When a journalist writes an article for publication, they have a responsibility to gather all the data available and write a balanced piece based on those facts. This requires writers to seek interviews with people familiar with the issue at hand.
Those being interviewed, however, often worry that they will be misquoted or misrepresented. This is understandable, since they often don’t know who else was interviewed, what other facts will be brought up, or what angle the article will be written from.
To mitigate the risk of being misquoted, reporters often request to audio-record an interview in order to be certain that all quotes are directly transcribed. Some journalists even go so far as to send the source their quotations in writing before publication. When a source responds in writing, this risk easily eliminated.
But the source might still believe they could be “misrepresented,” or the article might not be written as they would like, so some sources request that the journalist send them the article before publication so they can look it over, presumably because they might be able to fact-check certain statements or suggest other revisions of content.
This is sometimes known as “pre-publication review,” that is, allowing a source to review an article before it is published. Journalistic ethics, in general, discourages this practice for several reasons.
First, no matter how much you emphasize to a source that you are only sending them the article for preview purposes, you are implicitly allowing the source to give you some sort of approval for the article before it is published. If the source has editorial control over the content of the article, it is no longer an objective piece of journalism – it is a press release.
Second, the source might leak the article prior to publication. If they dislike the article, they can easily send it to a competing paper in hopes that they will write a rebuttal article or break any news before you do.
Third, if the article is particularly unfavorable to the source, they might contact advertisers or donors and petition them to drop funding unless the article is pulled.
These are all ways in which sources might exert editorial pressure over a paper if they are given pre-publication review privileges of an article.
Fact-checking does not require pre-publication review. Fact-checking requires a rigorous check of sources’ quotes against the transcript, sources’ quotes against other sources, and fact-claims against other reliable , objective sources. Certainly you can follow up with your source if you need clarification on a particular fact, but showing them even a slightly controversial article before publication will rarely result in anything but editorial pressure.
Does pre-publication review happen in the journalism world? Of course. Is it ethical? Generally not.
When writing a story for The Observer recently, I was told by multiple sources that unless I gave them pre-publication review for “fact-checking” and “quote-verification,” they would not “contribute to or condone” the article.
The source was offering quotes via written means, thus quote-verification was, for the most-part, unnecessary. Fact-checking, as I mentioned before, rarely requires pre-publication review. It was unfortunately obvious, as the source made clear, that they wished to “condone” the article, or approve it.
A source does not approve an article. It is not a press release. The Observer, and all news sources for that matter, would be incredibly boring, uninformative, and bias if we merely published press releases.
I remember as a freshman I attended a brief introduction meeting for The Heights, where I was informed that it was their policy not to allow any pre-publication review other than simple quote-verification if absolutely necessary. Likewise, The Observer generally follows that policy as well. Any responsible journalist, whether they are in college or in the professional world, should adopt a similar policy as part of their personal journalistic ethics.
Sources who refuse to comment on a story because they will not be granted pre-publication review do themselves and their organization a disservice. They prove that they are not interested in transparency or honesty; they are interested in control.
The Observer will continue to uphold its publication to high ethical and editorial standards in order to serve the Boston College community and all of our readers.