AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1996

Show and Print   

Everyone knows that showing or reading a story to a source before itís published is simply not done. But some journalists argue that ignoring this deeply rooted newsroom tradition can pay big dividends.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

I am interviewing ABC's star religion correspondent, Peggy Wehmeyer, for a story on the media and religion. The only full time network religion correspondent, she's been interviewed by dozens of national and international publications. She's a pro at giving interviews. Just before I hang up, she asks me a question.

"Would it be all right," she asks, "if I saw a copy of the story before it appears?"

I demur, reacting in horror to an entreaty to violate the newsroom taboo: Never show stories to sources before publication.

"Oh, come on," she says. "I've had people writing about me do that before. I, of course, have never done it. I would never do it. What I have done is call back and check facts or, if I have a line that's particularly nuanced, I'll read it to them to make sure it's accurate. I always ask people who write about me to show it to me first. And almost always if they do let me see the story, I find mistakes. I only correct mistakes. I never make suggestions editorially."

To show or not to show, that is the question. Some journalists conclude it's nobler to give a source--especially one innocent of the media's ways--a break rather than make them victims of their own unfortunate quotes. Or better yet, it's a practice worth doing to avoid making the annoying mistakes--getting a year or a title wrong--that can undermine an otherwise strong story.

A few journalists are willing--or eager--to show or read back an entire story before publication. Others will read back quotes or sections to reassure anxious sources, double-check accuracy and raise their own comfort level. Some vehemently oppose any kind of prepublication review, saying it cedes control of the story to the source, takes too much time, invites argument and may tip off the competition.

While reading back stories is generally condemned at newspapers, some editors and reporters will make exceptions for stories about complex, technical subjects in fields such as business, medicine and science.

One of the strongest proponents of showing stories to sources before they appear in print is Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews. For a decade, Mathews has been reading or faxing drafts of stories to primary sources when time permits.

"I've done it this long without any serious mishaps," says Mathews, a New York-based business reporter. "Every year I'm more confident about the process."

The issue of prepublication review is often the subject of heated debate at seminars held by Investigative Reporters & Editors, with present and past executive directors strongly backing the practice. "I just have a really hard time seeing the downside of this," says IRE Executive Director Rosemary Armao. Lively exchanges on the subject flare up periodically on journalism forums on the Internet.

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.

"Most newspaper people learn in school or in your first year or two that there are certain things you don't do, and this is one of them," says George Cotliar, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times.

But why? What's the harm in showing--or reading--a profile to the subject before it appears in print, asking him or her to make sure it's accurate? What if you made it clear up front that you are only checking facts and will not change quotes, that you are not asking the source to approve the tone or emphasis, simply to correct errors? Wouldn't that just make the story better?

Many journalists don't think so.

'I don't think it's ever acceptable to show stories or read back quotes," says Boston Globe Editor Matthew V. Storin. "One of the dangers of reading quotes back is the person will say, 'I didn't say this.' You leave yourself open to being pressured to change what they said." Or, says Storin, the source may have friends lobby the author to change the piece, or pressure the editor or publisher to kill it.

At the same time, Storin has no problem with calling a source back to confirm specific facts. "To go over the gist of a story [before publication] can not only be acceptable but advisable," he says.

Ed DeLaney, attorney for the Indianapolis Star and IRE, says showing a source a story "may engender a lawsuit or informal lobbying to kill or change the story. What are you really doing? You are trying to be fair, which I think you should have been doing all the way through the process. I'm not sure this one more step is necessary."

This extra step is often done on the sly by newspaper reporters, who ignore the newsroom taboo because it's their byline that's on the line. At many magazines, most notably The New Yorker, fact-checkers independently confirm the author's work, going over names, titles, ages, places and any other fact that can be pinned down. Many magazines, including AJR, don't read quotes back verbatim but will ask a source to confirm the gist of his or her remarks.

But professional fact-checking often isn't a practical option for deadline reporting at daily newspapers. And "readback journalism" works best, say proponents, for features, profiles and long, complicated explanatory or investigative stories.

Critics say reading back stories takes up too much of a reporter's time.

"I'm uncomfortable with what Jay Mathews does," says Storin. "He's probably a very patient man. A reporter takes information from many sources and distills and analyzes it. Once you start sending stories back, I just can't imagine the time it would take to hassle with each source... It would take so much time that a reporter could be using on other things."

Michael Finney, executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald, says reading back stories is asking for trouble. "When you show somebody a story, it often implies to them you are inviting their input on how to write or tell the story," he says. "That really isn't their role."

John Ullmann, an assistant journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and author of "Investigative Reporting," says readbacks could create a quagmire. At what point do you allow the source to see or hear the story? Even if a reporter is willing to "share" part or all of a story, the reporter doesn't have the final word. An editor may make a change later. Should the reporter read the story back again?

Besides "wasting" valuable reporting time, some worry that in a competitive situation a source might let the competition know what you are doing or call a news conference to upstage or deny a story before it's seen print.

Many editors and reporters will make exceptions for stories that may be a bit over a reporter's head.

Once Storin overheard a Globe medical reporter talking on the phone to a source about her story. At first he was taken aback, but now sees the merit of her approach.

"When she does medical stories with medical sources, she calls them to go over the gist of what they say," says Storin. "She doesn't show or read them the story. I consider it not only acceptable, but..it makes sense. She doesn't do it on news stories but more often on takeouts on diseases."

Ullmann, once the assistant managing editor for projects at Minneapolis' Star-Tribune, tells his journalism students it's fine to check complicated stories with sources.

"I do believe that when you have a science story, say, when you are talking about how dioxin is made, that there's nothing improper about reading back those paragraphs to a scientist to make sure the science is right," he says. "In the same fashion, there's nothing wrong with reading paragraphs about a tricky stock deal to an expert or many experts."

When he was at the Star-Tribune, Ullmann worked on an investigative project that sought to establish a correlation between telephone company lobbying techniques--meals, trips, job offers--and higher rates set by the public utilities commission. The story was based in part on a study by the paper. A month before the project ran, Ullmann submitted the study to those who would be the most upset by the results.

"But we didn't show them the stories," says Ullmann. "We showed them the data and told them the conclusions. I think people should go as far as possible as journalists to get a response from the people they are writing about. Even so far as sending a registered letter that specifies the negative things in the story."

Donald W. Meyers, a reporter for the Provo Daily Herald in Utah, is incensed by what he calls a "moronic practice."

"Who are the wise guys letting their subjects read stories before publication?" Meyers asked during an online debate. "I am getting tired of people asking if they can do that, and I've heard that there are some reporters who do that. I feel the practice turns the reporter into nothing more than a glorified secretary, and undermines the rest of us who do not engage in that moronic practice when we try to explain to someone that they cannot read our copy until their carrier throws it on their front porch."

One such "wise guy" is Joe Mathews, 22, a reporter-intern at Baltimore's Sun and son of Jay Mathews, who might be called the father of "readback" journalism. Joe, obviously influenced by his father as well as by a high school journalism teacher, used to read stories back to sources when he was a reporter for the Harvard Crimson. He prefers reading to faxing or showing stories, on the grounds that giving a tangible copy to a source makes it easier to lose control.

"It was useful in catching those tiny errors of fact and context that undermine a story when you get it wrong," he says. "When you go from your notebook--and I take pretty good notes--it's the height of arrogance to think that you are not going to introduce some error. Also, by reading back stories, it indicated I was not out to screw them, and it often kept the lines of communication open."

Mathews wrote a three-part series that was critical of Harvard's freshman writing program. When he read it back to a key program official, he recalled, she groaned at several passages. "She thought the series on the whole was unfair and too critical," he says. "But at the same time, I think, she appreciated my effort enough that she continued to talk to me."

Mathews, like his father, made it clear at the outset that he wasn't calling to argue about the piece, nor would he change quotes. He simply wanted to make sure the facts were correct. "The danger, of course, is if you are not strong and clear that you are doing it to double-check and not promising to change anything," says Mathews. "I didn't argue with people on the phone. I just noted what they said and then checked it out."

Mathews says he read back stories dozens of times at the Crimson and never had anyone argue that the thrust of a piece was wrong. Now at the Sun on a two-year internship, Mathews says he's not allowed to read back full stories although there is no written policy prohibiting the practice. "I don't advocate reading stories back," says Sun Managing Editor William K. Marimow. "But I encourage reporters to read back quotes."

Marimow opposes readbacks because they can provoke arguments. He believes after a story is reported, it's the journalist's job to decide what to include and exclude and how to write the story, based on his or her understanding of the truth. "Once a story has been written, to give a source a second shot at arguing with you, I think is debilitating," says Marimow. "It just makes me squeamish to have a subject in a position to argue again over how you interpret the facts."

What it comes down to is how much power the source has, says Ralph Barney, a communications professor at Brigham Young University. Barney generally supports reading back stories but warns that there are pitfalls. "You have to decide if the person you read something back to has more power than you do," he says. "If he has the ear of the publisher or editor, then despite your feelings that the story is right, it might not be published. In that case, the damage is greater than the good that would come out of it. When you are talking national politics, you might not have the power inequity. But in small towns, the publisher is often good friends and plays golf with the mayor or advertisers, and it could be a problem."

Jay Mathews first read a story to a source when he was the Washington Post's Los Angeles bureau chief in 1985. A college friend had tipped him off to a story about an Indian tribe's struggle with a power company.

"I feared a careless mistake on my part might hurt him in the sensitive world of tribal politics," Mathews wrote in the September 1985 issue of Washington Journalism Review (now AJR). " 'Listen,' I said to him. 'I'm going to read this story back to you, and I want you to tell me if you spot any factual errors. But whatever you do, don't ever tell anyone that I did this.' "

That got the senior Mathews thinking. What's wrong with reading back stories? He asked his mentor, the late Washington Post Managing Editor Howard Simons, what he thought of the practice. "It's a LOUSY idea," Simons replied. Simons believed readbacks were the mark of a lazy reporter relying on a "cowardly device" to protect himself. But none of the criticism has convinced Mathews to abandon the practice.

Robert G. Kaiser, now the Post's managing editor, gives Mathews a green light to read stories back. "I've never had a problem with Jay doing what he wants to do," says Kaiser. "But I'd never tell any reporter they had to do it. It can be wildly impractical. In many situations, it can open the door to endless haggling. I've got a lot of confidence in my reporters to get it right the first time."

Mathews says he reads stories back "whenever I have time to do it. When I do a daily business story, I don't do it. If I do a feature, I fax it to the principal in the story. I simply want him to tell me if he sees any factual errors. If they want to argue about the thrust or tone, I'd listen but I tell them I'm not going to change anything. This is a process that doesn't catch the big mistakes. What it does is catch a lot of the little niggling things on the fringe of a story."

Mathews says that even in the case of a negative story, sources often appreciate the extra consideration.

One time, though, the practice backfired. About eight years ago, while based in Los Angeles, Mathews was working on a story about a political candidate who had been accused of bribing an opponent to quit the race.

"The campaign manager of the accused candidate gave me a detailed account of what happened at the meeting where this bribe supposedly took place," recalls Mathews. "I wrote a story that put her in a more favorable light than she had been portrayed up until then."

Before the story was published, Mathews read it to the campaign manager, who promptly called TV stations and newspapers to say the Washington Post was running a story exonerating his candidate--before the story appeared. Mathews had scooped himself.

Fortunately, he adds, "by virtue of my being in L.A., my editors never heard of it."

One newspaper where readbacks are standard procedure is the Missourian, run by students and faculty at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and circulated in the city of Columbia. They call it the Accuracy Check, and every reporter at the 5,000-circulation, six-day-a-week teaching newspaper is required to check edited copy with the original sources.

"Where it goes beyond fact-checking is, we have them read or show enough of the story to make sure it's fair and used in the proper context," says Managing Editor George Kennedy. "In many cases, in fairly complicated or sensitive stories, we'll show the whole story... The Accuracy Check gives us a better chance of making sure we have all the stuff right, and we've been able to consider the counterattacks before publication."

Student reporters are no more eager than professionals to read quotes back to sources. "There are some reporters at my little paper who I'm confident absolutely don't do it," says Kennedy. "Our policy is to keep in mind they are students. If we publish a story that's wrong and it isn't Accuracy Checked, then they face a grade reduction."

Five years ago Kennedy surveyed sources in Columbia. He learned that the Accuracy Check was not only popular with sources, but also was a great public relations tool for improving the relationship between the newspaper and the community.

Armao, IRE's executive director, says she would never do a big story without showing it to the main sources. When Armao was at Cleveland's Plain Dealer in the late 1980s, she wrote a piece explaining that sex offenders were as likely to commit crimes after serving prison terms as they were before. She focused on one offender. Armao showed his parents the story before it appeared because of the generous access they had given her.

"My deal was to [let them] read this for any factual errors," says Armao. "I told them, 'You may comment on the tone or emphasis, and I'll listen to it. But I don't have to follow it because it's my story.' I also told them they were seeing it before my editor and he might change it."

They only balked at one aspect. "I had all this stuff about their son watching little girls, picking them up and stuffing them in the car," recalls Armao. "They asked me to change one thing because they were afraid their son would be killed in jail. I took out that incredible detail that when his parents would visit him, he'd look at little girls visiting other prisoners and know the urge was still there."

She doesn't regret the decision, saying it became a matter of conscience. "In a way, you could say the whole story was weaker because you submitted it to review," says Armao. "But had I not done it, I would have thoughtlessly endangered this man's life."

Armao also believes that it is better to read back a story than to fax it. When a reporter reads the copy, the source concentrates on catching factual errors rather than trying to change the tone, she says.

She scoffs at the criticism that reading back quotes or stories is time-consuming. "That's ridiculous," she says. "Reporting is time-consuming." As for the risk of sources seeking to change quotes, she argues that when that happens, she often gets a "better quote, a juicier quote." And, she notes, people often lobby to kill a story based simply on the questions they are asked.

Armao's predecessor at IRE, veteran investigative reporter Steve Weinberg, also lets people read what he's written before it's published. "It just opens all kinds of doors..and it promotes accuracy and it gets me all kinds of information," he says.

Checking quotes sometimes eases a source's apprehension, say journalists. Elizabeth Greene, a news editor at the biweekly Chronicle of Philanthropy, says her paper does so when a crucial source is nervous about being quoted. "But we aren't going to let them redo the interview," says Greene. "We will let them refine the quote a little bit if they want. If we got something wrong, we'll correct it. We won't let them change the tone."

At National Geographic, sources are faxed, mailed or read their quotes before publication, says spokeswoman M.J. Jacobsen. "If you are quoted saying, 'When he came down he was wearing a red jacket,' when in fact it was blue, we will change it for accuracy," says Jacobsen. "We don't change for cosmetic reasons. Since the magazine is a lasting resource for a lot of people, we make factual changes."

Reporters often check back with sources before publication to reassure themselves. Few tell their editors beforehand what they are about to do; many consider running quotes by sources or telling them the thrust of a story an integral part of the reporting process. No one interviewed said they did so to gain a source's approval.

"I might call somebody up and give them the gist of what I'm writing," says New York Times investigative reporter Jeff Gerth. "But I'd only read or paraphrase a section with them that relates to something they are directly involved in... I might read a synthesis on a specific point to get a better comfort level.... Someone might say to me, 'Gee, that's not quite right,' and then you get a better story. But that's done early in the process when you are first bringing your thoughts together."

David Burnham, a former New York Times reporter and author of "Above the Law: Secret Deals, Political Fixes and Other Misadventures of the U.S. Department of Justice," showed major sources parts of the book before it was published. In one instance, it paid off.

One source's lawyer "read it and said I'd gotten something turned around," says Burnham. "This happened before that happened. It was not a crucial point, but I personally don't see the harm in doing this. Presuming you are not letting the target control the story. That's the key."

"When you do a big deal investigation," says the Missourian's Kennedy, "you go to great trouble to get the big points right. But more often than not, you get tripped up over a little thing like a date or a title or a misunderstood quote. That's often what gets you into court."

New Jersey journalist Carla Cantor often runs quotes or sections of controversial stories by sources. In December, Cantor wrote a freelance story for Newark's Star-Ledger about a prenatal procedure called chorionic villus sampling (CVS) and its link to birth defects. She read back sections but did not show the story to her sources. "It was a very technically confusing and controversial story," says Cantor. "I wanted to make sure each side felt that I had summarized their position accurately."

Cantor, whose book "Phantom Illness: Shattering the Myth of Hypochondria" was published this month, faxed most experts quoted in her book the chapters in which they appeared.

"I wanted to make sure that the way I interpreted their research for a lay audience accurately reflected their point of view," says Cantor. "There were only a couple of little things that they wanted to change." And it made her feel more comfortable about the accuracy of a book she'd spent two years working on.

Many, including Cantor and Gerth, wouldn't necessarily read or paraphrase their work to savvy sources, especially politicians who are well-schooled in dealing with the media. But what about those who may be speaking to a reporter for the first time?

Alex Johnson, a copy editor at the Washington Post and a former reporter, believes those sources need special consideration. He recalls when his mother, then an official in the American Cancer Society, was interviewed by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution about three years ago. She was terrified.

"It drove home to me that most people have never talked to a reporter," says Johnson. "They don't know that the first thing that comes out of their mouth is going in the paper. The culture we have in this business is if you say something stupid the reporter too often thinks, 'Gotcha!' If I have a reasonable suspicion that the person slipped up because they were not familiar with the process, I'm willing to let them change the quote, not necessarily to avoid embarrassing them but to avoid misleading the reader...

"Reading a quote and changing it for accuracy is not the same thing as giving the source veto power. Extending a courtesy is not extending editorial control."