By Jim Pumarlo
It’s probably happened to every journalist as least once. You’ve just completed an interview, one that took an extra coaxing to land. As you’re wrapping up, the subject asks, “Could I see a copy of the story before it goes to print?”
The story touched on a sensitive subject, and the person already had asked to have his quotations read back to him over the phone. We obliged on that request, but declined on a personal preview of the entire story.
We never received additional feedback, so assumed the person was satisfied.
It’s routine policy at most newspapers not to let a source read a story ahead of time. But by no means is it an absolute rule. We evaluated requests and circumstances on a case-by-case basis.
There can be some advantages to having an article reviewed, especially when it deals with complex, technical subjects in fields such as business, medicine and science. Editors and reporters would much rather correct an error in fact or clarify what otherwise might be a confusing section in advance rather than be red-faced after the fact.
It’s also worthwhile to consider the source. We’d be more open to considering a prepublication review when dealing with individuals not accustomed to dealing with the press. Public officials and other individuals who were regularly in the news didn’t get very far in their requests.
If you do share a story in advance, it’s good practice to stipulate that the review is solely for purposes of accuracy. Sources should not expect to be making “editorial” suggestions such as reframing the focus of the story, or adding or eliminating a quote.
It’s one thing if a story is written from a single source – for example, a personality profile – and that person is simply reviewing his or her exchange with the reporter. The greater hazard in allowing someone to sign off on a story is if the source takes exception to information and quotes supplied by other individuals contacted for the story. You can soon find yourself in a quagmire.
Newspapers frown on a source signing off on a story for that basic reason. The source can take control of the story if the reporter isn’t careful. In some markets, there is a genuine fear of the source taking the story to the competition.
On a practical level, it can be too time-consuming, especially if it’s done regularly, and it has the potential to raise havoc with publication deadlines. Do it once – and the word gets out – and it might come to be expected as routine practice. At some point that likely will lead to an argument between the writer and the source. That could undermine a relationship worse than if the reporter issued a blanket refusal to show any stories ahead of time.
Editors face the most difficult of predicaments when sources demand their “right” to review a story – after the fact– as a requisite for publication. Your initial response, justifiably so, may well be, “You agreed to the interview. We’re running the story.”
No doubt, you’re on solid ground legally to publish the story. But community journalists should think twice about the ethical ramifications. Pay attention to balancing your right to report the news with the impact on the relationships of your sources – your everyday customers, your friends and neighbors. Finding common ground will pay long-term dividends for everyone in your community.
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.