“It may seem obvious, but it is still worth stating: The first draft of history should not be rewritten by the people who make it.”
Powerful words, written by a New York Times reporter in September, about an ongoing practice in journalism that skews the pure journalist/source interaction that it is based on — quote approval.
This practice, often condoned in exchange for access, allows a source to review the quotations gathered by the journalist during their interview, giving them the power to manipulate or omit them entirely.
Earlier this week, I completed yet another requirement for my undergraduate journalism major — a course entitled Media Law and Ethics. After an entire semester of reviewing cases and pondering over various ethical dilemmas, I can firmly say that I have a better understanding of my duties as a journalist — to serve the public interest by seeking out the truth and to do so while maintaining my credibility and integrity.
The practice of quote approval, however, undermines these very principles.
It is especially harmful when condoned in political reporting — a topic that has appeared on the front page of The New York Times and prompting discussion about the integrity of well-established journalists, such as Michael Lewis, who recently wrote an in-depth profile of President Obama.
In exchange for agreeing to White House approval of his story, Lewis was able to live out any journalist’s dream — spending eight months as close to the president as possible, conducting multiple interviews, accompanying him on foreign and domestic trips aboard Air Force One and even playing with him in a game of basketball.
But all of that came at a price.
There were certain moments — the president tearing up at a movie after a long day — that the White House would not allow into the story. Although it’s understandable why the White House wouldn’t want Lewis to portray the president as weak or overly sensitive, it presents an instance of omitting the truth.
By giving up the complete control of the story that he or she is entitled to, the journalist becomes an accomplice in PR representatives’ campaign of projecting the best image of their client, which may not be the most honest portrayal.
In certain situations, quote approval actually benefits rather than damages a story.
Science reporter Richard Preston, for example, often reads drafts of his stories to his subjects, welcoming the changes that they dictate should be made. This form of quote approval, however, benefits the public interest because Preston does it with the intention of ensuring that the technical data that appears in his stories is as accurate as possible.
It is when the practice skews or hides the truth that it becomes problematic.
Fortunately, the press has, little by little, taken steps against quote approval. In September, The New York Times changed their policies, banning quote approval entirely.
“The practice risks giving readers a mistaken impression that we are ceding too much control over a story to our sources. In its most extreme forms, it invites meddling by press aides and others that goes far beyond the traditional negotiations between reporter and source over the terms of an interview,” said a memo circulated to the staff.
But it’s not only up to major news organizations to elevate the standards of the press.
The Harvard Crimson, the student-run newspaper at Harvard University changed their policy on quote approval (weeks before the Times), which had previously allowed university administrators to manipulate or go back on their words.
“Quote review runs counter to the most important principles of openness and truth on which journalism is grounded,” said E. Benjamin Samuels and Julie M. Zauzmer, president and managing editor of the paper, in a letter to readers.
There exists no legally binding or universal ethical code that all journalists must follow. Instead, it’s up to individual news organizations to decide what to do.
While major publications like Vanity Fair, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post continue to condone quote approval, grand gestures by publications as big as The New York Times and as small as The Harvard Crimson to ban it are important.
They remind journalists of the fundamental qualities behind their craft — service to the public, carried out with integrity, objectivity and credibility.
All media organizations and individual journalists — hopefully — will soon follow suit.
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