Why I Show Drafts to My Sources

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I majored in journalism. I worked at the student newspaper at my community college and then my real one, then did internships at two daily newspapers. Then I gave it up, I moved to Europe, I went to grad school and I ended up working at NGOs for the next eight years.

Since 2012 I’ve been sort of doing journalism again. Nothing serious, just little essays about stupid shit I did as a teenager or a friend of mine who was briefly a prostitute. Lately I’ve been getting slightly more ambitious, writing about foreign countries I visit for work and, this one time, how HIV is way worse in the US than in Europe.

If it’s not already obvious that I’m an amateur from my essays, it certainly is from the methods by which I produce them. I interview people too long, ask them stupid questions, forget to call them ‘doctor’, bug them with too many follow-ups. And I also, the biggest sin of all, send them drafts of my essays for comments before they’re published.

This is highly un-standard operating procedure. In journalism school the rule was, you could check direct quotesi.e. the stuff in quote marks, not paraphraseswith your sources, and you could fact-check your numbers with them, but giving them actual excerpts from your story would compromise the independent, objective role of journalism.

The reasons behind this rule are obvious. Can you imagine an investigative reporter writing an exposé of a corrupt governor and checking it with him beforehand? Journalism is supposed to, like the old saying says, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Giving a source advance warning of your story, a chance to revoke their quotes or edit your conclusions before it’s published, profoundly undermines that role.

So I get why the rule exists. But not all journalism is political analysis or corruption investigations or public-figure profiles. In the last few years, the rise of ‘explainers’ (Ezra Klein, Nate Silver) and the general trend toward narrative-izing academic findings  (Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, TED Talks) have demonstrated the utilityand the demandfor works of journalism that see their sources as collaborators rather than antagonists.

Me, I’m paralyzed-scared of getting anything factually wrong in my essays. As I mentioned the other day, for my HIV piece I read probably 150 documents and interviewed like 18 people. Many of these people and documents didn’t agree with each other, or emphasized different historical or demographic factors as the key to explaining the higher rates of HIV deaths in the United States (‘It’s the health care system!’ one of them would say. ‘The health care system doesn’t matter!’ says another ).

Weighing that up, then cinching it into a few thousand words, then trying to make it readable for people who are less obsessed with this topic than I am, there’s no way to do that without leaving some conclusions and explanations on the side of the road. The only way to make sure I got my conclusions right was to share them with the people who provided the basis on which I made them.

So I sent my essay to six of my sources. Everyone got back to me. All of them had comments and corrections, all of them were reasonable, and all of their changes got included in the essay before it ran.

Most of the corrections were related to terminology. ‘Your story says there were 15,500 people diagnosed with HIV in 2010,’ one of my sources wrote. ‘What you mean is infections, not diagnoses.’ That’s actually a pretty important distinction, and the kind that traditional magazine fact-checkers might not notice.

I also let them alter their direct quotes. I was a bit nervous about this, since In journalism school they taught us that anything in quote marks is sacrosanct.  ‘I have you on tape with this exact wording,’ is what they told us to say when sources backtracked on their interviews. ‘You knew you were talking to a journalist.’

But what’s the point? Like the others, the changes in quotes they suggested were grammar and terminology and clarification, not self-preservation. One of my sources told me that when you’re on Medicaid it’s difficult to move ‘from one place to another’. She wanted me to change it to ‘from one state to another’.  Should I have stood on principle on not changing the quote? Her suggestion is more accurate than what I had originally anyway.

Knowing I was going to send a draft of my article to my sources made me write it differently, made me work harder to fairly summarize what they said. It’s possible to get all your facts and your quotes correct and your conclusions wrong; having expert eyes on the full content, the tone and the structure and the corny jokes, made me think harder about what I was actually saying, not just the numbers I was using to say it.

There’s also the issue of courtesy. Academics, authors, people who work at AIDS clinics, they’re busy; the ones I spoke to spent unbelievable amounts of time, one-on-one, walking me through the basics of the field in which they are experts, my own little Socratic seminar. They sent me their academic work and their data and their annual reports, knowing that I was going to quote and paraphrase them without a chaperone. I paid them nothing for this, not even the guarantee of being name-checked in my article. The least I can doas a person, if not as a journalist—is to show them in advance how I will represent them, give them a chance to correct what I got wrong or over-condensed.

I’m not arguing that every single piece of journalism should be checked with the subject of it. I was talking with a magazine editor the other day about this, and he said ‘whenever you write a profile of someone, they end up hating you. That’s how it works.’ No one wants to read a piece of propaganda, or be fed conclusions that have been vetted and authorized by the people they are concluding about. Fair enough.

But the ethical prohibition on sharing drafts of stories with sources comes from the assumed un-alignment of interests between the journalist and subject. The subject of a profile or a political story or business news has an interest in putting out a particular version of themselvesthe hero, the victim, the striver, the successful startup, whatever. The journalist has an interest in telling the truth, or at least in finding the angle that’s going to get their story read and shared and talked about.

But in the case of explainers and science journalism and (some types of) feature stories, the interests of the journalist and the subject are aligned. Both want to bring the truth to a complex subject. Both want to bring attention to a field or a finding that was previously unknown. Both want to frame the narrative in a way that will get the general public interested. The bestselling Freakonomics was written through collaboration between a journalist and an academic. The documentary Food, Inc was created with the oversight of two of the subjects (Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser) interviewed in it. I think that adds to the credibility of the finished works, rather than diminishing them.

I didn’t share my HIV story with all of my sources. The CDC, who graciously provided me with Excel after Excel of estimates and back-calculations, and was generally lovely to work with, all they got was the figures from the story and an outline of my general points. Even I’m savvy enough to know that they have interests beyond the accuracy of the story.

Sometimes I think about this old Yogi Berra quote, about his relationship to the press: ‘You shouldn’t have printed what I said. You should have printed what I meant.’  (See, this is why you shouldn’t use direct quotes from memory. I can’t find it on Google. It might not have been Berra, and was probably phrased differently. Anyway!)

I remember reading it on a 365 Dumb Quotes calendar we kept on the kitchen table as a kid. These days, it doesn’t seem so dumb.

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8 Comments

Filed under Journalism, Personal, Random, Serious

8 responses to “Why I Show Drafts to My Sources

  1. elephantwoman

    Hey, I really enjoyed your reflections here and I guess we occupy similar terrain though lately you’ve gone a lot more journalistic than I have whereas I’m still more interested in the creative nonfiction route. Even so, from my also amateurish perspective, I would actually never show a draft to a source but would just email them specifically to double check facts. Having said that, when I wrote my recent story about Cambodia, I was hand-held the whole time and was more or less ‘embedded’ so it was far from being objective (I also screwed up a few things with interviewing the subjects which I was planning to write a short blog post about next month).

    I actually think we have to be careful that our way of going about things doesn’t undermine the integrity of journalism a a whole. Muddying the waters so much also changes people’s perceptions about what journalism is. Maybe this is where creative nonfiction (which includes reflective pieces) and hard-hitting investigative journalism are different. I totally concur with your sentiments about how generous people are. I found that when I was producing my documentary, and there was one person in particular who I had a great long Skype chat with and lots of emails, but in the end didn’t use him at all and he was fine about it. If people are really passionate about their work and don’t have ginormous egos, they’re just happy that someone’s taking the trouble to help promote the idea so they’ll give you as much time as you need. There’s still a certain power with being able to write well and communicate to a mass audience.

  2. I do the same thing. I think it us a kind way to help the subject, if help can be given and received. I do not mind writing revised endings.

  3. A lot of good-in-theory journalism school rules get thrown out in the real world. As a newspaper reporter, I didn’t have the time to run everything past sources, but for longer pieces that you are personally invested in, hell yeah! Do what you have to do to get it right and feel good about it.

  4. I totally agree with you about this. For my 10 books, which have depended on interviews with hundreds of people, I have always checked back with the interviewees about what I said about them and how I quoted them, as well as sometimes getting them to look at the section of the book where I mention them. I like the word “explainer,” because that’s the kind of writer I am, too. I have no interest in investigative journalism that exposes people’s errors and inconsistencies; I want to figure out what works best and how to explain it clearly. And I agree that for that kind of writing, you are collaborating with your sources, not trying to expose something about them.

  5. It is a good idea to check. If someone tries to reframe I accurately to their advantage, you can ignore. But it gives them the opportunity to clarify and/or explain, which benefits everybody.

  6. I’ve had bad experiences in the past allowing subjects or sources to see drafts, but in your case I think that you’re pretty dead on when you suggest that scientists and social services people aren’t concerned about their ego. They’re concerned about what they’re working on.

    Personally I am a lot more wary of exposing myself as a know-nothing because I trust myself to properly interpret a source and am pretty inclined to double check supposed facts within that context. But I would never send them actual copy with all of my supporting nonsense—and most pertinently, the color drivel around it—for fear that my own chatter is what sets them off.

  7. Pingback: ‘It’s not that development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.’ |

  8. Pingback: Being a Journalist is Scary |

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