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Insecure reporters need to stiffen their backbone

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Should reporters allow their sources to alter a quote after it has been spoken, or even to review drafts of their stories before publication?

In the former, I say usually no. In the latter, I say “Hell, no.”

These issues came up because of two recent stories that embarrassed Post journalists, one by the Texas Observer, a muckraking publication based in Austin, and the other by the New York Times.

The Observer published an article about the e-mail exchanges between Post higher education reporter Daniel de Vise and University of Texas officials. Obtained by the Observer through a Freedom of Information Act request, the e-mails dealt with a story de Vise wrote in March that centered on UT practices and whether standardized tests can fairly assess what college students learn in four years.

After a reporting trip to Austin, de Vise shared two drafts of his article with UT officials prior to publication. They didn’t like the first version, saying that its tone and thrust were unfair to the university. Among the more embarrassing e-mails was one by de Vise that accompanied his second draft, saying, “I’d like to know of any phrases in the piece that you think are too harsh or over-hyped. . . . Everything here is negotiable.”

De Vise is a fair-minded, conscientious and thorough reporter. But he made a mistake.

He forgot that Post reporters write for readers, not for sources.

Of course journalists should be fair to sources, be exacting in their fact-checking and, yes, even read back quotes to sources to make sure they are accurate.

But we are not merely in the fact business; we are in the truth business. And the truth emerges through a reporter’s research, interviewing, observing, sifting, analysis and pure gut instinct, gained by experience covering various beats and institutions. It includes, or should include, a great deal of editorial judgment. That’s what readers pay for.

Journalists get it wrong sometimes, but this process — the revelation of truth through the constant give-and-take of a free press airing issues in public — is so important that the Framers gave it special protection in the First Amendment.

To give one source some extra leverage, some extra review power, weakens us as journalists. It flirts with self-censorship, and it surrenders control of this sacrosanct process of getting at the truth.

Apart from the principle at stake, sharing story drafts also isn’t a good idea practically. It can lengthen the time before a story is ready for publication, and it will inevitably lead to bland, anodyne stories not valuable to readers because sources will try to soften their remarks upon reflection.

Worse, it can give sources too much control of a reporter’s narrative. Sources can look at your draft, see to whom you’ve spoken and put pressure on them, even punish them if they have authority over them, and get everyone to start spinning a reporter in a different, and likely wrongheaded, direction.

That’s why I think that Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli was right this week to tighten The Post’s internal guidelines about sharing story drafts. It is now against company policy and will be authorized only in “extremely rare” cases by Brauchli or his managing editors.

He also tightened, a little, The Post’s rules about when reporters can agree to let a source alter or add to a quote. The rules now urge consultation with editors and an explanation to readers when quotes have been changed after the fact. The New York Times raised this issue in a July 16 article about presidential campaign officials, Democratic and Republican, who insist on “final editing power over any published quotations” before talking to reporters, including those from The Post.

This is a terrible practice. What we forget, at our peril, is that we have more power than we think we do. Sure, because of changes in technology and relentless financial pressures, the press is weaker than it has been in many years. We look over our shoulders too much, we bow to the wishes of officialdom too often, we yield too readily to ideologues.

Time for some backbone, press corps. What if White House reporters decided collectively to leave the briefing room empty for a day? What are officials going to do? Fire us? Freeze us out for a few weeks? No, they can’t. They need us as much as we need them. Don’t forget it.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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