WHAT: Think of all the types of situations in which you might need a policy to help you decide, for instance, whether to use an anonymous source, or whether to let a source review what youre planning to write. List all the angles. Enlist other people in your discussion, including if you can people who arent journalists. In policy decisions, the question usually comes up front.
Lets say you want to write a policy for your newspaper or magazine about pre-publication review, or that you as a free-lancer want to have a policy for yourself thats well thought-out. Here you start with the question: Do we let sources see what were planning to write? And if we do, when?
It used to be that a reporter would absolutely NEVER let a source check out a story before it appeared. But there has been growing acceptance of the idea that its more important to be accurate than to be independent. Attitudes have changed because of the importance of credibility. And there are some very complicated topics where it is probably a good idea to go back to your source and say something like: Heres what I understood you to say about down pillows and bird flu. Do I have it right? Stories involving figures budgets, taxes, business reports are ripe for errors. Sometimes youre unsure whether a source said an important thing or unimportant thing.
WHO: This is the sort of decision that should involve a large and representative sample of the people who will have to follow it. Ultimately, the decision may be made by the highest level of management, but it should be an informed and collaborative decision.
Consider, too, the people outside the media organization who will be affected by what policy you decide to follow.
Even if youre a lone free-lancer, youd be wise to consult a few others in arriving at your personal policy for pre-publication review. Discuss. Argue. Test your ideas. Pre-publication review may give a source confidence that the reporter cares about getting it right. It could enhance your credibility and reputation. Offering to let them check what youve written may get them to open up. On the other side of the argument are tradition, and the worry that sources will want to take control of your story. Theyll try to change what youve written, to put themselves in the best light. They, and your colleagues, will think you have no backbone or professional pride.
WHY: These are principles (standards) you will use in deciding what to do. In most cases, it comes down to a balance between telling the truth and minimizing possible harms. Identify these and other moral responsibilities. The best decision is the one that does the greatest good for the greatest number of stakeholders.
You might want to consider what others have done, and what standards they used. Steve Weinberg, former head of Investigative Reporters and Editors, is quoted in one journalism ethics textbook as saying, I have practiced PPR as a newspaper staff writer, a magazine free-lancer and a book author. Never have I regretted my practice. What I do regret is failing to do it during the first decade of my mindless adherence to tradition.
Jay Mathews, a veteran education reporter for The Washington Post, shows whole stories to sources, even though it makes his editors uneasy. He wrote about that in The Posts May 31, 2003, edition.
I have shown every story I have written to all the sources I could find, he said. ... They are welcome to argue about the tone, the analysis or anything else that bothers them, but I change only the things that I am convinced are inaccurate.
The balance here is between being as accurate as possible in truth-telling, and maintaining your independence as a journalist.
HOW: How do you achieve the outcome youve identified as the best? This is definitely a situation where you want to write it down, and consider sharing it with your readers and audience.
Heres one possible policy for pre-publication review:
1. Make it clear to your source that only you or your editor can change what youve written.
2. The review is for accuracy only. Just the facts, not context, tone or organization.
3. Dont change direct quotes. You should have them on tape. But its OK to negotiate if the source says his first quote was wrong.
4. The best time to double-check is during the interview.
5. Its best to review specific passages; not the entire story.
6. Remember: YOU DONT HAVE TO CHANGE ANYTHING! But if its wrong, you certainly should.