Tuned In

Get Me Rewrite: Why Are Political Journalists Letting Sources Change Their Quotes?

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The next time you read a campaign story that includes the phrase “a senior adviser said,” you might want to think of it as “a senior adviser said, after giving a talking to a reporter, getting the quote emailed back, and revising it to what he or she wishes he or she actually said.”

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on a depressing media practice that is perhaps only surprising in journalists’ willingness to admit that they do it. Regularly, they do interviews with government and campaign officials on condition of “quote approval,” sending back quotes to be “redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative.” Obama officials get takebacks on too-interesting lines; quotes from Mitt Romney’s sons must pass review of the campaign press office. (To its credit, the Times piece noted that the paper’s own reporters are among the many who do this.)

Sheesh. I could rant on and on about this, but let’s keep it simple. There’s a standard for whether or not a quote should appear in a news piece: whether or not the subject actually said it. Period. Not what the subject wishes they said, realizes on second thought it would be better to have said, or found out from the boss they’re not allowed to say. Anything else is public relations. [Usual disclaimer: I’m not stating TIME’s own policy or practice here—I’m TIME’s media critic, not its editor or ombudsman.]

The argument in favor—and I disagree with it but don’t want to just dismiss it—is that if you don’t accede to these conditions, someone else will, and they’ll get the interview, and you’ll have to explain it to your boss. That’s the kind of rationalization you might once have heard for letting a celebrity choose the writer for a profile or sending their publicist a draft of the story—and even in Hollywood journalism the practice is icky enough.

What’s maybe most disturbing in the Times piece was what I didn’t see: editors or producers saying, “We shouldn’t be doing this, and we’d rather go without an interview than agree to it.” Because the argument that “sources have the control now” is bogus—you have control if you have the power to say no. And honestly, would the world—or one outlet’s coverage—be worse if it had fewer horserace stories on how Adviser A reacts to Opponent B’s attack on Flash-in-the-Pan Issue C?

The alternative stories they’d have to do instead—about voters, policies, the problems that the parties propose to fix and how—would very possibly be better. It might be surprising what you can find out when you have to rely on sources who are willing to say what they mean the first time.