Requests to preview copy

QUESTION: What’s the protocol when sources ask to see a copy of my story before it’s published?

Answer by Rachel Boomer

Never, never, never offer up a finished story to the pros — politicians, police, PR people. Frankly, they shouldn’t even ask. As people who deal with the media daily, they know better than to expect the right to look over or “approve” your copy before it goes to print. I extend this blanket ban to city officials, academics and scientists. No one gets the right to approve my copy but my editors.
I make occasional exceptions for victims of crime or grieving family members, and only out of kindness. These are people who have likely never spoken to a reporter before. They’re speaking to one now only because something horrible has happened to them or their family and I’m calling in the midst of it. They may be in shock when they speak with me. They may not remember fully what they’ve said afterward. In these situations, I’m always aware that they’re placing a large amount of trust in me during one of the toughest times of their lives.

I try to be as accommodating as possible without compromising my own personal sense of ethics. If they ask, I’ll sometimes read back the quotes I plan to use, or give them a rough idea of how I plan to tell their story. I only do this when I’m specifically asked. It only happens to me about once a year, or less. I’ve never had someone ask to change the wording of a quote or the meaning of a sentence after I do this. Usually, all they want is a little reassurance that what they meant to say is what will appear in the paper the next day. If I can offer them that small comfort during a traumatic time, and it doesn’t compromise my own sense of integrity, then I see no problem with it.
It may be tempting to send a finished story back to a source when you’re writing about a technical subject that you don’t understand well. If you’re worried about making mistakes, it is good practice to call the source back during the writing process. Tell them how you understand the process to work, paraphrase it in the same terms you’ve used in the story, and then ask if you’ve understood correctly. Still, I wouldn’t send an entire story to a source for approval in a case like this. Sources may be tempted to feel they can “approve” the story, to change the way you’ve written it or to insert more technical language that they may feel makes the story more accurate but virtually ensures no lay person will understand it.

Rachel Boomer has covered crime, the courts, politics and, well, virtually everything else imaginable for the Halifax Daily News. In the last 10 years, she’s found the people who ask to approve your copy before it runs are usually the ones who know better. They’re never surprised when she says no.