This is not a blog post… this is a confession

This was quite a taxing post to write. It took me a while to work through my thoughts and I suspect it might irritate some as, essentially, it advocates allowing the people we interview to see and change copy before it’s finished.

So, before I get to the point, here’s a story.
As a trainee reporter for a weekly paper I once arrived in newsroom to find a note in my pigeonhole from Fierce News Editor. His handwriting was – still is, I’d bet – too poor to decipher. So I asked him, and braced for impact.
Turned out he’d scrawled me a compliment along the lines of: “Liked your piece on Bird Woman; you’re turning into a decent feature writer”. I remember his words practically verbatim not because of any warm glow they produced, but because of the guilt.

The ‘Bird Woman’ of his note was a former personality who had dedicated her twilight years to bipeds of the feathered-variety. She refused requests for interviews from local (or, on occasion) national journalists but, after months of cajoling, she agreed to give me an interview… so long as she got to see the copy first. She said ‘see’, we both knew that potentially meant ‘change things’; I wanted that feature and so I went along with it. Sending my article to her before it was published was a big deal to me; moreover, I think I’d have got absolute carpeting if my news editor had ever found out.

I interviewed her, I wrote it, I posted a draft to her (yes, it’s that long ago) and a corrected proof arrived a few days later. The corrections were, to my shame, mostly spelling but I also remember some adjectives (it was for our magazine so the odd random act of prose was permitted) were replaced – ‘small, elderly’ became ‘sprightly’ for example, and ‘eccentric’ became ‘a local character’ – vanity changes that were important to her, as a septuagenarian dealing with a teenager who couldn’t spell ‘receive’ properly. The feature ran, I had lovely feedback from readers and colleagues, but it was ashes in my mouth.

I’ve sent my copy out for approval on two other occasions and both subjects were rape victims – one a young girl who recounted her ordeal as her father stood, frozen and grieving, behind my chair watching my shorthand, the other was a woman in her eighties, reunited for the first time with the son she’d conceived during the attack. I broke the rule for a simple reason – I simply couldn’t bear the thought of getting their stories wrong. Hence, I broke it for me, not for them.

All journalists get asked the “Can I see the copy” question at some point; most news editors will advise trotting out something along the lines of: “I’m sorry, it’s against company policy”. I think newspaper-types feel a little wounded by the request – why, anyone would think you don’t trust us. But, culturally and professionally, print journalism is undergoing a sea-change, which is sweeping aside long-held tenets.

Letting others see your copy-in-progress in advance of publication is no longer the issue it was, because we’re already showing the thought-processes behind articles via blogs, tweets, liveblogging, crowdsourcing, livestreaming and more. The big ‘Ta-daa’ moment of revealing an exclusive is a lovely thing if you’re the reporter writing it but if others are blogging or tweeting or commenting on forums about various angles before you’re anywhere near a print deadline what are you gaining?

I’m not saying journalists should just hand over all articles pre-publication, whatever platform that article is intended for so individuals can approve (“Could you just ask the defendant if he’s happy with this latest trial update M’Lud?”) although John Terry would probably like that a lot. But I do think we need to challenge the ‘never let them see your work’ attitude.

The rise of collaboration and the opportunities for openly developing a story mean that those involved can be active participants rather than passive subjects, and I also think platforms like Google Wave can allow reporters to develop interviews, ideas and question threads in real time.
For the newspaper industry, especially for print journalists, I think the sooner we grasp the concept that collaboration means showing our hand the better. If someone shares their story a reporter, then asks to collaborate with them by seeing – and most probably amending – the article pre-publication, then an automatic “No” is a difficult position to maintain.

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About Alison Gow

I'm a journalist, particularly interested in story-telling, networks and digital innovation.
This entry was posted in blogging, collaboration, liveblogging. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to This is not a blog post… this is a confession

  1. It's a taboo which doesn't really need to exist. I've shown people my copy before, normally after death knocks but prior to publication, just to make sure I've not got anything wrong. Maybe we need to do away with the default position of 'no way' and move to a 'case by case' decision. Someone who demands pre-approval and the right to set the tone of the article? No way. Someone who asks to see it to make sure it's correct? No harm?

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  2. Anonymous says:

    I think reporting can be different from getting a story. The fact you handed over to 3 sensitive subjects your view of their story for approval or out of courtesy shows many subjects require the whole truth.

    I quite like blogs, am going off editorial, and hating the tabloid. What sells makes money, what matters people will read

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  3. Anonymous says:

    I am a journalist too, and I have worked in print for five years. Now I have moved on to broadcasting. But at the local newspaper I worked, it was routine to let the interviewee fact check the story if necessary. But he/she wasn't allowed to change other content than facts. This is alright, I believe.

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  4. egrommet says:

    One area in the States where this happens is with CAR – the reporter will run the data and get the response and then send it back, effectively saying “this is what you told us, what do you think”.

    Again fact checking in action, and you pose an interesting question – where and when should we fact check. Should there be an automatic right to respond or should we share and get the response in before publication.

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  5. Mike Nolan says:

    The (relatively few) times I've provided stories to journalists there have been little mistakes or omissions that, had they shown me the copy prior to publication, I would have been able to fix. Opening up to input can improve stories for no effort and will make people far more likely to work with the media again.

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  6. Sion Barry says:

    I agree. Have found it helpful in the business field say on financial figures.

    With some interviews sometimes you can be given wrong figures, or of course interpret them incorrectly. So checking them over after completion of a story is just good due diligence. The most painful thing is having copy with incorrect information.

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  7. Monikachia says:

    I love posts like this. It is so lively; it is all about the real life and its situations. Very exciting!

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  8. Alison Gow says:

    David, the death knocks example is interesting – I could really see that helping to establish trust between the reporter and victim's family/represtentative (especially ahead of, say, an inquest or court case). Tone is a good point – we've all had people demanding to see copy and the hackles go straight up. It's definitely not in the spirit of the partnership you'd hope for!

    Egrommet – my reporting could have benefited from a fact-checker… I believe newspapers in the States also do random post-publication satisfaction calls; that sets my teeth on edge as it invites people to complain after the fact, instead of working with them before to make sure there aren't complaints.

    Mike, “little mistakes or omissions” are the kind of things that erode confidence in journalism, thanks for posting the comment – it's good to have such an example from the world outside the journo bubble 🙂

    Hey Sion, I imagine the relationships you have to cultivate with business contacts must make being open with your copy/facts essential at times; I guess business and political journalists write the copy most likely to be scrutinised by informed readers, who then go on to networking events and hold forth on any shortcomings. No journalist sets out to get things wrong but in the real world it's inevitable. Anything that lessens that possibility is worth trying I think.

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  9. Anonymous says:

    I'm sorry but that's a terrible idea. The problem is if it gets out you are dishing out copy approval then where does it stop. When Johnny Councillor gets involved you presumably won't let him attack your report with red pen but he's not going to be happy if you did for someone else. You can't have a pick and choose as the question erupts who is picking and choosing – and there goes your objectivity. A good reporter shouldn't need to show copy to check facts, they should have triple checked them when getting the story and know they are right. Copy approval should be a no always.

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  10. My instant reaction to this is 'no way'. The journalist/reporter needs to be an independent observer with no-one influencing the copy. Right or wrong, the copy stands if the reporter has backed up their facts or kept shorthand notes of any conversations.

    But that could just be my old journalistic pride talking.

    I remember back in the day dealing with some very sensitive stories in which it would have been easier to hand over the copy. But like you mentioned, my default position was always 'It's against company policy'. There were a few occasions when I had sleepless nights on the evening of publication of some of the more sensitive stories. Thankfully, I received no complaints … at least not on any of the stories that mattered (or should that be any people that mattered).

    Today though, some stories can be compiled collaboratively, while others are written more traditionally – ie one reporter, one pen, one pad and a laptop.

    So each story needs to be considered case by case. The only decision needs to be does it benefit the story or does it compromise the story?

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  11. Alison Gow says:

    Hi Anonymous, copy approval is different to what I'd like to see – I'm talking about partnerships between journalist and subject, possibly on an open platform, rather than the traditional emailing out of a pre-published article to the subject.

    If you're collaborating with someone on an article, it wouldn't matter whether they an elected official or not – you'd work with them on the article, not interview them then go away and write it up separately and only let them see it once it's published. That's my point – not that everyone gets the red pen out wholesale.
    Objectivity is an interesting point; I suspect collaboration would lead to greater objectivity – that's certainly been my experience in crowd-sourced articles where the outcome is shaped by the participants rather than a journalist following a linear route from A (intro) to B (last par – usually a comment from the target of the article).
    Reporters having the time to triple-check facts? And you think I'm idealistic?

    Kevin, case-by-case is the way to go, I agree. And I think news features would be more suited to it. I'd love to see a collaborative article by, for example, a reporter and a group of residents from Norris Green on the crime issues there.

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