Opinion Columns & Blogs

November 15, 2009

Want to see a story before we print it? Don't even ask!

I came across an article in The New York Times several days ago that raised my journalist's hackles. Here's how it started:

"The school newspaper at Dalton, a private school in Manhattan, contained a cryptic note from its editors last Friday.

" 'We are not able to cover the recent visit by a Supreme Court justice due to numerous publication constraints,' the note said. It promised 'an explanation of the regrettable delay' in the next issue.

"It turns out that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, widely regarded as one of the court's most vigilant defenders of First Amendment values, had provided the newspaper, The Daltonian, with a lesson about journalistic independence. Justice Kennedy's office had insisted on approving any article about a talk he gave to an assembly of Dalton high school students on Oct. 28.

"Kathleen Arberg, the court's public information officer, said Justice Kennedy's office had made the request to make sure the quotations attributed to him were accurate.

"The justice's office received a draft of the proposed article on Monday and returned it to the newspaper the same day with 'a couple of minor tweaks,' Ms. Arberg said. Quotations were 'tidied up' to better reflect the meaning the justice had intended to convey, she said."

School officials told The Times they had no problem with the prepublication review — "Fact-checking is a good thing," the school's head was quoted as saying.

But the story (online at www.is.gd/4UsSZ) also quoted Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center, who said, "Obviously, in the professional world, it would be a nonstarter if a source demanded prior approval of coverage of a speech."

I'm 100 percent with LoMonte on this issue — and not just on coverage of speeches, but on any and all stories journalists do. And it should be no different for campus newspapers, where young journalists are more mature and responsible than many might think, where some are able to vote, and where faculty advisers oversee their work.

Requests — or demands — to review stories before they're published don't just involve Supreme Court justices and high school papers. Most newspapers get them — and when we do, our answer always is a polite but firm "no."

You might wonder why editors and reporters are so adamant about not letting sources see a story before it's printed. After all, maybe they'll spot an error of fact, right? That may be true — but it's about the only good thing that could happen. More likely, though, they'll want, like Kennedy, to "tweak" and "tidy up" quotes — or worse, seek to remove or downplay things they don't like, add self-serving content, or otherwise manipulate the tone and focus of the story.

Thus we stick with our polite but firm "no."

We also work very hard to make sure our stories are as accurate, fair and complete as possible.

Reporters are expected to double check information and double back with sources for clarification on things that don't make sense. They are expected to take diligent notes, and ask for supporting documents. They are expected to be precise with quotes. And their stories usually are read by at least two editors, who often have questions of the reporter.

When someone calls to complain that they were misquoted or that there were factual errors, we follow up on their complaints by reviewing notes or transcripts, checking reports and Web sites, and listening to or watching official recordings of meetings and events.

If there was an error, we'll correct it — whether the mistake was ours or originated with the source or someone else.

And if the information wasn't in error — as often is the case with quotes, where what someone said wasn't what they thought they said — we'll let the person know.

What we won't ever do is let you review a story before it's printed. So don't even ask.

Vasché, The Bee's editor and senior vice president, may be reached at 578-2356 or at mvasche@modbee.com.

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