What should you do if your interviewee asks to see the story before it is published, or else they will not speak to you?
It can be tempting to say yes but the unintended consequences can be damaging to your work, your reputation and your publication.
Journalism.co.uk looked at how editors and reporters on specialist desks deal with these requests.
The consensus is: do not let your source be your editor. As a journalist, once your interviewee has spoken to you on the record, you do not have to show them your article. However, there can be some exceptions to this rule.
New journos: because I have learnt this the hard way on a few occasions in the past and it continues to crop up during editing – do not promise copy approval to your interviewees!— Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff (@CharlieBCuff) January 31, 2021
The Chatham House Rule
First things first, if your source speaks under the Chatham House Rule, you need to follow an established protocol when reporting from the meeting. This rule is used around the world to encourage open dialogue and safe knowledge-sharing and you can use the information but not identify the speaker or any other participant.
If you want to quote anyone in particular, you will need to specify which quotes you want to use and obtain their permission before you can publish your piece.
Business and tech news
If you are going to let a subject change a piece about them, then you are not really doing journalism anymore but straight PR.Michael Stothard, Sifted
Many companies want to control their public image. Michael Stothard, editor-in-chief of Sifted, which reports on business startups in Europe, said that they sometimes receive these requests but they are quickly shut down.
"If you show it to them, it's basically an invitation for them to try and change the content. And if you are going to let a subject change a piece about them, then you are not really doing journalism anymore but straight PR," he says.
The other issue is that waiting for your source's approval can mess up your deadlines. Stothard said the furthest he would go is to summarise the main points of an article to manage expectations.
Different countries, different customs
Stothard added that because of his publication's focus on Europe, most requests come from overseas as it is "more part of the journalistic culture".
In countries like Germany and Switzerland, it is more customary for journalists to grant preview to sources. It is easy to imagine how problematic this is for different types of journalism and reporters are growing unhappy with this culture.
Germany, in particular, has long struggled with the politicians demanding to authorise copy before it goes to print, threatening to cut off access to newsrooms that deny the request. Predictably, there have been examples of political interviews that have been held up for three days waiting for sign off, adding to fears of political censorship.
Swiss freelance journalist Nicole Krättli said the practice can potentially improve trust between a journalist and their source. However, a politician with media training should not need to have their quotes authorised, while a case could be made for vulnerable sources with no media experience who want to be represented fairly.
The European divide on this subject also shows in science journalism, according to Adam Vaughan, chief reporter for The New Scientist. German scientists will regularly get in touch to check copy but it is less of an issue with UK scientists. Sometimes it will be think-tanks and NGOs asking for preview though.
Generally, these requests are denied, even if that means ditching an interview. Vaughan encountered this when pursuing a story on biodiversity with a university professor. The source would not agree to the interview without copy approval and the two were locked in a stalemate. The story was dropped in the end, as the journalist felt it would have compromised his independence.
It is not just journalistic integrity that is at stake though; it sets a dangerous precedent. The scientific community is a tight-knit one and scientists often share academic pieces with peers before the publication for last-minute tweaks. If word goes around that a journalist was willing to offer copy approval, the community would expect equal treatment from yourself and your colleagues, Vaughan warned.
The one exception to the rule, however, are subjects outside of your expertise or highly technical details.
"That's just ensuring accuracy and it's right the first time. All of us make mistakes. It's good practice if you're sometimes out of your comfort zone."
He advised journalists to defuse tension by explaining it is not personal, but an editorial policy: "Make it about the publication. This is how New Scientist, or your newspaper, works. De-personalise it."
Reporting on sensitive subjects
Showing a source your copy diminishes your professionalism and the source's respect for you.Katie McQue, investigative journalist
Reporting on human rights and migration fairly and ethically can be tricky so it may be tempting to go back to your interviewees and let them check the story.
But, according to the investigative journalist Katie McQue who frequently covers these topics for the Guardian and The Washington Post, all ethical considerations are made before you hit the record button, including the degree of anonymity you will accord to your sources. Once you make these decisions, stick to your guns. Requests made after-the-fact are a different story.
"Showing a source your copy diminishes your professionalism and the source's respect for you," she says. "A journalist's job is to research, report and write. By showing your copy to get sign off from interviewees you are also exposing how much you doubt your own professionalism and abilities."
McQue added that the sources who try to change copy afterwards are those who are not media-savvy or press officers trying their luck. She advised inexperienced journalists to stand their ground and state that what they are asking is a serious breach of editorial policy. If you are dealing with PR professionals, you can add that they should be aware of this.
"Be affirmative and don't entertain a discussion on the issue. If a source doesn't trust you to report the story fairly and accurately without seeing your draft, they shouldn't be talking to you in the first place."
Celebrity and showbiz news
However, there are some parts of journalism where getting access to high-profile interview means agreeing to certain conditions. That is the case with celebrity interviews.
Karen Cross is the acting editor of OK! Magazine, a celebrity news title published by Reach plc. She said that it is common practice for agents to insert copy approval as a contractual condition to interview big names. This generally means Q&A sections but not headlines. Intro approval requests happen but are very rare.
Sometimes the celebrity is happy to talk about their life, sometimes they only want to promote a product they have just released and usually there will be stipulated no-go areas. As the interviewee has other contracts in place, they often cannot discuss these topics with other publications for a defined period of time.
Cross justified the practice, stating it helps to gain a better interview.
"If the celebrity is confident they will be able to see their words before they go into print, they are more relaxed and open up far more to us, particularly if they are talking about a sensitive subject such as a break-up, bereavement or a health issue," she explains.
"Copy approval rarely means copy is changed dramatically and it's often very useful for getting clarity, for example, when you transcribe verbatim you can sometimes find the meaning of a sentence is unclear."
She said that if inexperienced journalists are asked for copy approval by agents, they should trust the process as they are unlikely to take out the best quotes. They are simply checking you have not twisted your interviewee's words or misinterpreted the conversation.
The video game industry is another one with a strong PR influence but you should not buckle under the pressure, according to Wesley Yin-Poole, editor of Eurogamer.
The website regularly reports on updates and new products by high-profile video game publishers, like EA, Activision or Ubisoft. Though these companies have the backing of publicists and press agents, they never ask for copy approval for stories because they know it would not be granted.
But those without press agencies, such as independent developers or former employees of large companies, may want to try their luck.
General policy, again, is to deny the request. But the video game industry has one big consideration: non-disclosure agreements (NDA) and trade secrets are commonplace. Many sources are genuinely worried about getting in trouble with former employers or burning bridges. But you could bullet-point to them the main points of the story.
If they say 'I made an honest mistake, I'm not contractually allowed to say that, can you keep that off the record?', the vast majority of times we'll work with them on that. We're not monsters.Wesley Yin-Poole, Eurogamer
"There's a huge amount of concern in the industry with retribution," says Yin-Poole, explaining that Eurogamer honours any requests made prior to an interview if the subject has outlined areas they cannot speak about. It will also withdraw comments if the source has identified something in violation of an NDA.
"The last thing we want to do is get the video game development community in trouble. We know how difficult it already is to speak out about difficult issues and contentious hot topics. We are on the side of that community," Yin-Poole explains.
"If they say 'I made an honest mistake, I'm not contractually allowed to say that, can you keep that off the record?' the vast majority of times we'll work with them on that. We're not monsters."
Reputation is really important, so you can leverage the trust of the title to put your source's mind at ease.
Reporting on communities
Ryan Butcher used to encounter this issue when he worked for celebrity magazines too, with publicists often asking to see copy, headlines and cover line in light news features. Now as news editor for Pink News, an online news website aimed at the LGBT community, requests are much fewer and far between.
He said that the publication has built such trust with the community it rarely happens. But as a general rule, interviewees are not allowed to preview stories ahead of publication as it "undermines the very principles of journalism". He accepts, however, that there are cases when it can be considered.
"We do report on a lot of issues that come from a place of trauma, such as hate crime, emotional and sexual abuse etc., and reporting on these issues with the proper context involves courageous interviewees," he explains.
Previewing quotes from stressful phone or in-person interviews could be considered if the interviewee has forgotten what they have said. Butcher added this was especially understandable among the transgender community, who feel they have been traditionally misrepresented in the national press. The other example could be 'coming out stories', though again, this has never been an issue.
"Coming out is such a unique and personal experience and so it's important to be delicate in this area," he says.
"My advice to students and young journalists who encounter this would be to trust your instincts and follow your own ethical compass. But if you are going to show anyone anything you're about to publish, let it be known that this is as a courtesy only and not for approval."
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