When the medium isn’t the message anymore

“Quotation approval” might have come into practice because sources wanted to ensure that their statements are correct and properly attributed, but unfortunately, this process often goes far beyond making sure a journalist recorded your statements accurately.

October7th,2012
Amy Swinderman
The Old Gray Lady has spoken, and for this journalist, ittook way too long for her to get up the gumption. In September, the New York Times let everyone know thatall the news that's fit to print really is fit to print, whether a source likesit or not:
 


"Reportersshould say no if a source demands, as a condition of an interview, that quotesbe submitted afterward to the source or a press aide to review, approve oredit," the Times said in a new policystatement.
 


When the Times cameout with this policy, I shared it with a few friends and colleagues. One ofthem, who I'll call L.P., actually gave me my start as a student reporter atCleveland State University, but has since gotten out of the journalism game infavor of something a little less stressful.
 

"This is a THING?" L.P. asked.
 

Oh, yes, it's a thing. I'm a writer, but I can't make thisstuff up. Truth is much stranger than fiction.
 


The Times evenwent so far as to refer to it as "The puppetry of quote approval," and what ashow it is. As I attempt to explain this trend, I find it frustrating todescribe the carefully choreographed pas-de-deuxit's become. But voici, here goes.
 


Company ABC Inc. puts out a press release that it'sacquiring another company for $500 million. I contact the media representativelisted on ABC's press release to arrange an interview. I schedule and conductan interview with ABC's CEO. All goes well, until after the interview, themedia rep says, "and you will send us the quotes so we can take a look at thoseand make sure they are OK before you run the story?"


Cue the horror movie music. The Times finds this practice equally theatrical: "When quotations canbe unilaterally taken back, the Kabuki is all but complete," writes David Carr,author of the paper's weekly Media Equation column.
 


"Quotation approval" might have come into practice becausesources wanted to ensure that their statements are correct and properlyattributed, but unfortunately, this process often goes far beyond making sure ajournalist recorded your statements accurately.

"In its most extreme forms, it invites meddling by pressaides and others that goes far beyond the traditional negotiations betweenreporter and source over the terms of an interview," says the Times.
 


It's true. Very rarely does a source come back and say, "Youhave me saying that I completed my doctorate in 1999, but it was actually in1998." Instead, we're usually supplied with "alternative" comments that thesource feels "better capture the intent and meaning behind our marketingmessage." That is my polite way of saying that we're told to completely scrap ahalf-hour-long interview, hours of transcription and days of writing in favorof completely scrubbed-down, sanitized script that is so full of meaninglessmarketing jargon that even the most non-discriminating reader rolls his eyesupon digesting it.
 


In one of the more blatant misuses of this practice I'veexperienced, while working for a different publication, I was required to sendan entire story to a source for "review" before it went to press. That sourcecame back, not with requested changes to his quotes, but a critique of my work:"The first few paragraphs are kind of long. I think you need to get to thepoint faster," he said. What he couldn't grasp is that all of our stories werewritten with vague "teaser" leads that ran on the cover of the publication,enticing the reader to continue on to the rest of the story within. (And I hadto chuckle, being that he was a verbose attorney who required three separateinterviews to arrive at his own point. But I digress.)
 

I am all for fair, objective, factual reporting, andwhatever means it takes for a journalist to achieve that. But when sourcesbegin asking for permission to wield even the smallest bit of control over yourstory, that's a problem, folks. Ask yourselves this: Which would you ratherread, the real story, or the one that's been approved by a team of marketingprofessionals? And if we do it for you, don't we have to do it for everyoneelse? Are you comfortable with us honoring that request for your competitors?
 


So I'd like to take this opportunity to let you all knowthat the policy of this publication is that we may seek clarification on yourstatements—particularly if they involve highly scientific or esoteric subjectmatter—but sorry, it is not OK for you to rewrite (or allow someone else to rewrite)your comments. But I'm going to meet you all halfway, and offer you a few tipsto exercise quality control over your message.
    • Appoint someone in your organization to handle media interviews, or properly prepare your colleagues for engagement with a journalist. Ideally, this person should be amiable, respectful and at ease when talking about your organization. Practice questions and responses with this individual.
    • Figure out how to convey messages that are important to your organization without sounding scripted. Don't shove a canned press release or a list of preapproved PR responses at your interviewee and tell them to read them or a variation thereof to the journalist. That's a waste of everyone's time. Instead, emphasize what's important to your organization, but be able to do so in a conversational manner. Pretend you're going out for coffee with a stranger, and you have 15 minutes to familiarize your companion with your company, its news and why it's important to you.
    • Don't make arbitrary or restrictive demands on journalists. We care as much about getting your story straight as you do—if not more so, as one misquote could wipe out our entire careers. Understand that if we do allow you to view your quotes prior to a story running, you should check them for accuracy only. You should use this as an opportunity to completely rewrite your quotes.

These tips will not only help you achieve the responsiblemedia coverage you're seeking, but also help you build a relationship of trustwith journalists and encourage them to do future interviews with yourorganization. Some other time, I'll tackle a few other prickly aspects of newsreporting—such as someone insisting that you send a precise list of questionsyou plan to ask before the interview (and don't you dare diverge from that listduring the course of conversation) and the absolutely abominable, "I'll need tosee this story before it goes to press and get internal approvals from our PRand legal departments before you run it." In the meantime, I'm doing a happydance that news organizations are finally taking a stand against a practicethat is bastardizing journalism. And you can quote me on that.
  
 
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