July 25, 2012

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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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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