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When the medium isn’t the message anymore
The Old Gray Lady has spoken, and for this journalist, it took way too long for her to get up the gumption. In September, the New York Times let everyone know that all the news that's fit to print really is fit to print, whether a source likes it or not:
"Reporters should say no if a source demands, as a condition of an interview, that quotes be submitted afterward to the source or a press aide to review, approve or edit," the Times said in a new policy statement.
When the Times came out with this policy, I shared it with a few friends and colleagues. One of them, who I'll call L.P., actually gave me my start as a student reporter at Cleveland State University, but has since gotten out of the journalism game in favor of something a little less stressful.
"This is a THING?" L.P. asked.
Oh, yes, it's a thing. I'm a writer, but I can't make this stuff up. Truth is much stranger than fiction.
The Times even went so far as to refer to it as "The puppetry of quote approval," and what a show it is. As I attempt to explain this trend, I find it frustrating to describe the carefully choreographed pas-de-deux it's become. But voici, here goes.
Company ABC Inc. puts out a press release that it's acquiring another company for $500 million. I contact the media representative listed on ABC's press release to arrange an interview. I schedule and conduct an interview with ABC's CEO. All goes well, until after the interview, the media rep says, "and you will send us the quotes so we can take a look at those and make sure they are OK before you run the story?"
Cue the horror movie music. The Times finds this practice equally theatrical: "When quotations can be unilaterally taken back, the Kabuki is all but complete," writes David Carr, author of the paper's weekly Media Equation column.
"Quotation approval" might have come into practice because sources wanted to ensure that their statements are correct and properly attributed, but unfortunately, this process often goes far beyond making sure a journalist recorded your statements accurately.
"In its most extreme forms, it invites meddling by press aides and others that goes far beyond the traditional negotiations between reporter and source over the terms of an interview," says the Times.
It's true. Very rarely does a source come back and say, "You have me saying that I completed my doctorate in 1999, but it was actually in 1998." Instead, we're usually supplied with "alternative" comments that the source feels "better capture the intent and meaning behind our marketing message." That is my polite way of saying that we're told to completely scrap a half-hour-long interview, hours of transcription and days of writing in favor of completely scrubbed-down, sanitized script that is so full of meaningless marketing jargon that even the most non-discriminating reader rolls his eyes upon digesting it.
In one of the more blatant misuses of this practice I've experienced, while working for a different publication, I was required to send an entire story to a source for "review" before it went to press. That source came back, not with requested changes to his quotes, but a critique of my work: "The first few paragraphs are kind of long. I think you need to get to the point faster," he said. What he couldn't grasp is that all of our stories were written with vague "teaser" leads that ran on the cover of the publication, enticing the reader to continue on to the rest of the story within. (And I had to chuckle, being that he was a verbose attorney who required three separate interviews to arrive at his own point. But I digress.)
I am all for fair, objective, factual reporting, and whatever means it takes for a journalist to achieve that. But when sources begin asking for permission to wield even the smallest bit of control over your story, that's a problem, folks. Ask yourselves this: Which would you rather read, the real story, or the one that's been approved by a team of marketing professionals? And if we do it for you, don't we have to do it for everyone else? Are you comfortable with us honoring that request for your competitors?
So I'd like to take this opportunity to let you all know that the policy of this publication is that we may seek clarification on your statements—particularly if they involve highly scientific or esoteric subject matter—but sorry, it is not OK for you to rewrite (or allow someone else to rewrite) your comments. But I'm going to meet you all halfway, and offer you a few tips to exercise quality control over your message.
These tips will not only help you achieve the responsible media coverage you're seeking, but also help you build a relationship of trust with journalists and encourage them to do future interviews with your organization. Some other time, I'll tackle a few other prickly aspects of news reporting—such as someone insisting that you send a precise list of questions you plan to ask before the interview (and don't you dare diverge from that list during the course of conversation) and the absolutely abominable, "I'll need to see this story before it goes to press and get internal approvals from our PR and legal departments before you run it." In the meantime, I'm doing a happy dance that news organizations are finally taking a stand against a practice that is bastardizing journalism. And you can quote me on that.