered.

Moreover, the courts have generally shied away from deciding what is considered news – say, revealing inane small talk between Sean Hannity and Mitt Romney or complaining about the low-rent bathrooms at the nation’s pre-eminent conservative news outlet.

Aside from things that are outrageously offensive, Leslie said, “courts should not be determining what qualifies as news … If it’s worth printing, it’s probably news.”

Complicating Muto’s situation is that he is both the journalist and the disgruntled source. So while the shield law may protect his newsgathering materials, it doesn’t protect him from being investigated for a crime or being sued for violating his employment agreement, Leslie said.

“You don’t overcome that contractual obligation by saying you were doing it as a journalist.”

Muto’s dual role as an employee and a journalistic source is similar to that of the ABC News reporters who got jobs at Food Lion for their undercover investigation into unsanitary food preparation in the early 1990s, Leslie said.

So if the shield law could apply to Muto, why did authorities raid his apartment?

Typically, a journalist is the third party in a civil or criminal case, having obtained materials or information for his story from another person, perhaps an employee of the company in question. Chen got the iPhone prototype from someone who found it in a bar.

But the New York County district attorney’s office probably sees Muto simply as an employee under investigation for taking something from his company, Leslie said. The search warrant states that authorities were looking for evidence of grand larceny, petty larceny and computer tampering.

Gawker Chief Operating Officer Gaby Darbyshire said by email Wednesday that she believes the shield law applies in this case, which means “the appropriate way to demand any information they want in this matter is by issuing us a subpoena, not raiding our offices. But then again, who knows? Fox might be able to persuade them to do it anyway.”

Federal law also could be in Muto’s favor, Leslie said. The Privacy Protection Act prevents state or federal authorities from seizing newsgathering materials unless they believe it’s about to be destroyed.

A key legal issue, Leslie said, is whether Muto is being investigated for breaking the law by taking something from Fox News or for publicizing what he obtained. “If they’re going after him solely because he went to Gawker, then … that’s when the privilege would kick in. The privilege would help him more if what he did wasn’t illegal per se, but they didn’t like that it was publicized.”

So it would be easier for Muto to argue for the protection of information he obtained while at Fox News – say, his knowledge of what it’s like to work with Hannity, or photos of the bathroom – than materials taken from the company without permission, such as videos. The search warrant says that Fox News believes that Muto accessed and edited more than 10 videos like the ones that were posted on Gawker. (Leslie doesn’t know what Muto’s employment agreement specified.)

Even so, Leslie said, “Fox should tread very lightly before saying someone who works for a private company or another organization has a duty to never disclose that.” Employees’ decisions “of when to disclose information is very beneficial to journalists, even Fox News journalists.”

Note: The Citizen Media Law Project’s guide originally stated that the law “covers only a narrow category of people,” but it was updated after this story was published. This story cites the updated version.

Correction: This post originally misspelled Gregg Leslie’s name. Read more


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