Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gene Weingarten didn’t like my earlier post defending the practice of draft-sharing. This stroke of transparency, I argued, enables factual accuracy as well as reportorial depth, because when sources get a full glimpse at your set of facts, they talk more.
Weingarten hit the comments section like LT circa 1986:
Erik, I disagree with you profoundly. The problem is, the question isn’t being framed right. I don’t think it’s “unethical” to show a source the entire story in advance; as you say, it is part of an honest effort to be accurate. I just think it is profoundly unwise.
It sets the writer up to be manipulated through subtle coercion. The writer, presumably, has a relationship with the source that he or she wants to protect. The writer doesn’t want to seem churlish or ungrateful. So if the source says he is uncomfortable with the writer’s choice of a word to describe him — say, “belligerent,” and asks that it be changed to something milder or less judgmental, say “testy,” most writers are going to acquiesce, even if “belligerent” is closer to the truth. It’s not worth pissing the buy off. This can happen in a hundred different ways. It cedes control of the fine tuning of the story to the source, and to me, that is not a wise thing to do.
I have no problem with going back to a source and check facts a dozen times. I’ll read back direct quotes if I worry that I might be misremembering it, or changing its meaning through deletion of intervening lines. But the whole story? Never. Too much room for negotiation over things unrelated to truth: emphasis, description, etc.
As an editor I forbade writers to show the whole story to sources; on a few occasions, I had reason to think they violated the rule: They’d come back late in the editing process, wanting to change a personal description, or softening a quote. I always resisted or refused to make the change, if the writer couldn’t adequately describe why he wanted to make it.
Bolded text added to highlight subjective nonsense. Are emphasis and description really unrelated to truth? (A question for Mike Daisey, perhaps?) My guess: Every line of a story — notwithstanding its emphasis-description quotient — relates to its truth. Apprising a source of what’s in a story doesn’t equate to losing control over that story.
When I asked Weingarten whether he’d carefully previewed “The Great Zucchini” (a.k.a., Eric Knaus) on what was to come in the famous 2006 feature “The Peekaboo Paradox,” Weingarten replied, in part:
Nope. In fact, he was appalled when the story came out. Called me to yell. A day later he called to apologize. He was just blindsided by the invasion of his privacy, how BIG it would feel. Wasn’t really prepared for that, even though he knew everything that would be in the story, because he had lived the story with me.