Can I quote you on that? | Editorial
By TJ MARTINELL
Covington Reporter Reporter
August 9, 2012 · Updated 9:55 AM
The past month has provided two glaring examples of bad journalism ethics gone wild.
I often write about this topic because it’s important for journalists to point out tactics and practices employed by other news sources that do not reflect theirs values nor the standards of the profession. Just as journalists hold public officials accountable, they need to also hold each other accountable — the watchmen watching other watchmen.
The first example was an article published on the cover of the New York Times several weeks ago, which discussed the practice by reporters of having quotes “approved” by politicians, including presidential candidates and their campaign staff. This practice allegedly first started during the Bush Administration, when editors told their reporters to avoid using anonymous sources.
For those who may be confused, the quotes in question were stated on the record in prior interviews. Before the reporters used the quotes in their articles, they sent those quotes to the individual in question in order to obtain their permission to use them. Many times, the person edited or cleaned up the quote.
To ensure that I’m not making this up, here is an (unapproved) quote from the article itself.
“They (approved quotes) are sent by e-mail…to reporters who have interviewed campaign officials under one major condition: the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name. Most reporters…grudgingly agree. After the interviews, they review their notes, check their tape recorders and send in the juiciest sound bites for review.”
Apparently, this practice has been growing as government officials and departments have demanded the right to censor quotes in order to be interviewed.
It also caused an uproar within the journalism community. National Journal Editor-in-Chief Ron Fournier wrote a great response, but it’s sad that he even had to clarify it in the first place.
“If a public official wants to use NJ as a platform for his/her point of view, the price of admission is a quote that is on-record, unedited and unadulterated,” Fournier wrote.
This is stuff you learn the first day of your first journalism class, and it’s reserved for the few dimwits who have no concept of how journalism works and can’t tell the difference between it and public relations.
A quote is one of two things, on the record or off the record. Some newspapers allow this, others do not. If it’s off the record, it has to be have been agreed beforehand. Those quotes are not used in a story. Quotes cannot retroactively become off the record, either. If something is stated on the record, a reporter should never have to obtain permission to use it.
This newspaper does not and will not ever agree to censorship of quotes as a stipulation for an interview with a public official, or anyone else. If someone is unwilling to be interviewed under such terms, then they are not interviewed or speak off the record.
Occasionally we will call people to confirm statistics, facts or statements that were written down by hand and not taped on a voice recorder. This newspaper does not have a “gotcha!” mentality where reporters intentionally try to trap people into saying things they didn’t mean in order to humiliate them or take their quotes out of context. We do our best to ensure that we quote people and summarize their statements accurately.
But what this really is about is politicians trying to control their image as it portrayed to the public through the press and getting away with it.
I’m sure reporters from the NYT or Washington Post would respond that it’s the only way they can obtain on-the-record quotes for their stories and that us “weekly” reporters don’t have the same kind of pressures as "dailies" do, whose sources are much harder to interview.
While that is true, I would say that the mere fact that government officials or politicians would demand censorship of their work as a requirement for an interview is a story in and of itself, not to mention the fact that the newspapers would even consider agreeing to such terms. If that’s the requirement in order to effectively cover politics, then what’s the point of having freedom of the press?
And, better yet, do they really think the public is going to trust them to cover a story accurately when they can’t even get an unfiltered quote from an official?
Also, the phrase “unavailable for comment,” “declined to comment” or “phone calls and emails were unreturned” is a far better substitute than filtered propaganda worthy of the Pravda because it is just as useful to the public as nothing at all. If newspapers abdicate their responsibility in this matter, their readership might as well go to the politician’s website for information.
No respectable editor can or should blame a reporter for not getting a quote from someone because they refused to have it censored. A reporter’s job is not to make a public individual look or sound more eloquent or intelligent than they are. That’s what speech writers, press secretaries and public spokespersons are for.
If a government official or politician doesn’t trust a reporter to quote them fairly and accurately, then they have the right to refuse an interview.
The second example of bad journalism ethics was the coverage of the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting which resembled more of a paparazzi-like tabloid frenzy than responsible reporting. I previously wrote about these practices in my column discussing the Ohio school shooting and the crass manner in which it was handled.
I understand that information needs to get out and the public deserves to hear the facts. But it has to be done properly, and the facts need to be substantiated first.
For example, before the suspect had even been charged with a crime, his name and a large photo of his face was plastered all over the front pages of a dozen media sites. What if the “suspect” had turned out to just be one of the moviegoers, who had dressed up for the showing, and had managed to wrangle the gun out of the killer’s hand, only to be accidentally arrested in the ensuing confusion?
Within days, commentators and pundits had provided just about every kind of motivation and explanation for why the killer had done it, as if the concept of murder was somehow unheard of in the 21st century.
But the most inconceivable of all was ABC News reporter Brian Ross who, without any proof or evidence, suggested that a man in Aurora, whose name was the same as the suspect’s and had been found on an Internet site, might be the suspect.
As it turned out, the man was not the suspect. Ross later apologized on air, but that didn’t stop the man in question from receiving a flood of phone calls.
This is a textbook case of what we sane reporters refer to as “defamation of character,” but that would be too kind. ABC News intentionally put an innocent man’s life in jeopardy in a hasty, unjustifiable rush to judgment in the hopes of being the first to report it.
When such stories occur, it’s incredibly tempting to put out information that is either uncorroborated or unconfirmed rather than waiting for verifiable facts.
When the Titanic sank, newspapers ran stories ranging from how passengers had been shot on the decks to how all aboard had escaped alive before the Carpathia had even reached New York City. After the Alamo fell, a newspaper ran a story about how Davy Crockett was still alive.
If the profession wants to avoid a repeat of the yellow journalism era of the early 1900s, these practices need to end.
Contact Covington Reporter Reporter TJ Martinell at email@example.com or 425-432-1209 ext. 5052.