By Christopher B. Daly
When a journalist interviews someone (anyone), the normal ground rules that govern the interaction amount to this:
I am a journalist working on a story. I want to talk to you and use the things you say in my story, based on my judgment of what is important. I will use none, some, or all of what you say, as I choose, to further the pursuit of the truth. Whatever quotations I use will be verbatim — nothing added, nothing left out. I will also use your real name (and title, if you have one).
This is the essence of the standard known as “on the record.” Journalists prefer it because we believe that, on the whole, it holds people accountable for the things they say. In certain (ideally rare) situations, however, journalists will negotiate some lower standard. Almost always, these retreats from the “on the record” standard come at the initiative of the people we are speaking to. These other arrangements are known by a bewildering array of terms, which do not always mean the same thing in different cities or beats. The problem is that these departures usually serve the source rather than the audience.
Today comes word from the Times that political reporters for all the major news organizations have adopted a new — and, I think, pernicious — practice. They allow the people they are interviewing to get a look at their own quotes before publication and censor them. That is, the big shots around Obama and Romney routinely demand and get the power to edit themselves before their words appear in print or online.
Well, you can hardly blame them for trying. Who wouldn’t want that option?
But the journalists should never have agreed to it. These spokespeople, senior officials, and top aides get paid lots of money for their ability to think on their feet and choose their words carefully.
At the very least, having agreed to this arrangement, the journalists have a professional duty to reveal the terms. What about transparency? I, for one, could live without stories in which members of the political class get to “clean up” their quotes.
Another question: in what other fields does this practice apply? Sports reporting? Business news?
(Props to Jeremy Peters of the Times for blowing the whistle on this practice.)