August 29th, 2012
Filter and vet this quote? Fuggitaboudit!
By John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President
Here’s a bad journalism habit that needs to end now.
A July 15 New York Times story described a practice said to be prevalent among reporters covering the U.S. presidential election.
The story by Jeremy W. Peters detailed how many media organizations have allowed top campaign officials to vet and alter quotes as the price of being granted on-the-record access.
If true, this practice should stop before this election cycle goes any further. It’s shameful that reporters – who presumably are among the best and brightest in their newsrooms to have drawn this assignment – could be so gutless as to go along with these pre-conditions to an interview.
Their editors – who clearly know about the practice – ought to be ashamed to have allowed this abdication of editorial control to have occurred on their watch.
Quit it. Stop. Now.
Earlier this year, I covered a political rally in East Rutherford, N.J., where David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, came to deliver an endorsement for a Democratic congressman who was an early Obama supporter.
Axelrod gave his speech, and afterward I was part of a group of reporters who were able to ask him a few questions.
None of his handlers made any attempt to impose conditions on the interview. Had there been a request to review quotes, I would have informed them that we were operating under New Jersey rules. The response would have been something to the effect of “Fugghitaboudit.”
Bear in mind, I’m not saying that reporters shouldn’t double check quotes with a sources for the sake of accuracy. I do that all the time, as I’m sure most reporters do. We want to get quotes rights.
But the practice described in the Times story goes beyond making sure a quote is accurate.
It’s more about access and control and allowing a political campaign to massage the quotes that appear in a story.
But what could a campaign official possibly have to say to make it worth a reporter’s while to allow a source to manipulate a story?
The Times story reminded me of a book that had a big influence on me when I was thinking about becoming a journalist.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of a series of stories that Rolling Stone magazine writer Timothy Crouse wrote about the press corps that was covering the 1972 campaign between President Richard Nixon and Democratic challenger George McGovern.
His stories became the book “The Boys on the Bus,” which described some of the perils so-called pack journalism.
But whatever their shortcomings, the boys on the bus never let a Nixon or McGovern staffer dictate how quotes would appear in a story.
The Times story also reminded me of a painful lesson I learned shortly after starting my journalism career.
I was writing a story on the controversy over the proposed closure of several Catholic elementary schools in northern New Jersey.
One of the people I quoted was an outspoken mother of a student who was outraged at how the local archdiocese had handled the situation.
Shortly before the story was set to run, the mother called me back, asking me to read her the part of the story where I had quoted her.
Being an inexperienced reporter, I did so. She then pleaded with me to allow her to change her quotes in order to tone down or eliminate her criticism.
She was not disputing the accuracy of what I had written. But after talking to her local pastor, she had gotten cold feet about criticizing church officials.
I reluctantly agreed even though it rendered that part of my story fairly useless after she had backpedaled away from all her previous statements.
When my editor found out what I had done, he was furious. But it was too late. The story ran with the watered-down quotes, and I learned a painful lesson, never again repeated, about letting people manipulate my story by ceding editorial control.
If the story had happened today, I would have kept the original quote but allowed the woman to later disavow her criticism.
The Times deserved credit for raising this issue. One of the Times editors is quoted as saying that journalists should push back harder against this practice.
I couldn’t agree more. By all means, let’s push back.
Kudos also to The Associated Press, the National Journal and several other media organizations that have come out since the story ran and affirmed they will not allow their reporters to engage in this practice.
The public expects us to provide them with an accurate and unvarnished account of what happens on the campaign trail. These stories are too important to allow a source to crawl into the story in this way.
I would urge any reporter asked to do so to refer back to New Jersey rules of journalism: Fugghitaboudit.
Tags: Associated Press, Barack Obama, David Axelrod, East Rutherford N..J., George McGovern, Jeremy Peters, journalism, Mitt Romney, National Journal, New York Times, quote approval, Richard Nixon, Rolling Stone, The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse