Editor's Voice: Review Policy Wards Off Spin Doctors





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Irate sources call editors at The Daily Californian several times each semester to tell us that a story is dead wrong. The disaster could have been averted, the caller often argues, had the Daily Cal just let the source see the story before it ran.

No chance.

In order to avoid the dreaded "spin," The Daily Californian has a policy that prohibits reporters from sending stories to sources before publication. Permitting sources to review stories would amount to relinquishing editorial control.

Cynthia Gorney, an associate professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a veteran reporter, says large, upstanding news organizations rarely, if ever, allow sources to review stories before publication.

Editors at The New York Times and other major publications balk at the practice. For one thing, it allows sources to attempt to retract remarks made during previous interviews, Gorney says.

Journalists must use their own judgement to distinguish the difference between portraying someone fairly and taking their remarks out of context, she adds.

"Your job is not to get the great quote but to represent their views in the paper," Gorney says.

But errors do occur. If sources were to review stories before publication, they would probably catch factual details, Gorney says. The solution? Gorney says reporters must check the facts in a story "obsessively." She maintains reporters must act with a strong moral imperative to get things right.

"Reporters make mistakes," the longtime Washington Post reporter says. "We hear things wrong. What you do is to make sure you get it right."

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. For example, Gorney recently completed a magazine article about a medical procedure. She says she plans to send the technical portion of the story to experts for review, but not the entire story.

Similarly, The Daily Californian sends the technical portions of stories to researchers for review.

Newspapers send out this portion of the story because expertise in technical stories is required to get the facts straight.

Case in point: I once interviewed an affordable housing activist who leveled some serious criticisms against the university. He told me in a dry and serious tone that there was no reason I or any other reporters working on the story should speak with university officials because he could refute anything they said.

"Well," I said, "I need to present their point of view."

Then could I just e-mail him the story so he could correct any "factual errors" before the story ran?

"No," I responded, "We have a policy against that." But I told him I would call him later to confirm facts.

"All right," he conceded, clearly disappointed.

Later, a fellow reporter called him back to clear up facts. The next day, the phone rang at my desk. Before I could finish identifying myself, the very same source said the story was "all wrong."

"A person who does not like the general tone of your story can say it's wrong," Gorney says. "That's really a subjective question about error. That's one reason you don't show people."

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