How far is too far when it comes to the journalist-source relationship? This question has been pushed into the spotlight when New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters revealed that a number of reporters allow sources within the ongoing presidential campaign to approve their quotes before publishing. He stated that “the quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything mildly provocative.”
If this is the case, why bother with quote approval? If a journalist is using a device to ensure accuracy, such as a recorder, than the factual nature of a quote can hardly be denied. The answer seems to be desperation. Top officials in both Obama and Romney’s camps insist on looking over quotes before “approving” them for publishing.
These interviews are the ultimate double edged sword for journalists. On one hand, they are getting on-the-record quotes from those inside the biggest story of the year. However, quote approval removes the spontaneous, on-the-spot, juicy quotes that reporters would have otherwise received, whittling them down to a bland, politically correct version of the actual conversation.
While reporters at publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and Vanity Fait have largely surrendered their power to the politicians, The Associated Press has put its foot down on quote approval. Paul Colford, AP’s spokesman, said, “We don’t permit quote approval. We have declined interviews that have come with this contingency.”
The Associated Press is not the only one vetoing quote approval. Jeff Jarvis, a reporter for The Guardian, also spoke out against this practice. Jarvis brought up an interesting point, saying, “When journalists give sources the opportunity to fix up what they’ve said, we become complicit in their spin. When we do so without revealing the practice, we become conspirators in a lie to the people we supposed to serve: the public.”
While foreign countries such as Germany often read back quotes to sources prior to publication, it is not a practice frequently condoned in the United States. However, it comes back to the seesawing power relationship between journalists and sources. While journalists are desperate for quotes from reliable, high profile sources, those sources often fear public humiliation when giving quotes. But, it can be argued that public humiliation is a risk one takes when stepping into the public spotlight. Only time and public outrage will determine the final victor in this struggle for final editing power.