Hey, guess what? It's now okay to show your stories to the people you're writing about, before they're published.
In an interview with his college alumni magazine, NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt has made what strikes us as a startling admission: he routinely gives his columns in advance to his interview subjects -- NYT reporters and editors, often including executive editor Bill Keller -- before publication, for an "accuracy" review.
"Hoyt shares his stories before they are printed with those he has interviewed," wrote reporter David McKay Wilson in "Watching The Watchdogs" in Columbia College Today's May/June issue, "to make sure his columns accurately reflect his subjects’ positions."
Wilson added that "top editors who aren’t in the column see it first when it appears on Sunday." But that fact is rendered meaningless, of course, by the appearance of top editors in Hoyt's column almost every week.
Simply put, this means the NYT Public Editor is sharing his column every week, in advance of publication, with the NYT itself.
At first, we thought we'd uncovered a rules violation by Hoyt. Like a lot of journalists, we were under the distinct impression that writers weren't allowed to show their stories to anyone outside the paper before publication. Or inside the paper -- when the story is the paper itself.
But as it turns out, it's fine!
First of all, we discovered that NYT rules don't expressly prohibit showing a source an article in advance of publication. Which means that Hoyt hasn't broken any written rules.
But we still weren't sure about the ethics involved, so we checked with some journalism experts. The ones we reached told us that Hoyt's "read my story and get back to me with any problems" approach was perfectly acceptable.
Here's what we heard from Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, and who Hoyt and other NYT reporters often turn to for guidance:
I'm OK with sources seeing a story ahead of time, when there is a journalistic reason to justify the prior review and if the reporter makes it clear that the opportunity for review is a courtesy for the sake of accuracy, not editing. After all, sources should never be surprised by what gets published and pre-publication review is one way to prevent such a surprise. (So is calling the source and describing the story, if it changed after the interviews.)
Some common reasons for allowing sources to see stories ahead of time include complicated science/medical subjects or articles that examine incredibly private subjects.
The risk is that the source demands the right to edit the story or somehow mounts a PR campaign to undermine good reporting. But if the story is well-reported that second risk is pretty minimal. The other problem that arises is one of fairness. Although I don't believe you can justify showing all stories to all sources, you don't want to find yourself in a position of showing stories to friendly sources only.
In other words, go ahead!
We then checked with Daniel Okrent, the NYT's first Public Editor. He, too, basically signed off on Hoyt's habit. Here's what he told us:
I don't think it's necessary to show copy to someone you're writing about, but neither do I think there's anything wrong with it. Accuracy is accuracy, and showing (or reading back) quotes, etc., can only help achieve accuracy. The only harm arises if you allow yourself to be intimidated by someone who falsely claims misquotation -- and I'm confident Clark Hoyt isn't easily intimidated.
We double-checked with Okrent to make sure he understood that Hoyt was handing over his stories, not just a source's quotes. We asked him point-blank if, as Public Editor, he would approve a NYT reporter turning over a story to a source. His reply:
I would approve of it if a) the goal was accuracy, and b) if I was confident that the writer would not be intimidated by false assertions. I used to feel otherwise, but I think I was under the spell of an outdated fetish of gotcha journalism that has plagued our profession for too long.
I learned, during my time as public editor, that accuracy is the most important currency journalists have, and anything one can do to enhance it is worthwhile, as long as it isn't illegal or dishonest. But please let me reiterate: I don't by any means think it's a requirement; I just can't see any LOGICAL reason why, in most instances (I can of course come up with exceptions), it should be frowned upon. If you know of any such reason, I'm all ears.
We took the bait. Via return email, we offered Okrent three possible reasons:
1. The contents of a story could be leaked, given to the competition, or otherwise compromised. In the email era, it's arguably too easy for an email to be forwarded, etc. This hasn't happened to Clark Hoyt -- his subjects have little interest in leaking his stories, and as journalists, have a clear understanding of the ethical issues involved in doing so. Others might not be so ethical.
2. We agree on your point that a writer must not be intimidated by false assertions. But a writer can be distracted by the multitude of reactions/responses (not all of them false) that presumably result.
3. If the subject of a story felt he was going to be libeled, he could seek prior restraint. An unlikely scenario, but still possible, and intimidating to a smaller publication.
I accept the first point. On the second -- as I said, depends on the writer; Hoyt's balls are big enough. The third is so far-fetched it's almost specious.
Not wanting to pepetuate a debate over the dimensions of Clark Hoyt's balls, we emailed some other media experts for their opinion. We're still waiting for an answer from, among other places, the ethical hotline at the Society For Professional Journalists. We've also sent questions to Hoyt himself. Nothing yet.
We did get a non-committal reply to our general questions on the subject -- not mentioning Hoyt specifically -- from Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, who is also a prominent press critic. Here's what he wrote us:
I am often asked to render judgment on these kind of ethical questions and I almost never do. The reason is I don't have any "extra" measure of knowledge about what is ethical in these situations, compared to other sentient, informed and rational creatures. I would urge you to decide whether the practice you have in mind is ethical or not. My point is: you are as qualified as I am.
We're pretty sure the NYT doesn't agree with that!
Still, we do have an opinion.
Honestly, we think it's a little weird for Hoyt, a journalist with decades of reporting and editing experience, to need an "accuracy" check on the quotes and facts contained in a typical Public Editor column. Doesn't the dude know how to take good notes?
We'd understand if Hoyt were writing a story about oil spills or the latest findings in the AMA Journal. But come on, Clark -- an analysis of a City Room blog post shouldn't really need a going-over by the story's principal characters in advance of publication.
So yes, we're okay with the theoretical idea that reporters can show their stories to sources in advance, when it's the only possible way to fully ensure a story's to ensure accuracy.
But we're even more okay with the idea that skilled reporters like Hoyt can check facts and quotes on their own, rather than turning over their pieces -- and the task of fact-checking -- to the sources themselves. The risks remain greater than the reward.