Thoughts on journalists checking drafts with sources

Posted by Jan on 5 September 2014

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.

Conclusion

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.

11 comments

Well. A breath of fresh air. I am a Pololu customer and this look at the company perspective improves my desire to do business with you. Also, it helps that you have great products and support.

As to the topic, I am an occasional author for publication and I always ask several knowledgeable people in my field to review my articles before submission. It is quite helpful in getting the correct and accurate message across.

I have some experience with some activities that have subsequently ended up in the media and unfortunately I can attest to the fact that the media account rarely describes the actual occurrence.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
I am both an engineer and a writer. Most of my content is published on EETimes, though there are a few other websites as well.

I use that as a preface so as to set the stage for this comment. For me, especially when doing product reviews, I always send a preview copy to the company I am working with. I do set some basic ground rules for them though. The reason I send them a preview copy is for them to check technical accuracy. I also want to be sure that if I thought there was a feature missing, but in reality, I had just not found it, this gives them time to educate me (writing is a learning experience) on their product. At the same time, I also tell them that this is not a chance to ask for any negative thoughts to be removed from the story. They can ask, but unless it is a technical error, I will not remove it.

I recently had a group come back to me after a story was published thanking me for taking this approach. In the review there were some small issues with some things that were not ideal. They did not fuss about them one bit, but thanked me for the input to help them make their product better (on the whole, this group provides a very nice product). They went on to tell me that they have had some horror stories in the past of people just not even getting the basic facts correct when writing stories about their product or company. These careless errors could have easily been avoided by sending a preview copy.

In the end, I would say that it is irresponsible to not have fact checking done by the very source you used to get the facts in the first place. I can see where this would get complicated with a story that had more than 10 sources, and hence some sort of method might be used to send it to just the primary sources (even just excerpts of the story at a minimum) for them to look over. There is no bias in that other than the bias of the original source.
Jan, as a 20+ year veteran technology writer, I wanted to share some thoughts with you. I think the writer was correct here: they should not share the draft with you*.

There are multiple reasons for this, but the simplest is that it can stifle the right to freely comment. Are you really going to stay silent of a writer says "Pololu is wrong here because of X"? Are you really going to not be upset if a writer says "SparkFun's solution is simpler, more elegant and works better: buy this instead"?

I write reviews for a living, and I never share a draft of the review with the company producing the product. On the occasions it has happened (without my consent), it has caused nothing but problems.

I pride myself on being a through, detailed reviewer, but I still don't want a product manufacturer reading my review before it goes live. That's because the person I am serving is the reader, not the manufacturer. To a journalist, that is the be all and end all of what they do: the people who read and consider the article.

I've had manufacturers call me and yell at me because I didn't like their product, or preferred a competitors product. That wasn't down to a factual error: it was down to someone who, usually quite honestly, thinks my opinion is wrong and wants to dissuade me. I understand that, but I am not going to change my mind because someone has an opinion. I come to my conclusions after careful and considered deliberation, not out of spite, malice or laziness.

I've had people call me and threaten to pull advertising because they are not getting the review they wanted. My usual response is to say "Go ahead: I am a journalist, not an ad sales person."

I've had people claim that I am damaging their business by not giving a positive review, because how can they sell the product after that? My response on this is to point out the faults of the product, and discuss those. I'm not interested in their profit margins, but in if the products that people buy perform their functions or not.

I hope that gives you a different perspective.

Cheers,

Richard Baguley
Freelance Writer


*one thing to note: sharing a draft is *NOT* the same as fact checking. Fact checking should be done (by both the writer and editors where possible), but should be restricted to matters of fact: names, numbers, direct quotes, etc. Not opinions, not conclusions and not verdicts.
Hello, Richard.

I appreciate your posting since it gives us a specific instance of this journalistic haughtiness I think is very damaging. Manufacturers of products you review are a little different than the kind of information "source" I was talking about, but what I think are the flaws in your mentality are the same. I don't know you or your writing (though for all we know, I might have read some of it), so I am going just off of the comment you posted here.

The only reason you gave for defending your position is "it can stifle the right to freely comment". I do not believe this, and the comment from Aeroengineer1 indicates it is possible to maintain the independence of your commentary while having facts checked. Journalists should exercise their integrity by considering feedback from interested parties, not by sticking their heads in the sand. Regarding your SparkFun example, you seem quite content not to care about my response after publication, so why would you care so much about upsetting me prior to publication? If I give you some factual feedback because I am upset, does that invalidate those facts? Are you not able to evaluate my claims of fact just because I have a bias?

The rest of your comment is full of the arrogance I was originally commenting on in this post. You think that there is some virtue in your consequences be damned attitude just because you claim to be serving your readers. Journalists, like everyone, should care about the adverse consequences their mistakes could have on the broader community, not just some subset they decide is all that matters. I am not at all saying you should be some corporate shill, but part of taking responsibility for your work is caring about its consequences. Furthermore, it does not serve even your readers for you to artificially limit the validity of your writing just because you think your own analysis is good enough.

To be clear: I am not at all arguing against your right to have an opinion or to publish an opinion. What I am saying is that your claim that "I come to my conclusions after careful and considered deliberation" is quite disingenuous if you do not avail yourself of easily available feedback (even if it's from biased sources).

I am quite curious about what problems you are talking about when you say "On the occasions it has happened (without my consent), it has caused nothing but problems." If all those problems were like what you continued to present for most of your comment, I really don't see the validity at all: it sounds like some people were ticked off, which they probably would have been after your publication, too.

I am not the one arguing for some extreme, such as that every article should be pre-approved by sources or that you have to make your sources happy. I think most reasonable people can immediately imagine scenarios where other considerations outweigh the benefits. What I continue to believe is that arguing that such draft checking is almost never appropriate significantly undermines the credibility of journalists.

- Jan
Jan,

In your third paragraph it is not clear to me what "adverse consequences" and "broader community" you are referring to. Could you be more specific about what consequences and community you are talking about?

-Claire
In the most extreme cases, the wrong information, whether intentional or not, could lead to things like war. Even in more mundane situations, impressions journalists give the public can have significant repercussions for things like allocations of permits or public funding, which can impact a community with things like creation of jobs or improvement of safety or eradication of a nuisance.

To bring it back to Richard's example of not caring about the impact his writing might have on a manufacturer ("I'm not interested in their profit margins"), I say we should care if our mistakes bring economic damage to others. And while Richard might think that it's not his or his readers' problem if some product doesn't sell or some company goes out of business, what he is leaving out is the cost of his being wrong. In this case, it would mean that a good product stops being available or a company making good products stops existing, which is bad for more than just Richard's readers. I doubt that writers like Richard actually want to be responsible for this kind of outcome, but my suspicion is that they are blinded by reckless arrogance.

- Jan
Jan,
Apologies for not responding sooner to this interesting discussion. I think that describing me as having a “consequences be damned” attitude is misleading at best. As a veteran writer and reviewer, I am fully aware of the consequences of my work for the reader, the companies who make the products I review and many others. I am fully aware that readers sometimes spend thousands of dollars based on my reviews, and that companies can rise or fall based on what I write. But the primary focus for me has to be the former, the consumer who is considering spending their hard-earned money on a product and wants to know if it is worth it or not. That is who I write for. Not to satisfy the requirements of advertisers, or to support the finances of a company.

Basically, it is all about the product. Right now, I have a $3200 3D printer that I am reviewing, which is a huge investment for someone. It is my job to let this someone know if the printer will do the job they want, or not.

A consumer doesn’t buy a product and go “well, it sucks, but at least I am supporting a good company”. They get angry because the product doesn’t do what it is supposed to, and it is my job to help guide them to the ones that do a good job.
I don’t regard that as “reckless arrogance”. I regard it as doing my job and helping my readers.

And again, I am not disagreeing with you about fact checking. If it is a matter of fact (“does product X have this function? What is the size of doodad required for product Y?”) then that should be verified as fully as possible. But if it is a question of opinion (“I feel that product X is better than Y because of A, B, C”) then I am not going to call the makers of X and Y to ask their feelings about it. If I had felt during the review process that I needed to clarify why X did something different to Y, I will call the manufacturer and ask their reasons during the review process.

My point was that, with a product review, the person I am serving is the reader who is trying to make a choice about if they should buy it or not. It is not the company who made it.

To answer a specific question you ask:

“I am quite curious about what problems you are talking about when you say "On the occasions it has happened (without my consent), it has caused nothing but problems."” – One specific instance was, many years ago, when an advertising person shared a copy of one of my articles with an advertising client before publication, in the hope of making them advertise. Instead, what the client did was to call me directly and yell at me for an hour about how I was wrong because “you didn’t pick our product as the best one? Everyone knows our product is the best! The other products are garbage!”

I don’t mind being yelled at (I am a journalist, after all), but it was a pointless discussion that did not change my article one bit: I had spoken to this person already and got the information that I needed for my article, and to understand their product and its strengths and weaknesses. They yelled because they did not like the article and my opinions, but it wasn't helpful for me, or them. That's an extreme example, but I hope it puts my thoughts in better context for you.

Cheers,

Richard
Richard,

Thanks for following up. You say "If it is a matter of fact ... then that should be verified as fully as possible", but you are not actually doing that if you reject sending drafts to those who are most likely to know and care about the facts.

I also think you should consider recalibrating if you think your example is at all extreme. I don't know why you needed to participate in that phone call for an hour, but it sounds like a minor inconvenience or unpleasantness to me. That person would probably have complained anyway when he first saw your article, and we shouldn't let the occasional unreasonable person influence our behavior so much.

- Jan
i just want to jump in and give a thumbs-up or +1 to Richard. I will continue to let students and employees know that sharing a draft with a source is a fireable offense -- as much as not properly fact-checking could be, too.

Any reporter who has ever written a controversial story understands why doing what you suggest gets in the way of quality journalism. Can you imagine if every story about a business had to go up their corporate legal flagpole? No way. Likewise, in the interest of fairness, imagine if you had to show the draft to every source. There is plenty of science to show that self-perceptions are often skewed.

I agree, however, that too often journalists don't go far enough to make sure they understand the concept they are trying to explain. But creating a standard that of sharing a draft of an entire story is NOT the solution.
Dan,

A few quick points:

I am not saying *every* draft needs to be shared with every source. You, meanwhile, are advocating for the extreme of never allowing it.

Given that you are arguing for an extreme, it would be much more convincing if you actually argued for it instead of just saying "imagine if". It looks like you haven't even bothered to read much from those who disagree with you, who are not just imagining sharing drafts with sources but are actually executing the approach with success.

I think there are many issues that a journalist is just never going to understand that well. Plus, who do you think should judge when a journalist has gone "far enough to make sure they understand the concept they are trying to explain"?

- Jan
An interesting, and rare, discussion.

As a full-time magazine/web writer (automotive/aviation) for over 30 years the subject of manuscript review remains gray to me. The pros and cons of submitting or not submitting a ms to a source for review have been well-presented here so I won't belabor them further other than noting the practice is discouraged or outright prohibited in journalism schools where hard news journalism is taught (not the review of superchargers or electronic components).

What I would like to expand on is the framework most "journalism" exists in, which is an impure mix of impartial journalism and highly biased ad sales. In any commercial journalism (newspaper, magazine, website, etc.) the business is the business of selling ads. Editorial is the gray stuff between ads, and one only has to look at the click bait hell of the "news" business in this country to realize where this leads when the business interests prevail.

More often the journalistic church and business state coexist in a state of constant tension, each propping the other up in some form of compromise to make their daily bread. The public will not pay $80 a year for unbiased journalism, but prefers $19 subscriptions--or better yet--free information on the web. Of course there is no such thing as a free lunch, so the "free" journalism is either altruistic (personal blogs by bored retirees) or blatantly biased to support ad sales.

Most of the sins committed fall under the category of news that is never printed (all those missing factual reviews, comparisons and commentaries never seen in the mainstream press) rather than intentionally skewing facts (actually quite rare as it's too easy to identify and defend against in court).

In my experience working in the enthusiast press business (rather than hard news found in newspapers and tv), the reader is left to the wolves. Typically the only person in the publishing field with the readers interest in mind is the writer because he personally identifies with them. The source is often highly--and understandably--biased to present their product in its best light. The publisher is motivated to make the source as happy as he can so he can extract an ad sale from what he sees as an editorial transaction (I print story, you buy an ad, with the reverse in full effect, too, naturally). The writer, often a little out of his technical depth compared to the source muddles through as best he can, but woe to the writer who brings the wrath of his publisher into his cubicle. And yet, the writer, having some semblance of self-respect and identifying with the readers who share his interest in a mutual hobby or outlook on life, does his best to provide the best story he can. It's a thankless job.

So, do I offer my ms' to sources? If they are ethical, yes. If unknown, unproven or proven rotten, no. The better companies (sources) are often the most ethical and best able to hold their tongue when presented with honest criticism in print. They provide excellent technical reviews of my ms (which almost always benefit from such review) and may re-present their opinion on their product's placement in the market but do not insist on compliance by me. Otherwise, submitting a ms to a source for technical review is simply stepping in front of a two-sided firing squad aimed by the source and publisher. Little factual gain is made and much ethical bloodletting ensues, all of it from the writer's arteries. What you may perceive as laziness on the writer's part may simply be self-preservation (or it could be laziness--there are plenty of lazy people in every profession).

The bottom line is we live in a society of lax ethics and we get what we pay for.

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