A Washington Post reporter’s decision to share the rough draft of a story with UT media officials before publication has prompted the newspaper to revise its reporting policy to discourage such acts in the future.
The Texas Observer reported Tuesday that Post reporter Daniel de Vise allowed UT media officials to review his story and suggest critical edits — some of which he adopted — before its publication. Although some journalists called de Vise’s actions unethical when news of his actions hit the web, the Post stood behind him. Two days later, the Post is singing a different tune and announced Thursday that in response to the issues raised, it will enact new policies to discourage sharing stories with sources without editorial approval.
Published on the front page of The Washington Post March 14, de Vise’s story, titled “Trying to assess learning gives colleges their own test anxiety,” examined the trend of standardized testing in higher education and used UT as a prime example.
“Our current policy doesn’t prohibit a reporter from sharing a story draft with a source, but we intend to tighten it to ensure that such instances are rare without dispensation from a top editor,” said Marcus Brauchli, Washington Post executive editor, in an e-mail to the Poynter Institute school of journalism.
Brauchli detailed these policy changes in a memo to all Washington Post staffers Thursday afternoon, according to JimRomenesko.com. In the memo, Brauchli said while some reporters covering a specific topic may share sections of their story for accuracy, entire stories should never be sent to sources.
In an interview with The Daily Texan, Gene Burd, associate journalism professor and former Houston Chronicle reporter, said journalists do not share articles with sources.
“You just don’t do it,” Burd said.
It is always unethical to share a full draft of a story with a source prior to publication, Burd said, adding he was shocked to hear of a Washington Post reporter doing so.
“There’s nothing wrong with rechecking and checking and cross-checking, but to provide a story or a text and get the source’s approval before you submit it, or certainly publish it, is just verboten,” he said.
According to the Texas Observer, in a March 5 e-mail to Tara Doolittle, UT’s director of media outreach, de Vise wrote, “Everything here is negotiable. Help me out by not circulating this material very far and by stressing that it is an unpublished draft. If you or anyone at the university has any concerns about it, I implore you to direct them to me. I’m one of a very few reporters here who send drafts to sources!”
Doolittle, along with UT media relations director Gary Susswein, reviewed the story and sent it back to de Vise with their edits. In the e-mails, Susswein said the story was bad and told Doolittle both of them needed to go through it with a heavy red pen. Doolittle told the Texan she checked the draft because the reporter offered and it provided for an extra measure to ensure accuracy. Both Susswein and Doolittle worked as journalists before they assumed their current positions at UT.
Susswein was out of town and not available for comment.
David Bassine, advertising junior and marketing director for Texas New Media, an organization promoting multimedia use in journalism, said the sharing of an article with its source seems unethical because it could inadvertently compromise the integrity of the piece.
“I‘m sure that it could influence something,” he said.
Wanda Cash, associate director of the school of journalism, agreed, telling the Texan she would only condone sharing even a portion of an article with a source in extreme cases to ensure technical accuracy.
“I was in the journalism business for 25 years before I came to UT to teach journalism and I’ve never, in my professional career and now in my academic career, condoned any kind of prior review of stories by news sources,” she said.
Kelly McBride, Poynter Institute journalism professor, said while the practice of sharing an article with a source is controversial, it is not unheard of, and helpful in certain cases.
“It’s best to do it in a way that the source understands that you are doing it simply for accuracy sake and that you’re not turning over editing to the source,” she said in an interview.
McBride said in this case the reporter’s e-mails do seem inappropriate, however, but she believes his intentions were fair.
“If I had been his editor, I would have instructed him to word his e-mails in a way so that he could have articulated his desire for independence as well as his desire for accuracy,” she said.