Journalists bowing to sources, betraying readers

By Tyler Davis

“Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know,” states the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Yet some reporters have been allowing their sources to comb through transcripts and decide what they do and do not want published.

Traditionally, politicians have spoken carefully in the company of journalists because the press has the power to expose the truth. A politician’s true nature can be revealed in seconds by an uncensored, impromptu response. In a 2008 interview with Katie Couric, Sarah Palin was unable to name any newspapers or magazines she reads. At an Ohio fundraising event that same year, Obama stated that some cynical small-town Americans cling to “guns or religion.” Honest, off-the-cuff moments such as these can change the course of history, which is exactly why many public figures want the power to decide what is published.

Letting sources approve or reject quotes has recently become a hot-button issue in journalism. The Romney and Obama campaigns have been asking reporters for the ability to approve the candidates’ quotes before publication, and some newspapers are fighting back. On Sept. 20, The New York Times declared that its reporters would refuse to submit quotes to campaign press aides for approval. Harvard’s daily campus newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, put a stop to quote approval in August. In a recent op-ed on CNN.com, legendary journalist Dan Rather described quote approval as a “jaw-dropping turn in journalism.”

Harvard banned the practice because interviews with university administrators had become “less candid, less telling, and less meaningful,” said E. Benjamin Samuels and Julie M. Zauzmer, the paper’s president and managing editor, respectively, in a Sept. 4 editorial.

To have a free press, journalists must be able to print the unedited remarks of powerful people. Journalists’ first responsibility is to their readers, not their sources. Giving politicians and other important figures the power to change a story reduces journalism to cheap publicity.

This is the same reason many publications, including The Chronicle, do not allow reporters to conduct email interviews unless extenuating circumstances arise. Doing so would take the sources out of the hot seat and allow them to edit themselves, producing stale and misleading quotes. On Sept. 18, Princeton’s newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, finally banned its reporters from conducting email interviews, stating that such interviews resulted in “stilted, manicured quotes that often hide any real meaning.”

While making the rounds promoting her new book, author J.K. Rowling, notorious for attempting to control her public image, asked for quote approval and required journalists given early access to the book to forego taking notes. The New Yorker and USA Today denied her requests.

The details of The New York Times’ policy could allow for de-facto quote approval practices. A memo on the policy, published by The Huffington Post, said reporters will still be allowed to conduct off-the-record interviews and later ask for permission to publish certain quotes. Although it seems Times’ reporters have the best intentions, the nature of media today will make it hard for them to stay competitive while holding to their ethical stance.

While many mainstream media outlets are avoiding quote approval, a number of journalists and bloggers do not. As long as sources have an abundance of reporters chasing them, they will likely find someone who will acquiesce to their demands. Should one journalist decide to take a stand, there will be plenty of others who will gladly step in to do the story.

The Washington Post still allows quote approval, as does The Huffington Post, Politico, Vanity Fair and the wire service Reuters, under certain circumstances. The other main wire service, The Associated Press, banned quote approval long before the recent uproar.

For more than 10 years it has been the policy of The Chronicle not to allow sources to approve quotes, with the exception of science stories in which the student journalist could misunderstand what was stated.

Allowing sources to take back what they have already said is a disservice to readers, and it would turn the role of a reporter into little more than a cheerleader or PR flack. It is important that journalists, both student and professional, deny requests for quote approval to maintain our country’s free and independent press.

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