Washington Post editors back writer who made changes to story at subjects’ request

July 25, 2012

Should reporters let their sources see their stories before they’re published or aired? Some journalists think it helps make news reports more accurate. But most shun the practice, fearing that it could enable a source to demand changes that soften criticism or alter a story’s findings.

The issue arose anew Wednesday after a news outlet reported that a Washington Post reporter, education writer Daniel de Vise, showed two drafts of an article, about a controversial college test, to the subjects of the story. The sources then sought changes, which were made before the article was published on The Post’s front page in March.

Post editors discussed the matter with de Vise on Wednesday.

“Our story was a solid piece of journalism, and we’ve seen no evidence that Dan or his editor altered or softened the conclusions he reached in his reporting,” said Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli.

Using public-information requests, the Texas Observer detailed a series of e-mail exchanges in February between de Vise and press officers at the University of Texas at Austin. De Vise sought the officials’ input for his article, which focused on the university’s implementation of the college test. “Everything here is negotiable,” he wrote at one point to Tara Doolittle, a university spokeswoman.

Based on drafts de Vise sent for comment, Doolittle and a second official, Gary Susswein, raised concerns about some of the reporting and about characterizations of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test that several schools, including the University of Texas, have implemented for undergraduates. The test is backed by advocates of greater accountability for colleges, but critics say it does not accurately measure undergraduate achievement levels.

At one point, according to the e-mails, Susswein wrote to Doolittle that the story was “twisted” and that the school’s representatives should complain to de Vise’s editors about it if inaccuracies remained.

Doolittle said in an interview Wednesday that the exchanges between the school and the reporter strengthened the story because factual errors and out-of-context comments were eliminated before publication.

The most substantial change that school officials wanted was the excision of a quote critical of the test by Gretchen Ritter, a vice provost for undergraduate education at the university. De Vise originally quoted Ritter as saying, “I don’t think the [test] is the main thing anyone should rely on, in the way it’s administered, to tell you how much students are learning at any university.” De Vise also later described her as having “palpable distaste” for the test.

De Vise, who declined to comment Wednesday, removed the quote after hearing from school officials.

“The quote from the initial draft was accurate, but it was placed out of context,” Ritter said in an e-mail. “The original draft suggested that I am a critic of accountability and believe the test in question is flawed. But as I told the reporter in the original interview, I support the use of learning assessments for evaluating undergraduate education.”

De Vise used critical comments from others in the final version of his story. Doolittle said that the finished version was more accurate but that “it was still a critical story. It’s not the story we would have written.”

Many reporters avoid giving sources a look at the early drafts of stories, out of concern that sources will pressure them into unwarranted changes. There are also legal reasons to avoid doing so; a critical comment could be used to establish “malice” in a libel lawsuit, even if the comment is edited before publication.

Some reporters, notably Post education columnist Jay Mathews, say that reading back quotes or disclosing drafts avoids errors. Mathews was a mentor of de Vise’s when de Vise joined the paper from the Miami Herald several years ago.

The Post’s policy on the matter states, in part: “Some reporters have read stories back to sources before publication to ensure accuracy on technical points or to try to catch any errors before they appear in the paper. For a science writer to read a story, or passage, about a complex subject to a source to make sure it is accurate is a routine occurrence. But it is not our policy to routinely read stories or parts of stories to sources or to share copy with outsiders before it has been fully edited by us. A reporter who isn’t sure whether to read something to a source before publication should consult first with his or her editor.”

Brauchli said the paper will tighten its rules to ensure that sharing occurs only “in rare instances” and only with the approval of an editor.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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