Reviewing quotes opens Pandora’s box

“I’ll answer your questions if I can see my quotes before the story is printed?”

That question – and how to answer it – has become one of the summer of 2012’s hot buttons in the media world.

Reporters from the New York Times and other top news organizations have admitted that both presidential candidates aren’t asking – they’re demanding.

And reporters who don’t want to lose access to the candidates and their staffs are agreeing.

It has been a common request during my nearly 40 years as a journalist.

In the 1970s, I was taught the answer should always be “no.” Period. No discussion.

Open up that Pandora’s box and you’ll never be able to succeed as a journalist.

Think about it. If you show one source the quotes you’re going to use from an interview, how can you say “no” to another? Word gets around.

And if you can be forced to show a source their quotes, they’ll want to see other information from the story. Then they’ll want to see the whole story.

You’ll soon have a reputation as a reporter who can be pushed around, dictated to. The news source is in control, not the reporter. That’s not journalism, it’s stenography.

It’s better to just say “no.” Period. No discussion.

Okay, that was the 1970s, and that attitude probably continued through the 1980s. But the world was beginning to change. By the recession of the early 1990s, when newspapers really struggled financially, journalists were beginning to turn a different cheek.

Circulation was declining, and publishers were searching for reasons. Maybe we’ve been too arrogant, too uncompromising, too adversarial, they wondered. So journalists were asked to be kinder, gentler, more cooperative with sources.

After all, what’s more important – your ego or getting the facts right. Why not let a source review the information and comments you gleaned from her, so she can set you straight if there’s a mistake or a misinterpretation.

By the 1990s, I was a newspaper editor, advising my own staff of reporters on how they should handle that question from a source.

I had changed my tune slightly, saying that it was up to each individual reporter, based on their relationship with each source, to negotiate that territory. Generally, the answer should be no.

But sometimes it makes sense to give in, especially if the topic is complex and the likelihood of mistakes is high.

And you always have to weigh the cost-benefit ratio. Is it the only way to get the story? Is the story worth the possible “Pandora’s box” fallout?

Fast forward to 2012.

Now I’m the adviser to a student newspaper – The Agora at Monroe County Community College. I’m helping student journalists learn the basics of the news biz – and guess what question comes up regularly.

Just as presidential candidates are hyper-sensitive about how their campaigns are portrayed in the media, college administrators are nervous about how they will be quoted in the student newspaper.

Talented, experienced professional journalists sometimes make mistakes, inadvertently misquoting a source. With student journalists, it’s common. They’re learning, and you learn by trial and error.

And, of course, there are plenty of times when sources – whether presidential candidates or college administrators – are quoted accurately and later scramble because their words don’t look so good in print.

For whatever reason, faculty, staff and administrators at MCCC often ask the question: Can I see the quotes from me that you’re using in the story? Can I see any facts that came from me? Can I see the story?

Although the situations are light years apart, I think the advice I give the students also would work for the professional reporters covering the presidential campaigns.

Yes, it’s okay to have a discussion about sharing quotes and facts from an interview – in the spirit of accuracy. On a limited basis, it makes sense. If you’re interviewing a nuclear physicist on sub-atomic particles, it might be a good idea to make sure you got the scientific terms right.

But it’s wrong to have a blanket acceptance of source review of quotes and facts. The reporter loses too much – he becomes that stenographer I mentioned earlier.

It doesn’t serve the nation when coverage of our presidential campaign is filtered through the candidates themselves.

And it doesn’t serve journalism education when college students are denied the opportunity to learn the hard way to get it right.

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