May 12, 2003

My One Very Minor Point Abo...

My One Very Minor Point About the Jayson Blair Case: Like Alex Jones, I find it interesting that many of the people Blair claimed falsely to interview, and/or invented quotes for, just kinda shrugged, insteg the newspaper to complain and clarify. This, at the nation's premier newspaper, in a country more anal about journalistic accuracy than perhaps any other.

What to make of it? Who knows! But I do know one way to smoke out source-feedback much quicker, and help instill a greater sense of responsibility among up-and-coming reporters -- make sure everyone who's interviewed sees a copy of the story.

Young reporters tend to view interviews and stories as a series of one-night stands, where you do your business, get what you came for, and move on before the sun comes up. This is understandable, given how journalism is usually (and not incorrectly) taught as an adversarial process. It takes a long time to learn how to calmly sit down with people you're raking over the coals, treat them fairly, and earn their respect even after the story comes out. And if you don't work a regular beat -- as is the case with too many young reporters, in my opinion -- then the temptation to stick & move is even greater. Multiply that by another factor or two when you're a foreign correspondent, filing dispatches from Lower Mumbulumbia into the void of some anonymous global wire service.

Mailing the finished story to your sources -- which, I should emphasize, I personally don't do nearly as often as I ought to -- changes this dynamic around entirely. One example: My wife, who is pretty diligent about doing this, is a frequent victim of careless and sloppy editing back at the home office (mangling the spelling of names, misidentifying captions, that kind of thing), and the way she expresses her anguish to me is "What do I tell these people when they see the story? It's so embarrassing!" If her editors were mailing out copies to the people they were misquoting, they would feel the tangible pain of their own errors.

E-mailing the url, or faxing out a photocopy, is a great way of saying you respect the source in the morning. And, that person will be 10 times more likely to A) talk to you and your newspaper again, and B) tell you freely when you screwed up. Both of these are goals any news organization should pursue. I don't know how, if at all, one might make such a practice routine at a paper like the New York Times. Force every kid under 30 to either e-mail the url, or give contact info for all sources to some busybody intern? Make every new reporter do that for the first two years only? Hire a staff of feedback-gatherers? These all seem excessive, though perhaps not as exessive as employing an "awards coordinator," or "ombudsman." And, needless to say, there are plenty of occasions where there's no use whatsoever in sending out a story to a source. But starting on an individual level, it's a pretty good habit for improving your own journalism. And editors might want to suggest it to a cub or two, especially the swashbuckling, self-conscious ladder-climbing types who are barely of drinking age and have already taken a break or two for "personal problems." Howell, my fees start at $250 an hour....

Posted by at May 12, 2003 11:02 PM
Comments

Good suggestion. Being a student journalist wannabe, I've promised to send a particular story to my sources before in the past, but never followed up on it. If anything, it might help me phrase my questions more carefully before/during interviews so my sources don't think I'm trying to push an opposing viewpoint on them.

Posted by: Rhesa at May 13, 2003 01:21 AM

In my experience, the news organizations that habitually do not do what you suggest are the "big city" types, like this washington post article, another from 1999 that I no longer have a preserved web archive source, AP and some other's I can not remember. Granted, I had no problem finding the articles, especially since the one linked above was on the front page of SlashDot as soon as I got up the next morning, also my roomate at the time had the dead-tree version sitting out for me to see . I do keep in touch with Ariana Cha, the WashPost reporter, so it is not a really big issue.

The Knoxville News Sentinel actually sent me a copy with a post card to return my feedback to the reporter (under my real name that I do not use when linked to the above handle). That was a few years before home use of the internet was common. Yea, I did not return the card, but I was a bit younger then and not quite as responsible as I am now.

However, they used this SlashDot story in print and never bothered to contact me. I really wish I had a printout of my hometown newspaper's coverage, but I have not been able to find a copy (no telling what day it ran).

Anyway, great idea and I hope others pick it up.

Posted by: Guy Montag at May 13, 2003 07:07 AM

Your wife is very good at that. I always remember how Emanuelle took the trouble to send me a copy of one of her Liberation articles where I had a brief mention. (Even though I rudely neglected to provide her with my mailing address, she took the trouble to look it up and get the copy to me.) Not only sound journalistic practice, but just plain nice.

Posted by: Moira at May 13, 2003 07:34 AM

Not long ago, I had occasion to meet a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. I asked him how he'd unearthed the story that won him the prize. He said it came from a source whom he'd made sure to contact after every story in which he'd quoted her, just to make sure she felt fairly treated by what made it into print. Because the source did feel fairly treated, or at least considerately treated, she ultimately called in with a tip that led to a massive unearthing of police corruption. So maybe this idea should be pitched to young journos not only as a way to bolster credibility but as a way to generate your stock in trade: news.

Posted by: Chuck at May 13, 2003 07:47 AM

Matt:

As a journalist, how do you feel about other journalists (or students, or bloggers, etc.) going after your sources for verification.

Carl Bernstein went ballistic when those Illinois journalism students unearthed the identity of "deep throat," calling for the school to be disacredited. I found his comment that "the last thing students in a journalism class should be doing is trying to find out who other reporters' sources are," to be the epitome of arrogance.

I'm for anything that keeps journalists -- especially those who think they're beyond reproach -- honest.

Posted by: Bill Herbert at May 13, 2003 08:17 AM

Bill -- I don't have much of an opinion about the whole Deep Throat thing (my pal Amy Langfield has posted extensively on it). Anonymous sourcing *is* a great font for potential abuse and/or laziness -- for instance, when a British newspaper story is full of beans, it's usually chock full of anonymous sources; or if an American magazine story has the *perfect* quote from an anonymous source, I often suspect a Stephen Glassism. Even when used by responsible journalists on important stories (for the sake of argument, let's nominate Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh), anonymity is used as a shield behind which people spin settle scores, wage inter-departmental wars, and generally spin to their heart's content. That said, I'm not sure chasing after Deep Throat is the most important multi-year project a pack of J-school students should be up to (I rather prefer the class that found innocent men on Illinois' Death Row)....

Posted by: Matt Welch at May 13, 2003 08:57 AM

All good suggestions, tho I don't think it would have made any difference in the Blair case. I believe there was quite a ruckus over his reporting on the sniper case at the time. At least one of his editors recommended he be fired. And yet, upper management's "diversity" agenda won out over the facts for 2 freakin years. There was no lack of information, just an unwillingness to confront one's own worldview and biases in the case of Raines, Boyd, and even Safire.

Posted by: Lloyd at May 13, 2003 09:09 AM

When I was a journalism student at the University of Missouri in the late 1980s, it was the policy of The Missourian (the daily city paper published by the J-school) to submit stories to quoted sources to verify the information for accuracy. It was controversial then, I don't know if they still follow that policy or not.

Posted by: Scott at May 13, 2003 09:14 AM

Is the Illinois computerized Deep Throat certified? Did Buchanan ever deny being the one outright?

Posted by: Cridland at May 13, 2003 09:34 AM

Scott -- Yeah, that Missouri policy sucks. I've got no problem with reading over some paraphrased stuff prior to publication for technical understanding, or if you truly don't know if your notes are right, but as a rule it gives sources the mistaken notion that they control the story. In a university setting, where idiot administrators, student council members and others frequently *believe* that, such a practice seems foolish to me.

Posted by: Matt Welch at May 13, 2003 10:10 AM

Brilliant idea. I am ashamed to recall how often - as a keen cub - I would faithfully promise an identified source that, sure, I'd mail a hard copy of the subsequent story. And failed to follow through. Not out of any self-serving impulse - just laziness when weighed against other more pressing priorities and a vague sense that this courtesy wasn't an important part of the culture of the newsroom. Not one news editor ever mentioned the potential quid pro quo of such a courtesy. It also strikes me that appointing interns or relatively lowly-paid staffers to make sure quoted sources see the published product would make a superb entry-level position for potentially talented journalism wannabes without college credentials. Like the old copy boys? (I started in journalism in the UK when you held up your hand and yelled "copy" the moment you completed a story and a teenager - almost invariably a lad then- would race to you to physically convey it to the subs. Yes, quaint as a corset to be sure- yet not all THAT long ago.) My point is that some superb journalists started as "humble" copy boys - working themselves up from the equivalent of the William Morris mailroom. So get newspapers to appoint keen-as-mustard feedback checkers.
And I bet "Jayson" is a personal re-christening.

Posted by: Jody at May 13, 2003 10:22 AM

As an intern I did mail stories to anyone who wanted to see them, but mailing them ahead of time wasn't going to fly with my editor. Matt mentioned mailing in paraphrases of quotes, and that could work. But if that's the extent of it, wouldn't it be better to just read back what you quote that person saying after you finish the interview? If they sound like an idiot in their quotes they might realize that when you repeat it; it would also cut down on them claiming they didn't say "this," because they think they actually said what they meant to say.

Posted by: Ceciurces sounds very close to getting approval for stories. You are saying send the stories to sources after they are published?

Posted by: Janis Gore at May 13, 2003 11:10 AM

AFTER PUBLICATION!! AFTER PUBLICATION!! Only in rare occasions (usually involving technical stuff, or matters of comprehension) do I ever think it's advisable to rehash details with a source prior to publication. In Hungary, it was *law* that we had to allow sources to "review their quotes," and even then we rarely did it, and even when pressed we tended to paraphrase the quotes over the phone while presenting them as a done deal.

Posted by: Matt Welch at May 13, 2003 11:41 AM

Nik -- Thanks, and you make great point about the "change the world" thing. It's not just you younguns, either -- can't tell you how many times I've been to journalism-whining sessions to watch middle-aged six-figure softies moan about how whatever they're doing is "not the reason why I got into this business." That being, of course, to change the world. As far as motivations go, the day that *"portray* the world" gains one-tenth the popularity of "change the world," journalism will be better off, I think.

Posted by: Matt Welch at May 13, 2003 04:02 PM

Why are you trying to help the NYTImes? I would prefer to let it collapse and watch the rest of the media scramble trying to find someone else to tell them what's news. (Instapundit? Naah!) It'll be fun, and, who knows, it might even be healthy.

Posted by: AST at May 13, 2003 05:46 PM

Who's trying to help the NY Times? I'm trying to get PAID!

Posted by: Matt Welch at May 13, 2003 06:12 PM

How much of the "change the world" impulse can be described as "have an actor with a transcendent, Redford-grade mandible portray me in the movie?" The central lesson of Watergate, and the bulk of Woodward's success since, is that shoe leather and an orderly file cabinet succeed like nothing else. But most of his wannabes (of whatever generation) seem to think it will be easier to just find another central figure in society and label them as corrupt. But Nixons don't come around that often.

Posted by: Cridland at May 13, 2003 09:45 PM

I'm missing something here. I've always wondered about the reluctance of reporters to allow sources to see stories prior to publication, because it seems to me that it could dramatically improve accuracy of stories. The vehemence against this simply astounds me, particularly from Matt, but perhaps because it's because I have limited experience actually reporting.

The objections stated are "the source may think that he controls the story," and "it comes close to getting approval for the story." To the first, I say, so the f*** what? Who cares if the source wants to delude themselves? The fact remains that the story will be written by the reporter, not the source.

As to the second, close only counts in horseshoes and nukes. It isn't getting approval for the story, it's just trying to get the story as correct as possible. The reporter (and editor) retain total control.

I know that there were many stories for which I've been interviewed that could have been vastly improved in both facts and tone had I been allowed to provide comments on them. I certainly wouldn't have had any expectation that all, or even any, of my comments be incorporated, or that I had any control over it, but the notion that someone would want to completely insulate themselves from any useful, even valuable feedback prior to publication I simply find mystifying.

Posted by: Rand Simberg at May 14, 2003 09:47 AM

Rand -- Well, the "so the f*** what" factor is largely practical: From experience, I can say that if you live in a society where prior review is considered normal, than you will spend an inordinate amount of time either A) letting people read your stories prior to publication, then voice objections & suggestions that you have to spend time adapting to, or B) explaining why you won't do this. Even in a society more used to a scrutinizing press, there are millions of people who don't grasp the distinction that the article isn't there to serve *them*, it's there to serve the reader. This is especially true in the case of profiles on individuals or companies. Opening the Pandora's Box of prior review means that a not-insignificant part of your job will be explaining and debating the fundamentals of journalism to people.

The vehemence about this issue is because this has become taboo. One reason it has become taboo, is that wherever prior review is institutionalized, abuses generally follow. For instance, if memory serves, magazines like Vanity Fair began allowing stars' publicists to declare certain topics off-limits, and (in some cases, I believe) actually read the story prior to publication, which means now that across *all* entertainment journalism (in publications lowlier in values & prestige than VF) this pressure by stars & publicists is relentless on journalists, shifting the balance of power between interviewer and interviewee, and leading to far worse celebrity profiling, in my view. The Harvard Business Review, if memory serves, also has or had a policy of prior review, and this led to abuses of which I forget the details.

Again, I do not have a problem with going over material with sources prior to publication for reasons of comprehension and clarity, though it is a rare case indeed when I actually do that (except in Hungary, where the practice was institutionalized and legalized enough to make it unavaoidable). Every person would write every story differently, and most good stories would certainly be written differently by the sources interviewed. If reporters knew they were going to send their next story out for prior review to all the sources in it, they would be tempted to change & soften it, to avoid time-wasting confrontation. Shoot, I barely let my *wife* read something I've written prior to publication....

Posted by: Matt Welch at May 14, 2003 10:13 AM

Incidentally, I know I read somewhere where, upon being asked at his first job interview why he wanted to become a reporter, Blair's response was, indeed, the dreaded "help make the world a better place".

Posted by: Lloyd at May 14, 2003 10:56 AM

I think there's a difference between letting your sources see an advanced copy of your story [with no gaurantee of change] and come-to-bed-with-me-and-tell-me-what-to-write-Mr.Welch(jack, not matt) kind of prior-review.

Posted by: Scott at May 14, 2003 12:00 PM

"As far as motivations go, the day that *"portray* the world" gains one-tenth the popularity of "change the world," journalism will be better off, I think."

Exactly. Observe and record -- anything else is advocacy, which is for advocates, not reporters.

By the way, Matt, did you ever hear anything more about your friend who threatened to bring the full force of Patriot Act II on you? You liberal bastard, trying to defend privacy rights...hah.

Posted by: Nik Bonopartis at May 14, 2003 12:38 PM

Sounds to me like you're making a slippery slope argument, Matt. I'm not proposing that prior review be institutionalized--just that a smart reporter might consider making sure with the source that she got the story right. I've seen too many farged-up stories to be persuaded that this is a bad idea (except perhaps, in a case in which you're afraid that the source may take some kind of prior-restraint action, e.g., through influence with your management, if they know the story is coming out in the flavor it is).

I don't know why this has to take a lot of time. You just say, "Here's the story as I understand it. I'd appreciate any feedback you have on possible inaccuracies or misunderstandings, if you can get it to me by 8 AM tomorrow. Please bear in mind that I may or may not incorporate such suggestions in the final version, and won't take the time (which I don't have) to argue as to why I didn't. Just view it as a potential opportunity."

It seems to me that there are countervailing evils here, and the prevalence of shoddy reporting, even when well intentioned, is worth giving this taboo a rethink.

Posted by: Rand Simberg at May 14, 2003 02:52 PM

Rand -- Slippery slope arguments aren't necessarily wrong. Especially the ones I agree with! And, I might argue, especially in journalism, which is never a very popular trade, and is given very uneven legal protections the world over.

Like I said, I don't rule out the prior-consultation practice at all. In fact, what I and others sometimes do, on a particularly challenging story, is sit down with key sources over and over again and say something like "look, here's what I understand, here's what I don't understand, here's my take on the whole thing ... what do you think? What am I missing?"

Posted by: Matt Welch at May 14, 2003 03:14 PM
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ot reporters.

By the way, Matt, did you ever hear anything more about your friend who threatened to bring the full force of Patriot Act II on you? You liberal bastard, trying to defend privacy rights...hah.

Posted by: Nik Bonopartis at May 14, 2003 12:38 PM

Sounds to me like you're making a slippery slope argument, Matt. I'm not proposing that prior review be institutionalized--just that a smart reporter might consider making sure with the source that she got the story right. I've seen too many farged-up stories to be persuaded that this is a bad idea (except perhaps, in a case in which you're afraid that the source may take some kind of prior-restraint action, e.g., through influence with your management, if they know the story is coming out in the flavor it is).

I don't know why this has to take a lot of time. You just say, "Here's the story as I understand it. I'd appreciate any feedback you have on possible inaccuracies or misunderstandings, if you can get it to me by 8 AM tomorrow. Please bear in mind that I may or may not incorporate such suggestions in the final version, and won't take the time (which I don't have) to argue as to why I didn't. Just view it as a potential opportunity."

It seems to me that there are countervailing evils here, and the prevalence of shoddy reporting, even when well intentioned, is worth giving this taboo a rethink.

Posted by: Rand Simberg at May 14, 2003 02:52 PM

Rand -- Slippery slope arguments aren't necessarily wrong. Especially the ones I agree with! And, I might argue, especially in journalism, which is never a very popular trade, and is given very uneven legal protections the world over.

Like I said, I don't rule out the prior-consultation practice at all. In fact, what I and others sometimes do, on a particularly challenging story, is sit down with key sources over and over again and say something like "look, here's what I understand, here's what I don't understand, here's my take on the whole thing ... what do you think? What am I missing?"

Posted by: Matt Welch at May 14, 2003 03:14 PM
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