Letting the source call the shots

As a reporter, I was taught that people you interview give up control of their words the moment they’re spoken. This was the trapdoor model: The lid slammed shut, and even if moments later the source had speaker’s remorse, the words belonged to me. I exaggerate, but not much.

As an academic now I’m more often a source than a reporter, and I’m grateful when reporters read back what they’re going to use from our interviews. Sometimes they misheard me. And sometimes my comments—once stripped of tone and inflection—don’t really say what I was trying to say, so I suggest changes. The objective, it would seem, isn’t to record stenographically whatever I said, but to convey what I meant.

That’s a slippery proposition, but usually the point of an interview is to learn somebody’s views, not to catch them sounding stupid. Because few of us speak in well-turned prose and we often grope and fumble, the idea of a reporter’s treating an interview as a collaboration toward a common goal—clarity—isn’t a terrible thing.

So to today’s media mini-scandal, exposed recently in a disturbing New York Times article about a growing insistence among top politicos on having the last word over what’s reported from their interviews. “Now, with a millisecond Twitter news cycle and an unforgiving, gaffe-obsessed media culture, politicians and their advisers are routinely demanding that reporters allow them final editing power over any published quotations,” reporter Jeremy Peters wrote.

Peters mentioned officials who red-pencil obscenities, squeeze back long-winded comments, and insist on deletions, not because they were misquoted but because the remarks are deemed ill-timed or tactically unwise. “Organizations like Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reuters and The New York Times have all consented to interviews under such terms,” Peters wrote.

This, of course, isn’t about clarity. It’s about strengthening official control over news to where the idea of an independent, adversarial press becomes yet another fairy tale beloved by civics teachers and long-retired editors. Not only do these worthies decide when they’ll talk, what they’ll say and to whom, not only do they put certain topics off-limits and set conditions on when they can be identified—now they get one more break: They can deliberate over their comments and change any they dislike, regardless of how illuminating and publicly significant the remarks might be.

The Times report sparked a ruckus over sources vetting quotes, but it was succeeded by another, even more interesting, flap. This one involved a Washington Post reporter who submitted drafts of his lengthy article on Texas higher education to people he had interviewed to get their reactions, some of which he incorporated in the final version.

Controversy is still swirling around these cases, and the issues aren’t clear-cut. Some people, like me, fret over relinquishing editorial independence and knuckling under to the already vast power of well-placed sources. Others argue that seeking source feedback beforehand is an excellent way to avoid both factual errors and, worse, the mistakes of context and understanding that routinely make even accurate reports misleading and infuriating.

In fact, different media have long given sources greater regard than the traditional trapdoor model suggests. Many magazines employ fact-checkers, who read back comments and characterizations to unearth substantive and interpretive problems. Some documentary film-makers embrace collaboration with their subjects: If I’m telling their story shouldn’t they have a hand in shaping it?

Naturally, the value of source feedback can’t be discounted. After all, if they were worth consulting to assemble the story, wouldn’t their views on the story’s adequacy be worth weighing?

Still, there’s a huge danger of compromise and corruption, once certain people who figure in coverage are given a seat at the editor’s desk and invited to negotiate details of that coverage. And the fairness question is a big one: Who’s invited and who’s left out? Won’t this practice become another avenue for the influential to wield yet greater influence?

These aren’t easy questions, and different organizations will resolve them differently, but regardless, the importance of transparency seems undeniable. The reader needs to know. If interviews are filtered through an external editorial process to where apparently impromptu comments are no more than prepared statements, the public should know. If people who figure in a story had a backstage role in critiquing and reshaping that story, the public should know.

A more collaborative model may have its strengths, but none of them matter if it’s introduced furtively to a public that would be shocked to learn that’s how the game is being played.

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6 thoughts on “Letting the source call the shots

  1. Magazine journalists regularly engage in fact-checking by having an intern (usually) calling the interviewee to go over quotes for accuracy. It would be interesting to discover how often the quotes are changed. Of course, in daily newspaper reporting, there isn’t the luxury of fact-checking and newspapers have long since dispensed with interns. But how to combine getting it right with making sure that journalists aren’t playing “gotcha?” That is indeed the question.

    1. I agree. It’s perplexing because sometimes those slips are indeed revealing. The crux of the matter is whose judgment should prevail in deciding whether a gaffe is illuminating and should be passed along, or is a matter of needless embarrassment. I think the journalist has to insist on retaining the right to make that decision.

  2. Kudos. Very true. If we have to err, then let’s err with the trapdoor model. With the immediacy of today’s communications, if an error is made, the aggrieved party certainly has options to say his/her piece.
    As for those who insist on ‘editing’ their interviews post facto – let’s just, as a profession, refuse to interview them. Once their favourite drug has been taken from them, their addiction will force them to come around to the media ‘pusher’ without conditions.

  3. I thnk Ed’s proposal/thought is excellent. Science writers regularly have their quotes or stories checked by sources because of the newness and complexity of the subject; that’s good. However, as we get into more adversarial or critical topics, especially in politics, the audience needs to know what sort of control, if any, the source has. If a presidential candidate routinely puts her foot in her mouth, the public must know this. But if that same person simply gets tongue-tied and misspeaks on a crucial point, especially on national security, there should be some flexibility — even to the point where the writer corrects the quote and explains he has done so and why. Yeah, the journalists gotta make judgments, but we should be able to manage that. Regardless, every story of any type in which sources vet their quotes or declare certain topics off limits should have an editor’s note so stating at the beginning.

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