The New York Times has banned quote approval, the disturbing trend in which reporters allow flacks to adjust and sign off on quotes prior to publication. Here’s the memo
Despite our reporters’ best efforts, we fear that demands for after-the-fact “quote approval” by sources and their press aides have gone too far. The practice risks giving readers a mistaken impression that we are ceding too much control over a story to our sources. 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.
So starting now, we want to draw a clear line on this. Citing Times policy, 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.
We understand that talking to sources on background — not for attribution — is often valuable to reporting, and unavoidable. Negotiation over the terms of using quotations, whenever feasible, should be done as part of the same interview — with an “on the record” coda, or with an agreement at the end of the conversation to put some parts on the record. In some cases, a reporter or editor may decide later, after a background interview has taken place, that we want to push for additional on-the-record quotes. In that situation, where the initiative is ours, this is acceptable. Again, quotes should not be submitted to press aides for approval or edited after the fact.
We realize that at times this approach will make our push for on-the-record quotes even more of a challenge. But in the long run, we think resetting the bar, and making clear that we will not agree to put after-the-fact quote-approval in the hands of press aides, will help in that effort.
We know our reporters face ever-growing obstacles in Washington, on Wall Street and elsewhere. We want to strengthen their hand in pushing back against the quote-approval process, which all of us dislike. Being able to cite a clear Times policy should aid their efforts and insulate them from some of the pressure they face.
Any potential exceptions to this approach should be discussed with a department head or a masthead editor.
Fantastically productive new public editor Margaret Sullivan applauds the move, calling it both “sensible and necessary.”
And finding reporters at the New York Times to bash the directive may take some doing. “They worked with reporters to try to come up with a clear bright line policy that tackles this problem but that still leaves some flexibility,” says one Times reporter. “It’s not perfect but definitely leaves us room to do our jobs.”
That quote was given to me on background. There was no talk of going back to the New York Times reporter and negotiating to place the quote on the record. Yet that’s just the sort of transaction that happens all the time in Washington and elsewhere. Here are the steps:
1) Reporter calls source and asks to talk about an issue;
2) Source agrees but requests a “background” interview;
3) Reporter and source agree that quotes may be attributed to a “White House official”;
4) Reporter asks source if she’d be willing to place certain quotes on the record; source responds, Sure, just e-mail them to me.
In practical terms, that’s a very common framework in which quote approval — or at least a first cousin of it — takes place. The fresh New York Times policy appears to allow such background-to-on-the-record migrations, while prohibiting a more extreme incarnation:
Citing Times policy, 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.
Great statement of principles. Way to provide leverage to reporters facing control-freakish office-of-communications specialists. You tell ’em, New York Times!
But consider: It’s a policy, a piece of paper likely to crumble in the pressure of reportorial pursuit. Editors and reporters, after all, can’t stand losing stories to competitors. Imagine how they’ll feel losing stories to policies.