The New York Times is putting an end to the practice of allowing sources to approve their quotations, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has announced in the Public Editor’s Journal, citing a memorandum that was sent through the newspaper’s glass-fronted headquarters on Thursday.
“Despite our reporters’ best efforts, we fear that demands for after-the-fact ‘quote approval’ by sources and their press aides have gone too far,” begins the memo, which Sullivan includes in full in her post. “Starting now, we want to draw a clear line on this. Citing Times policy, reporters should say no if a source demands, as a condition of an interview, that quotes be submitted afterward to the source or a press aide to review, approve or edit.”
For the Times’ new ombudswoman, whose tenure began on September 1, this can be seen as an early triumph. On Monday, Sullivan argued on the Public Editor’s Journal (which has received a greater-than-average amount of attention over the last three weeks) that “The Times Needs a Policy on Quotation Approval, and Soon.”
On the same day, the Times ran a column by media reporter David Carr in which he referred to quotation approval as "puppetry," and warned: "The first draft of history should not be rewritten by the people who make it.”
The debate over whether journalists should let politicians and their advisors double-check the way words sound in print after they are spoken heated up in July, after Times journalist Jeremy Peters revealed in a story that it was “standard practice for the Obama campaign” and “commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.” The newspaper’s editors have been working to draft a firm directive ever since, writes Sullivan.
Peters describes it as a power struggle between news sources and news reporters, in which the latter are often forced to declare defeat. “Maybe we have to push back harder,” Peters quotes Managing Editor Dean Baquet as saying.
Journalists greeted the news of the ban joyfully on Twitter. "Times will make it a lot easier for the rest of us to push back too. Thanks nytimes!" tweeted Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith.
Quote approval “puts so much control over the content of journalism in the wrong place,” The Times’ Executive Editor Jill Abramson told Sullivan, shedding light on the new rule. Having spent many years at the Washington bureau, Abramson understands the power struggle involved. She expects that the newspaper will “lose interviews” thanks to the new policy, because for certain sources, the idea of not being able to vet one’s words will seem “too risky.” “The practice is so ingrained,” Sullivan quotes her as saying.
While, as Andrew Beaujon points out on Poynter, the origins of this grey-zone method of reporting are disputed, it is clear that quote approval has become widespread in the American press: the Huffington Post admitted to submitting to the practice on a case-by-case basis; Vanity Fair condoned it in the case of Michael Lewis’ profile on Barack Obama (for which the President was given full veto power over all quotations), and Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Reuters, and The New York Times “have all consented to interviews” in which terms for on-the-record quotes were negotiated according to Peters’ article.
By instituting an explicit policy on the practice, the Times joins the ranks of National Journal and student newspaper the Harvard Crimson. News organizations that condemn the practice but have stopped short of banning it altogether include Reuters and Politico.
The Gray Lady may be putting her foot down, but even her ban is not black and white: “Any potential exceptions to this approach should be discussed with a department head or a masthead editor,” reads the last line of the memo.
Photo courtesy of Dom Dada, Flickr Creative Commons