Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Rule Change: NYT Public Editor Clark Hoyt Is Allowed To Show His Stories To Sources In Advance. And So Are You!

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.

Okrent's response:

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.


Anonymous said...

The "rule" was never a rule, and the "new rule" is not new.

See what Bill Keller told the staff in 2005:


lesdmd said...

Nytpicker first assumes a rule exists. Then seeks affirmation. Realizes, after a few attempts that they may be wrong. Sets-up some conditions, the only one of which is valid having more to do with business interests than ethics. Finally concedes that it is okay for a journalist to show a subject a story; but reserves some paranoia about the possible effects of doing so. May I remind nytpicker that as long as the writer refuses to make changes other than for clearly factual errors or misunderstandings he may have accidentally incorporated in the story, the greater good of accuracy is served.


Here's what Bill Keller told the staff in 2005. He makes no mention of the option of showing sources finished stories for fact-checking purposes:

"Avoiding mistakes, as the committee pointed out, is far better than correcting them. One way of reducing errors of fact or interpretation is to check back with sources, repeatedly if necessary, before an article goes to press. While this practice is routine at some newspapers — and is used by some of the best Times reporters — a surprising number of staffers seem to believe that it violates an occupational taboo. In fact, it is a valuable safeguard of accuracy, and it reassures sources that you are scrupulous.

It will be up to individual reporters to determine whether, and how, to double-check information. Some reporters work methodically through a story, like magazine fact-checkers, verifying facts, paraphrasing the gist of quotes, testing their analytical points. Others employ a more casual system of spot checks, or call only when they feel less than certain. I have asked Al to work with a few members of the committee to draft guidelines, spelling out a range of techniques and options, to be incorporated in our training and orientation materials."

Total said...

One way of reducing errors of fact or interpretation is to check back with sources, repeatedly if necessary, before an article goes to press. While this practice is routine at some newspapers — and is used by some of the best Times reporters — a surprising number of staffers seem to believe that it violates an occupational taboo. In fact, it is a valuable safeguard of accuracy, and it reassures sources that you are scrupulous.

Uh, this seems to me to include 'showing the finished article to a source to make sure it's accurate.'

I think you're really pushing it on this one.

Anonymous said...

All that "checking back" doesn't seem to help much as corrections continue to abound.

Anonymous said...

Total, that's not what it sounds like Keller is saying. Why would you have to check back with sources "repeatedly if necessary" if you'd already given the sources your story?

Anonymous said...

The risks you propose to Clark's process might serve his particular purpose, and speed up the pursuit of pushing ethics out from obscurity. Like they say, "the greater throw may turn by fortune from the weaker hand."

Anonymous said...

The issue, as far as Hoyt is concerned, should be moot. He was appointed to a two year term that expired June 1, 2009. That appointment was extended for an additional year. Technically, Hoyt's extended term is now over. But, there is no news as to his replacement. What's up? I hope the next Public Editor takes a bit more distance from the NYT management. This reader hasn't been impressed by the size of his cojones.

Anonymous said...

It's perfectly fine to show stories to people in the stories, so long as you make clear that they're not editing them. You should be smart about it -- don't do it when the person is going to give the story to the competition. But it's more ethical to do it than not to do it -- it increases the chance that you'll get the story right.

Would I encourage beginning reporters to routinely do it? No. They'll be in over their heads. But experienced reporters, and book authors, do it all the time, and it serves them and the reader well.

(an experienced journalist not at the Times.)

Anonymous said...

The sources of concern here are atypical and are rarely elements outside the institution over which
the Clark column keeps its buffering capacity. Unplanned leaks and other such acts of disloyalty dug up by personnel resistant to the public editor’s corrective tone could lead to lasting in-house unrest and overwhelm the institutional response. Such risks are less dared granted the court jester steps in to school putative takers.

Anonymous said...

On a couple of occasions, I've sent a portion of a story to a source to make sure I've written what he/she has said accurately. I think it's particularly important when writing about complex things.

Isn't Hoyt just fact-checking like any good reporter would and should? But he writes a column about journalistic ethics. Why would he need to send the article to the source for a column with such simple content?

Anonymous said...

The NYT credibility report referenced in Keller's old remarks (available online) does not forbid showing articles to sources but it does urge caution: "We do NOT advocate having sources look over entire articles. In fact in some cases showing a source any portion of a draft may be unwise for legal or other reasons. But with most stories, reporters should be encouraged to run facts, quotes and even interpretations by sources whom they consider trustworthy, to the extent that time allows."

Hoyt has taken this to the extreme, perhaps, but it's not like he could stop the editors from seeing his column before publication. It has to go through production at some point.

Total said...

Total, that's not what it sounds like Keller is saying. Why would you have to check back with sources "repeatedly if necessary" if you'd already given the sources your story?

Because he's allowing for different methods of checking back with your sources. Some methods may require repeated checking; some methods--like showing the finished story--may not.

Even with the finished story, repeated checking might be necessary:

Source (reading story): I didn't say that.
Reporter (goes back and checks tape): Yes you did; here's the tape.

That's "repeatedly" even though the story may be finished.

No, you're really pushing hard to find something wrong here.