How Much of What’s In a Story Should Be Shared With a Source Before Publication?

Paul Stevens edits Connecting, a daily email for current and former Associated Press staffers, and today Connecting looked at how much a journalist should share information in a story with a source before publication. From Connecting:

The issue  has been in the news recently when former AP journalist John Solomon tweeted that “I have done this at every job I have held, with the knowledge of my bosses, starting when I was a young reporter at AP and continuing today at The Hill. Sometimes people have time for me to go over it on the phone, other times I fax, email or text a summary.”

Our colleague Kevin Walsh suggested that Connecting reach out to you to hear your own thoughts and experiences. Walsh said, “My personal experience at AP over a more than 30-year career is that we never shared stories or excerpts of stories with sources or subjects of stories in advance of publication. Fact-checking and reaction comments from sources were always given in response to specific, very limited portions of a story—for example, a single quote or sentence. Not paragraphs or a draft of a story. That’s the AP I remember.”

AP’s policy is clear, said Lauren Easton, Global Director of Media Relations and Corporate Communications: “AP standards prohibit any behavior or activity that creates a conflict of interest, including sharing unpublished drafts of stories with sources.”

Craig Klugman, retired as longtime editor of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, believes “AP has the right policy. But as with almost everything in our business, there can be exceptions. For example, a complicated science or financial story might benefit from having the source read parts of the story. It should go without saying that showing a story to give someone a heads-up for, say, political reasons is repugnant .”

At the University of Missouri School of Journalism, one of the oldest journalism schools in the world and alma mater to many AP journalists past and present, operates the Columbia Missourian, where executive editor Ruby L. Bailey shares: “We do require accuracy checks. The reporter checks the accuracy of the facts provided by the source, and, if necessary, adds context or makes corrections. The source is not able to change a quote or a fact during this process. The reporter does not share the entire story and often completes the AC by phone.”

Elizabeth Conner Stephens, director of community outreach for the Missourian, said, “The standard procedure is for the reporter to call sources after the story is written and edited but not yet published to read back quotes and confirm facts that are attributed to the source. While there are always exceptions, our standard rule is to not show the whole story to a source. We ask specifically about the parts they contributed to. We check for factual errors or confusion and discourage rewriting by the source.”
From Jack: I think the key to how much of a story to share is Craig Klugman’s suggestion that a complicated science or financial story might benefit from having the source read parts of the story.

At the Washingtonian magazine that was pretty much our approach. We did a lot of health and medicine stories and with those it was very important to give accurate advice, thus a lot of reading back copy to sources.

As for fact-checking, that world changed about 15 years ago with the arrival of broadband and Google. Before then, most of our fact-checking was done by telephone. The most common complaint from the accounting department was that our telephone bills were way over budget—stop making so many long-distance calls. But to avoid mistakes and sometimes potential legal problems, we had to call who we had to call.

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