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Five Reasons You Should (or Shouldn’t) Share Stories With Sources

Photo credit: EdMedia Commons

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EWA invited two veteran journalists to share their thoughts on whether reporters should offer to share drafts of stories with their sources before publication. Jay Mathews, seasoned education reporter with the Washington Post, has been a long-time proponent of story-sharing. Diane Rado, a veteran education reporter with the Chicago Tribune, is an adamant opponent. Both debated the topic on the EWA K-12 listserv this week.

Why you should share your stories.

Jay Mathews, Washington Post:

  • Because your stories will be more accurate. The process catches small misunderstandings that can still have a big impact, like the source who told Woodward and Bernstein a fact, but the fact got buried by their failure to check with their source whether it was true, as they reported, that the source had given that fact to a grand jury. He hadn’t told the grand jury because they didn’t ask him that question. It was a huge, but fortunately temporary, blot on their investigation.
  • Because it will lead your sources to have more faith in you and give you more good stuff.
  • Because it will help you sleep at night, wondering if you did all the checking you ought to have done.
  • Because sources are almost all good people and respect your effort to get to the truth, even if it hurts them
  • Because the few sources who are not good people are going to try to screw you whether you do this or not. You will have to tell them eventually the main thrust of your piece in order to get their reaction, so why not include the whole piece? If they correct a detail before publication, you are that much more ahead of the game.

Why you shouldn’t.

Diane Rado, Chicago Tribune:

  • This practice opens the door for prior censorship, something most of us learned about in j-school law classes. I don’t believe that any savvy source/p.r. person will view this exercise simply as “fact-checking.” They’ll see it as a way to reshape the story to suit their interests and provide their spin. After all, it’s their job to present their interests in the best possible light. Our job is to present all sides fairly and accurately without improper influence from any one source.
  • Although we cultivate and appreciate our sources, we don’t work for them or their interests. Journalism is a public service. We work for the public, and the public expects us to provide fair and accurate news and analysis without improper influence from sources who may have their own agendas and want to “edit” our stories. In pursuit of our public service agenda, we can get help from newsroom editors and fellow reporters who are skilled in the journalism profession and understand journalism’s public service mission.
  • Sharing drafts prior to publication can spark legal issues that open the door for libel lawsuits. An informative and beneficial analysis on this issue was provided by Frank D. LoMonte, Esq., Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, which should be distributed to all reporters who have been following this debate.
  • There are myriad ways to fact-check a story without providing sources a full draft prior to publication. I talk repeatedly to sources, review my notes and my understanding of issues, reread public records, and recheck all data in my spreadsheets, among other practices. After my story is written, I go line by line through the copy to ensure the accuracy of words, phrases and quotes. It’s a very tedious process, but it works
  • I consider it unethical and inappropriate to share a full draft of a story with sources prior to publication. But if a journalist chooses to do so, full transparency is a must. There should be a note on the story disclosing to readers that the story was previewed by sources (and I’d name each of those sources in the note) and that those sources were allowed to make and/or suggest changes prior to publication of the story. I would let readers know which changes, if any, were made to the published version of the story as a result of this exercise.

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.