Thoughts on journalists checking drafts with sources
I received a phone call yesterday from a writer for a local community-oriented, general-interest publication. Pololu is one of a dozen or so companies she was covering in an article about technology-related companies in southern Nevada, and she asked some basic questions about Pololu and how we might be relevant to Las Vegas-area locals. She then asked if there was anything else I would like to add or have mentioned about us. I answered that since I wasn’t really clear on what this article was going to be or what the intended audience was, I did not know what would be appropriate or interesting. I suggested that she could send me a draft of her article so that I might have a better context for giving her additional info.
She responded as if I had said something ridiculous. I was quite taken aback by her hostile response to what I thought was an innocuous and helpful suggestion, and I reacted in my typical way by questioning her response. She made appeals to journalistic integrity or independence and seemed to be of the mindset that it was unthinkable for the subject of an article to be in control of it. I protested that my giving her feedback, which would likely be about objective facts (it’s sad how many times articles cannot even get “Pololu” spelled right) and which she could choose to ignore, would hardly constitute control over her article. We argued for a few minutes, and I asked whether this was a case-by-case call for her or whether it was even her call as opposed to some editorial policy; she basically said she was not going to debate ethics of journalism with me and that she was done with the call: she’d call me once she’s done with the article if she had any facts she wanted to check. It was a bizarre and abrupt conclusion to what had started out as a friendly, casual chat.
I recounted the incident on an internal company chat room and talked to others at Pololu to see if anyone had encountered anything like this before. Some web searches showed that the writer’s response was probably typical but at least somewhat debated among journalists. This nearly 20-year-old article by Alicia Shepard in the American Journalism Review indicates that showing drafts to information sources has long been a point of contention among journalists and that while “Everyone knows that showing or reading a story to a source before it’s published is simply not done", the stance is more mystical assumption than principled policy:
The issue of prepublication review is often the subject of heated debate at seminars held by Investigative Reporters & Editors, with present and past executive directors strongly backing the practice. “I just have a really hard time seeing the downside of this,” says IRE Executive Director Rosemary Armao.
Lively exchanges on the subject flare up periodically on journalism forums on the Internet. No one quite knows how the newsroom taboo originated. It’s transmitted more through osmosis and lore than handbooks and ethics codes. Somewhere along the line most journalists have it hammered into their heads that when sources ask to see a story before publication, you stifle a laugh and inform them that it just isn’t done. Alicia Shephard
This five-minute call yesterday probably constituted a substantial portion of all my involvement with or exposure to any of the creation side of professional journalism, so I have no idea about what is standard practice or how fair that AJR article is in presenting the arguments against prepublication review. I do not personally know any professional journalists, so online articles and discussions are the main basis for my impressions. Looking at other more recent articles and comments (like this one and this one) leaves me very disappointed in the apparent views of many professional journalists.
I should stress that I appreciate that there is a multitude of valid reasons not to release early drafts, from examples as simple as logistical impracticality to scenarios where national security might be jeopardized. However, the existence of such cases does not justify the wholesale condemnation of the notion as fundamentally invalid. I see two troubling themes in arguments or claims against prepublication review:
- Hubris I see at least two variants. The more direct one is journalists just thinking it’s their job and their expertise to report or write the story, and they don’t need someone else telling them how to tell “their” story. The less direct version of journalistic arrogance is represented by Boston Globe Editor Matthew V. Storin in that AJR article: “Once you start sending stories back, I just can’t imagine the time it would take to hassle with each source… It would take so much time that a reporter could be using on other things.” The “hassle” part alone might just indicate laziness, but the last sentence betrays the underlying sense of self importance that pervades many of the comments I saw. These journalists are concluding either that getting the truth is not particularly important to them (which I don’t think is generally the case) or that the chance of their being wrong is so slim that it is not worth checking.
- Laziness Here, too, there are at least two variants. The simple excuse is, “It takes too much time!” The more insidious version is, “It’s difficult to figure out what to do if a source doesn’t like the draft!” I lump this under the laziness theme because if a source just has small, inconsequential corrections to point out, fixing the mistakes should be easy or it should not be a big deal to ignore the feedback; it’s when a more fundamental premise is challenged that the writer would have to consider reevaluating the validity of his work in a larger scope. I can certainly sympathize with an aversion to that: one of the reasons there aren’t more posts on my blog is that I have gotten many hours or days and many pages into an article before I realize that the point I was trying to make is not worth making or that I don’t know how to make it. More relevant to most of my readers involved in engineering is the parallel when we get the first subtle sign that there might be a flaw in a design: the lazy engineer might avoid the anomaly as a fluke, the good one will submit the design to additional tests even though he knows it might reveal a significant setback. (In the journalist scenario of sources disagreeing with a draft, I think there is the especially easy out of just putting in a note that the sources do not agree with how their statements were presented.)
So, why am I up until the wee hours of the morning writing up my thoughts on some probably minor point of journalistic ethics I did not even know about 12 hours ago? Besides my usual goals of wanting to keep notes for myself and sanity checking myself with others (“Really? This is how the world is?”), this intersection of writing and how much effort to put into finding and presenting the truth is very important to me and has significant ramifications for how I would like Pololu to operate.
Truth and the freedom to say what we think is the truth
After many years of thinking about things like company values and purpose, I have not gotten much past the core things I value, which are truth, beauty, and the human individual. (My excuse is that determining what I want Pololu to be is basically equivalent to determining the meaning of life, and I’m not going to stress too much about not having it figured out.) The “truth” core value is first and most important, and it encompasses knowledge and reason. I believe there is an objective reality and that we should strive to know it. Two related observations are that some truths are unpleasant and we are often wrong. That is why the first amendment in the United States constitution is so important, and it is unfortunate that what should be this basic human right to believe, say, and print whatever we want is so rare in the world. I appreciate professional journalists who fight against encroachments on this basic right, but I am wary of those who tie that right to their profession, education, or company affiliation.
Ramifications for operations at Pololu
I am realizing that one reason I am so put off by journalists rejecting available reviews is that it is so contrary to how we operate at Pololu, and I thought I might share some of that with anyone reading this far. We want everyone to be vigilant for mistakes, and one way we approach that is to make getting work checked by others automatic and instinctive. Just about every blog comment, customer email, and forum post we write gets checked by multiple people. There is of course a limit to how much double checking and triple checking is practical, but my impression is that what we do at Pololu far exceeds what is typical at most organizations our size. There must be some cost in terms of throughput, but I believe it is substantially outweighed by the improved quality of what we deliver and our improved understanding of each other.
Our approach to working in small ad-hoc groups and grabbing various people to check our work many times a day does not work for everyone. Some people just want more independence to barge ahead on their own, and some people have a difficult time constantly quickly and directly criticizing others’ work and getting their own work criticized. A related warning I try to repeat as often as applicable is that having support structures for checking everything, or working in teams in general, is not a substitute for individual responsibility: we each have to be on the lookout for situations where each person thinks someone else is checking some aspect of the creation at hand, whether it be in the design of a new product or an email to a customer.
Tying this in with my broader beliefs of how we should strive to be, I think one of the challenges of life is balancing our self-confident, independent creative drive with openness to feedback and criticism. The way we try to get better at that at Pololu is by creating an environment where we constantly review each other’s work.
To bring this post back to where it started: we should not grant journalists as a whole any special consideration; we should judge each one as we judge anyone else, on their ability to accurately present the truth. While we can accept that pursuit of the truth might sometimes require less than ideal means, we should be wary of those who out of some misguided principle disavow a basic avenue for increasing their likelihood of understanding and presenting the truth. I think I might want to broaden this into more general guidelines about how we interact with journalists in the future, but I’ll wait to see the reaction to this post. I will also try to send a link to this post to the writer that called yesterday and hope to get her take on my perspective.