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Approval vs. accuracy: a crucial distinction

The New York Times reported July 15 on a new trend in the cat-and-mouse game that is politics-press relations: quote approval. Want an interview with a high-powered political operative? Only if you run their quotes by them for approval before publication.

It’s absurd, of course. It’s offensive. It’s embarrassing that apparently so many reporters accept it. And as an eloquent essay that acknowledges the nuance of political reporting and still comes out strongly against this “quote approval” game, I appreciated Dan Rather’s July 19 opinion piece for CNN.

What I want to point out here, though, is not outrage, but a very important distinction. It’s between “quote approval” and the “accuracy check,” which we are taught at the Missouri School of Journalism. I’ve had occasion to explain the “AC,” as we call it, in recent conversations with a colleague and a friend, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

It is not the same as quote approval. I bring this up because I fear that in the flurry of outrage about quote approval, one may be mistaken for the other.

The AC is part of fact-checking. Not every newsroom does it, but probably every newsroom should. Beyond making sure you’re spelling someone’s name right, or got all dates and other details correct in a story, the AC entails emailing or calling back your sources to double-check how you quoted them, paraphrased them, or otherwise referenced them in a story. (Keep in mind, this is not a luxury for sources who give interviews for broadcast, so it’s really more of an issue for print- and web-based reporting.)

“But what happens if they take a quote back?” I’ve been asked, along with a lot of other what-ifs. My response to all is: It depends.

It depends on you, the reporter, because you are in charge of what you write. And it depends on your editor, because she is in charge of what gets printed. These levers are not under the control of your source (unless you cede that control by bowing to power plays such as interviews based on “quote approval”). You are not seeking approval for a quote when you check its accuracy. You are checking its accuracy.

The accuracy check is both a courtesy and a method of thoroughness and verification. It’s also good source development, because it builds trust. And it’s good reporting, because it’s one more chance to talk to that source, kind of like a second interview.

More often than not, in my vast reporting experience (I’m kidding about the vast part, but serious about the frequency), the accuracy check yields better quotes and even more information, which you can either find time to fit into the story you’re about to publish, or keep on file for your next follow-up.

Occasionally, people want to tweak the wording of their quotes. Maybe they could have said something more eloquently. Maybe they got carried away when they talked to you the first time. Or maybe it suddenly dawns on them that going public about an issue could have serious repercussions for their personal or professional lives.

In most cases, the benefits of the accuracy check far outweigh the risks, which I see as: potential inconvenience, occasional awkwardness, and rarely a difficult ethical dilemma. This is journalism. And it’s life. It’s full of those risks, no matter what we do. I say we may as well do what we can to make sure we’re reporting about it accurately.

Far from “quote approval,” the accuracy check is a professional practice, not a trick in the old cat-and-mouse game. But, as far as that game goes, I think the press does its best work when we at least try to be the cat.

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