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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 10:04 AM ET, 07/25/2012

Post reporter criticized for . . . checking his facts

The Texas Observer has the e-mails. The tell-tale, slimy e-mails sent by Post reporter Daniel de Vise to officials at the University of Texas at Austin. As the Observer story alleges, those e-mails document some “unusual, perhaps even unethical, techniques.”

Highly unethical. Taken together, those unspeakable e-mails show that de Vise was:

*Trying to get his facts right;

*Trying to get his quotes right;

*Trying to get his interpretations right.

He did these things by using an unusual, perhaps even unethical, technique. It’s called “checking.” Let’s allow the Texas Observer to explain the scandal:

Before publication, de Vise shared at least two complete drafts of his article with UT’s press officers and allowed them to suggest critical edits, some of which ended up in the published story, according to emails obtained by The Texas Observer through a public information request.
Journalists have traditionally been taught never to share entire drafts with sources to avoid undue influence. But in preparing his 1,300-word story—which ran on the Post’s front page on March 14 under the headline “Trying to assess learning gives colleges their own anxiety”—de Vise flouted journalistic convention and allowed UT officials to suggest substantive changes to a major news story about a politically charged topic.

Someone pull the ombudsman alarm. Oh, the Texas Observer already did. It corrals a couple of experts to do what experts do — shake a finger:

“It’s been a time-honored code that you don’t show sources stories before they run,” wrote Renita Coleman, a professor of journalism at UT-Austin, in an email. “Furthermore, you would certainly never change anything except factual inaccuracies because a source suggests it.”
Edward Wasserman, the Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, said that de Vise’s tactics were “hard to square with even the most source-friendly reporting practices.”

Bolded text added to highlight an important question: Is this expert, in dissing the practice of sending unpublished material, conceding that doing so is an effective way of ridding it of factual inaccuracies before it’s published? Maybe, then, she should reconsider her position on the practice.

To the credit of the Texas Observer, it quotes another expert, often-right Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute: “I actually think that what those emails show is a very genuine effort on the part of the reporter to get not only the facts right but get the truth while remaining independent.”

That endorsement requires amplification. Not only does sharing unpublished work ensure factual accuracy, interpretive accuracy, trust, balance and comprehensiveness, it serves as an avenue to deeper inquiry. Here’s how: When sources see everything you’ve got on a subject — all the quotes from the other side, all the dissenting voices, all the data and so on — they’ll likely respond to the unpublished draft with more information, tips. Hey, I see you’re quoting so-and-so in the bottom of the story — did you know that guy just got fired from the board?Or some such scenario. (For a thorough vetting of draft-sharing, see this 1996 piece by Alicia C. Shepard).

I do this stuff all the time, sharing either partial or whole drafts with sources. Sometimes I’ll read the copy; others, I’ll e-mail it. Not long ago, I interviewed a flack about some stuff and then wrote up a post. I cut-and-pasted the flack’s quotes and context back to her before I launched the piece. She’d said something a bit spicy and asked that the quote be converted into flackspeak but otherwise noted that the facts and context were okay. I responded that what she’d said was on the record and that I was running it. She didn’t sound happy when we hung up. Minutes later, she called back to say that she shouldn’t have expressed any concern about the quote to begin with. So we’re good. In another case, I interviewed two parties about a situation that I wanted to write about. Both parties gave me their versions of events, and I e-mailed both of them drafts of the post. As it turned out, both parties were a bit off in how they remembered things. Many helpful revisions ensued.

If what de Vise did was so corrupt, how did it affect his copy? The Texas Observer piece alleges that the reporter accommodated some of the concerns of the officials at the University of Texas at Austin. Uh-oh. The piece itself addresses tests showing that kids aren’t learning a great deal at college, and how universities are responding. In the editing process, de Vise ended up deleting a quote by a UT official that was critical of something called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). And where it once said that the official showed a “palpable distaste” for the CLA, that term was changed to “reservations.” Andrew Beaujon of Poynter.org points out that despite the pushback from UT officials, de Vise’s piece carries:

The unwelcome news that “seniors fared little better than freshmen” on the test, which measures, as de Vise puts it, “gains in critical thinking and communication skills.” The author of a book about academic stagnation tells [Texas Observer], “The seniors have spent four years there, and the scores have not gone up that much.”
The unwelcome news that “for learning gains from freshman to senior year, UT ranked in the 23rd percentile among like institutions. In other words, 77 percent of universities with similar students performed better.”

The convention that journos shouldn’t share unpublished work affirms their native arrogance. It’s a convention built on the idea that journalists are so brilliant that they can get a complicated set of facts and circumstances dead-bang right on the first try without feedback from the people who know the topic best.

Years ago, during a discussion at a journo-confab, I defended the practice of draft-sharing. The contorted looks on the faces of other editors signaled that I was advocating a practice with slim adherence. I asked one of the dissenters to explain the downside. He responded, “Well, they’ll ask for changes.”

Precisely. That’s a reason to embrace it. Because it’s so much easier to change a story before it’s published than after it’s published. As the record shows, we journos, when presented with mistakes post-publication, tend to represent huge screwups as “clarifications,” explain massive ethical lapses in “editor’s notes” and, well, stonewall.

NOTE: Story was updated to add details about how de Vise’s piece changed via consultations with UT officials.

By  |  10:04 AM ET, 07/25/2012

Tags:  texas observer, daniel de vise, washington post, university of texas at austin

 
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