Don’t touch that!!!

by Erik Cummins on August 9, 2011

When I was a full-time journalist, sources would often ask me if they could see their quotes before my articles ran. As a purist and perhaps a bit of a curmudgeon, I would usually explain that unless the topic was extremely complicated or controversial, they would need to trust my skills as a journalist and my ability to transcribe their quotes correctly – particularly as I rarely had to publish corrections and I usually understood the legal material well enough to write about it.

If the source insisted and badgered me enough, I might read a quote back – with the caveat that they couldn’t change anything that wasn’t incorrect and that they couldn’t massage their quote just to make them “sound better.”

These days, I still dabble in journalism – sometimes to the point where I’m really, really busy. Recently, during an especially rushed, deadline-fueled week, a source insisted after our interview that I read back his quotes. I explained that the topic – general economic and real estate trends in Southern California – was really rather basic and I wasn’t sure what was controversial or especially complicated about our conversation. He replied in a very condescending fashion that he wanted to make sure I understood what he was saying – as if we were discussing the newest developments in neuroscience, not real estate. Ultimately, I agreed to send him his quotes, particularly as I didn’t want to delay the process or argue over a freelance magazine piece that was really not groundbreaking. For a part-time freelancer, time is extremely valuable and we do whatever we can to make the process move quickly and smoothly. That’s why you will often see freelancers write, “e-mails only, please,” on their inquiries. We don’t have the luxury of time as a full-time reporter for a lot of back and forth.

Several days later after I had mostly forgotten this brief and annoying exchange, this “trusted” source sent me another email reminding me (or rather demanding) that I absolutely needed to send him his quotes.  This clearly was a big deal to him. And perhaps real estate developers can do that in Texas, where he was from. [He actually told me that one of the business journals there lets sources read whole articles before publication! What happened to journalistic integrity and pride???]

So, with barely a spare moment, I sent him the quotes. But I forgot something critical. I didn’t tell him that he could only change inaccuracies, particularly as this was not a “pay for play” opportunity but actually a piece of true journalism. In other words, I forgot to mention that unlike the marketing writers at his company, I was not working for him and not creating a scripted (aka dull) marketing piece.

Sure enough and as a result of my oversight, he sent me his passage back and had changed just about every single word. Now I was mad as heck and asked him if I had misquoted him in any way in my original quote. The answer was “no,” but he said that he needed to put his quote in “context to benefit my readers.”

Perhaps he wasn’t so articulate in the first place and most of us usually aren’t when we are speaking. In journalism, that’s no excuse. We write what was said and paraphrase the rest, “in context.” You wouldn’t want us to make things up or put words in your mouth, right?

Asking reporters for quotes and then changing them, even if they were originally correct, rankles reporters to no end. And there’s no better way to go from being a “trusted” source to persona non grata when it comes to talking to the press. Trust is a two way street, but when it comes to professional journalism, actual mistakes are rare. Sources may not like what they said, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t say what they actually said. Which reminds me of a story about the big firm partner (later a judge) who demanded a correction when he simply didn’t like that his “joke” appeared in print…

When I advise attorneys on media relations, I suggest that they not ask for quotes unless they are Deep Throat or some other high level, confidential source like those that Seymour Hersh tends to attract. It’s not worth annoying the reporter and jeopardizing that relationship. In the PR business, we want repeat business for our sources. Those sources who treat reporters like children, buffoons or irresponsible gossip mongers are probably not going to succeed in the media relations game. Now, if you think a reporter is any one of those things, maybe it’s best not to talk to them in the first place.

What do you think?

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