ethics / General Media / Politics

I know that's what I said, but that's not what I want you to print that I said

South facade of the White House, Washington DC...

South facade of the White House, Washington DC, as seen from the Washington Monument. The White House is the official residence and principal workplace of the President of the United States. Located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., it was built between 1792 and 1800 of white-painted Aquia sandstone in the late Georgian style and has been the executive residence of every U.S. President since John Adams. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, the New York Times pulled back the curtain on one of the uglier aspects of campaign journalism: source approval of quotes. It’s not really a surprise that campaigns try to do this. They are trying to win, and manipulating the truth is part of that process. It’s also not a surprise that journalists get caught up in the game as well. They are “on the bus” to get access to information, and the campaign holds the keys to that access.

The push and pull over what is on the record is one of journalism’s perennial battles. But those negotiations typically took place case by case, free from the red pens of press minders. 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.

Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House — almost anyone other than spokesmen who are paid to be quoted. (And sometimes it applies even to them.) It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.

The Romney campaign insists that journalists interviewing any of Mitt Romney’s five sons agree to use only quotations that are approved by the press office. And Romney advisers almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article.

Still, it’s a shoddy practice, and it would be nice if journalists, editors and producers would put a stop to it by refusing to participate. That will happen as soon as the Washington DC press corps stops using “an anonymous high-level administration official who was not authorized to speak” as legitimate sources in news stories.

John Robinson sums up what most of the editors and advisers I’ve ever worked with and for would have said:

They could say what every editor I’ve known would have said: “Hell, no, we won’t give you prior approval over your quotes. We’re going to tape it. If you say it, it’s on the record. Be responsible for your words, don’t say something stupid and you’ve got no problem.” The source could say no interview and that’d be that. But if your competitor gives in, well, you lose the story.

To bring this back to college journalism, this type of practice has crept into administration and athletic departments over time. The constant reliance on e-mail interview questions is a symptom of a need to control information and avoid saying something that looks stupid. College journalists should avoid the pressure to get preapproval for quotes or stories, with a caveat that I’ve mentioned before:

Every interview should be recorded on a digital audio recorder.

And, as a reporter, when you type out that quote from your notes, you should check it against that audio recording. I’ve heard far too many sources mention how they’ve been misquoted to know that too many of us, even if we record an interview, don’t check the audio against our notes afterward.

This isn’t really directly related to the Times story, other than the need to get the quote and get it accurately. But this sorry confession is a good enough reason to bring it up again.

(Thanks to Erica Perel for bringing the John Robinson post to my attention via the CMA listserv)

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