City Paper is not for tourists
Post education reporter Daniel de Vise is in hot water today after a Texas Observer story revealed that he shared unpublished drafts of a story with officials at the University of Texas. Coming after the Post‘s refusal to say if it allows presidential campaign operatives to edit quotes in the paper, the Texas story only generates more questions about whether the Post is giving too much power to its sources.
De Vise traveled to the University of Texas in February to write a story about the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a controversial test that measures how much students learn in college. The exam, popular with conservatives, has thus far shown that students aren’t learning much in higher education. Officials at the publicly funded university wanted to avoid seeming dismissive of the test in a Republican state.
And de Vise obliged them. His emails back and forth with UT officials about the drafts are filled with some serious bowing-and-scraping. “Everything here is negotiable,” he wrote to a UT spokesperson, later adding, “I’m one of a very few reporters here who sends drafts to sources!”
Following more emails in which UT officials complained about how de Vise characterized their reactions to the test, de Vise softened language in the story.
Not sharing drafts with sources is a more flexible policy in journalism than, say, not plagiarizing. Sharing drafts or sections of drafts can make sure that a reporter got the facts right. But allowing sources to edit your copy is different, although it’s not clear whether de Vise did that. Certainly, it’s hard to be comfortable with de Vise’s assurance to his sources that “everything is negotiable.”
Post education editor Nick Anderson told the Observer that the story meets the paper’s standards. And de Vise has other defenders. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon (a former Washington City Paper managing editor) points out that de Vise’s story still shows that UT students were performing poorly on the test. Post media blogger (and former Washington City Paper editor) Erik Wemple writes that not sharing drafts is a relic of journalism’s “native arrogance.”
But de Vise’s practice of sharing drafts could violate the Post‘s “Standards and Ethics” document, especially if he does it as regularly as his emails suggest.
“It is not our policy to routinely read stories or parts of stories to sources or to share copy with outsiders before it has been fully edited by us,” the guide reads, which would seem to forbid the practice of frequently sharing drafts. Here’s the relevant portion of the document:
Sometimes sources will agree to be interviewed only if we promise to read quotations we plan to use back to the source before they are published. This can create difficult situations. We do not want to allow sources to change what was said in the original interview, but sometimes that cannot be avoided, or can be avoided only at the cost of losing an on-the-record quote from an important source. If you find yourself in this gray area, consult with your editor.
Some reporters have read stories back to sources before publication to ensure accuracy on technical points or to try to catch any errors before they appear in the paper. For a science writer to read a story, or passage, about a complex subject to a source to make sure it is accurate is a routine occurrence. But it is not our policy to routinely read stories or parts of stories to sources or to share copy with outsiders before it has been fully edited by us. A reporter who isn’t sure whether to read something to a source before publication should consult first with his or her editor.
Emphasis added. In other words, if Anderson permitted de Vise to share the drafts, he’s probably in the clear, but doing it regularly would break the Post‘s rules—-which, as Wemple wrote, could be outdated anyway.
While Anderson and de Vise didn’t respond to a request for comment from City Desk, former Post managing editor Raju Narisetti hasn’t been so tight-lipped. On Twitter, he retweeted a tweet calling de Vise’s sharing “pretty sketchy,” adding, “to put it mildly.”