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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   October 1998  issue

Show Time in San Jose   

The Mercury News allows sources to see a story before publication.

By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     

Showing stories to sources before publication is usually frowned upon. Yet, Christopher H. Schmitt, at the time a special projects reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, recently took that unusual step, creating controversy in his newsroom and beyond.
Schmitt invited stock market executives to preview two early drafts of his Nasdaq stories--which ran September 6--to ensure accuracy.
``When you have a complicated story such as this one, it is always possible that there's some facet that you believed you understood but in fact didn't," Schmitt explains.
Academics call such action ``a robustness check," Schmitt says. But many journalists call it taboo.
``In terms of showing drafts of unpublished stories, we don't do that," says Bob McAuley, assistant to the editor at Cleveland's Plain Dealer.
``Editors should be doing the editing, not news sources. I think it would create an expectation on the part of the source that [he or she] can determine what goes in and what comes out."
``I feel it sets a dangerous precedent, particularly if cases get into court," says Scott Herhold, a Mercury News business writer. If the Mercury News shows a draft to one source but not another, that decision can be used against the paper, he says.
Herhold missed the lively staff meeting that took place September 3, after word of Schmitt's action circulated through the newsroom.
``There were sharply varying opinions," Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos says. ``It was a really rich conversation." Ceppos applauds the review procedure, which was Schmitt's idea.
``I just think in a story that deals with such arcane and difficult economic issues, it makes perfect sense," Ceppos says. ``In this case, there was no way that reading back pieces [portions] would have worked."
Ceppos concedes only a minor connection to ``Dark Alliance," the newspaper's tainted 1996 series, which charged that Nicaraguan contras, directed by the CIA, routed crack cocaine to Los Angeles to finance their warfare in the 1980s. The series was widely discredited, prompting an apology from Ceppos. That admission helped him garner a National Ethics in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
Like ``Dark Alliance," the Nasdaq preview has been a catalyst for ``discussions about pioneering new ways to ensure fairness and accuracy," Ceppos says.
Steve Geimann, SPJ's ethics committee chair, commends the Mercury News' effort to make sure technical information was correct. This is ``another example of a highly ethical action," he says.

Schmitt, now with the Investigative Group International, a corporate investigation agency in Washington, D.C., has previously convened panels of experts to test the validity of his findings. But neither he, nor the paper, had ever before turned over a draft.
The measure ``was not without its major hassles," says Jonathan Krim, an assistant managing editor who supervised Schmitt's work. Nasdaq officials violated an agreement for confidentiality by discussing the story with Schmitt's sources, Krim says. ``As a result, we're not showing them the final draft of the story."
Still, Schmitt maintains the benefits outweighed the risks: ``If you don't give up editorial control, if you listen, you can get a much stronger story than you would have otherwise. I think we did in this case."
Ceppos, for one, is now a strong proponent of the practice. ``I'm so impressed by how much we got out of the reviews by everybody," he says, ``that I'm going to fax drafts of my occasional columns to people I'm writing about in the future."