QUESTION: Some journalists willingly share quotes and stories with sources before publication. The argument is that it helps with confirming complicated facts and assuring accuracy. I’ve always been taught to never share my stories with sources prior to publication. What’s the proper practice and why?
ANSWER by Lindsay Kines, a long-time reporter who covers social issues for the Victoria Times Colonist.
At the risk of sounding like any number of politicians that I’ve interviewed over the years, I come down firmly in the middle on this one.
Like you, I was taught never to share stories or quotes with sources before publication. The danger, of course, is that the source will try to retract or change their quotes, or in extreme cases, try to get the story killed before it appears. There is also the potential threat to your independence, since people might assume, wrongly, that by running something past a source before publication, you’re somehow giving them the power to censor your work.
Despite those concerns, I’ve found over the years that it’s beneficial, in some instances, to read-back quotes and, occasionally, sections of stories to sources in order to ensure their accuracy. This is particularly useful when writing about science, medicine, statistics or other complicated issues. It’s probably best to check with your editor to see whether this practice is permitted at your organization, but many media companies have ethics policies that permit selected fact-checking. The policy at my own newspaper, for instance, states that “writers and editors should not allow sources to read stories before publication. From time to time it is useful to have a source examine a passage of a story for accuracy. This is most likely to happen in stories dealing with technical, scientific or legal matters.”
In the limited number of instances where I do run stuff past a source, I try to avoid potential pitfalls by making it clear from the outset that I’m not surrendering control of my story. They don’t get to hear what other people in the story are saying, they don’t get the right to change or retract quotes, and they can’t retroactively move something “off the record.” But I am willing to correct factual errors or alter the wording in places where I’ve taken comments out of context or done a poor job of explaining the way something works. Generally, my conversation with a source would go something like this, “Look, I can’t send you the story or read the entire piece to your over the phone, but I’m happy to give you a sense of how I’ve used your
comments to make sure that what I’ve written is accurate.” I’ve rarely had problems with sources. More likely, they’ve saved me from making an embarrassing blunder and having to write a correction for the next day’s paper.
In addition to ensuring a story’s accuracy, the practice of double-checking parts of a story with a source has a number of side benefits. For one thing, your willingness to do this might convince a reluctant source to talk. It also builds trust with sources that you hope to use for future stories. Once they see that you’re scrupulous, they’ll be more likely to tip you off to
another story. I found this to be especially true when I was on police beat. Far from being annoyed by my persistence, many of the officers I dealt with seemed to appreciate the fact that I called back to double-check the facts or see whether I had described a particular incident properly. Not only were they willing to talk to me again, but they put in a good word for me with other cops as someone who could be trusted to get the facts straight.
In a few instances, I’ve also read quotes and sections of a story to a source to show them what I already have from other people as a way of convincing them to go on the record. Once somebody sees that they won’t be alone in speaking out about a particular issue, they are sometimes more willing to be quoted.
Finally, in rare cases, I’ve shared a draft of an entire story with a source. Usually I’ve done this when writing a narrative feature that recreates scenes, and describes what somebody was thinking and doing at a particular moment in their life. In these cases, where people have opened up to me and shared very personal stories and thoughts, I felt it was only right to try make sure that I portrayed the events accurately and captured, as best I could, what they experienced. Again, it’s probably best to clear this with an editor first, and never speak of it when meeting with former journalism instructors.
Lindsay Kines covers social issues for the Victoria Times Colonist. He has been a reporter for 28 years, with previous stints at the Brandon Sun and the Vancouver Sun.