Quote Approval & Fallible Journalists

The executive editor of an influential technology news site recently replied to my email about a client’s breakthrough new technology. He tried it, had Web connectivity issues, and quickly declared:

“Seriously, I’ve looked at several such services, and this is not special. In fact, it’s a generic Windows DaaS service. So, please, stop pitching it to me.”

Wrong. It was no such thing and nothing like it currently exists, but I guess the two minutes we learned he spent testing the service was sufficient for him to reach his erroneous conclusion. I acquiesced and cut off any further engagement.

A contributor to a prominent business publication recently interviewed a client about a new financial service. The piece was posted online, but contained several significant factual mistakes. I asked my client to write directly to the reporter pointing out the errors and asking for them to be corrected — at least in the online version. The reporter wrote back claiming that she had fact-checked the article and refused to make the changes – even though they were clearly incorrect.

Was it laziness, sloppiness or just plain arrogance that prompted this “holier than thou” attitude? And am I the only one who has observed a dramatic rise in the number of such reporting mistakes? It’s no wonder newsmakers would rather bypass the editorial filter altogether to communicate directly with their key constituencies.

Writer Michael Lewis

The latest affront to the PR profession — as if PR pros needed more agida — arrived in July via a column titled “Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back” from New York Times media industry reporter Jeremy Peters.

Mr. Peters followed it up last week with a second post in which he called out one of today’s most respected non-fiction writers Michael (“Moneyball,” “Liars Poker”) Lewis for agreeing to let President Obama’s PR team pre-approve their boss’s quotes for a substantive profile in Vanity Fair magazine:

“Like other journalists who write about Washington and presidential politics, Mr. Lewis said that he had to submit to the widespread but rarely disclosed practice of quote approval.”

This revelation, which (uncomfortably) broadens the long-standing practice of entertainment PR types leveraging access to their celebrity clientele to gain more control over the end editorial product, set outraged media pundits’ tongues-a-waggin: Here’s a sampling:

Vanity Fair’s Michael Lewis gave WH quote approval for piece in which he had amazing access to Obama, staff for 8 mos. thebea.st/OnOPOX
— HowardKurtz (@HowardKurtz) September 11, 2012

Access porn. Read about the White House letting Michael Lewis all the way in for his Vanity Fair piece. nyti.ms/QhkJsw With a catch.
— Jay Rosen(@jayrosen_nyu) September 11, 2012

Michael Lewis is a fantastic writer, but in giving White House quotes veto, he failed basic journalism nyti.ms/U6pki7 (as so many do)
— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) September 11, 2012

Romenesko: Afternoon report: * Michael Lewis gave the White House quote approval for his lat… bit.ly/TH1gqf #journo #journalism
— Journalism Buzz (@JournalismBuzz) September 11, 2012

David Carr

Last night, the Times’s David Carr fueled the ire with a piece titled “The Puppetry of Quotation Approval,” which instantly prompted a whole new round of PR bashing and journalistic hand-wringing. In it, Felix Salmon of Reuters said:

“Requests for quote approval rise in direct proportion to the involvement of P.R. people. As he flack-to-hack ratio continues to rise, the number of requests for quote-approval will continue to rise as well.”

(Hmmm. I wonder if Felix’s quote was procured via email?) Others:

@carr2n: good piece, David — keep fighting the good fight  🙂
— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) September 17, 2012

“The quotation is the last refuge of spontaneity in an age of endlessly managed messages” @carr2n on a hated PR habit nyti.ms/QiS6Ol
— A Edgecliffe-Johnson (@Edgecliffe) September 17, 2012

Listen, I’m a huge fan of @Carr2n’s, and a big booster of quality journalism. I’ve publicly lamented the degradation of this noble and essential profession. But, does anyone realistically believe that the shortcomings in journalism can be laid at the feet of PR “puppets” who mostly seek to have their clients POVs recorded and reported accurately? Doesn’t advance fact-checking and quote review actually make for more accurate reporting?

Ferguson’s Discredited Piece

Who wasn’t surprised when it was learned that Newsweek, in defense of its much-maligned Niall Ferguson take down of Pres. Obama’s economic policies, hadn’t fact-checked articles for years. (Maybe it wasn’t so surprising given Mr. Ferguson’s many dubious assertions.) And hasn’t a site like the Huffington Post taken this concept to a new level by turning over its editortial real estate to “experts” who enjoy seeing their views published completely absent a journalistic filter? Even Mr. Carr acknowledges:

“Reporters don’t generally record most interviews and can’t always type or write as quickly as a subject is speaking. I have been written about enough to know that what appears in quotation marks is sometimes an approximation of what is actually said. Sources want to protect themselves from routine distortion.”

NYTimes Public Editor Margaret Sullivan

Mr. Carr’s post prompted New York Times new Public Editor Margaret Sullivan to weigh in with a post titled “The Times Needs a Policy on Quotation Approval and Soon,” in which she wrote:

Some parts of the practice, I believe, do fall into a black-and-white realm. The idea that a reporter must send a written version of a quotation to a source or his press representation for approval or tweaking is the extreme version of the “quote approval” practice and it ought to be banned in a written rule.

In fact, I strongly urge all news organizations to forbid this practice, and, if they do, they will surely find strength in numbers. News sources – particularly those in the political sphere – do want to get their message out. They will not stop speaking to The Times or The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post because of such a policy.

She’s right.  The Times, The Journal and the Washington Post carry too much weight (and social influence) for political newsmakers (and their PR consiglieres) to bypass altogether.  Yet, the goal for reporters should be to get it right…not to publish the most inflammatory spur-of-the-moment link bait that may or may not be captured verbatim.

If this means working more closely with newsmakers and their designated PR reps, I’m all for it. However, should PR people with high in-demand clients have the right to pre-approve the content of a story, quotes included?  Mostly no, but if it helps ensure a story’s accuracy by moe closely reflecting a newsmaker’s POV, yes.  It’s not black & white.

3 Comments

  1. Alyssa Galella
    September 23, 2012

    It seems kind of crazy to me that I’ve worked in PR for more than 6 years and only had a fact-checker contact me once or twice. Meanwhile, I’ve worked with journalists countless times who got major facts wrong in their stories (I’m talking simple, easily-Googleable facts like an exec’s title or the name of the company). I know journalists are under more pressure than ever to churn out tons of stories a day, but come on. Most of them are apologetic when gently corrected and make the change in the online version of the story right away, but a few have become indignant and said something like, “Well, I just won’t include your client next time,” no matter how politely they were notified of the error.
    Jane McGonigal started an interesting Twitter conversation recently about being misquoted: http://storify.com/rungomez/are-journalists-liars-interviewees-sources-tweet-u I’ve heard of celebrities (who have been burned by misquotes in the past) tape-recording all the interviews they do. Ideally, both the reporter and the interviewee would make their own recordings of the conversation, so quotes can be easily fact-checked and they can prove what was said, if there’s a dispute.
    I had an experience where I provided some information to a reporter on background and she called to ask if she could quote my email verbatim, attributed to me. I said no, but that I was happy to connect her with my client if she needed a soundbite, or she could attribute the information to “a [Company Name] spokesperson.” She went ahead and printed the quote attributed to me anyway. My client was not happy and I didn’t have proof that the phone conversation ever happened. Now, I try to mostly communicate with reporters via email (unless I have a relationship with them and know I can trust them), so I have everything in writing.
    I don’t think Michael Lewis should be berated for agreeing to quotation approval for his Obama story, though. He had two choices: a) Agree to it and be able to write the story or b) Don’t agree to it and get no access to Obama. The option he took seems like a logical compromise. Do I think that his actions mean that more PR people are going to start demanding quote approval from journalists? Not really…unless their client is the President of the United States, the journalist will just laugh and decide not to write about them.

  2. nabeel
    September 22, 2012

    it was a great post buddy ! keep it up !
    i appreciate yu if it was written by yu.
    also check my softbitz 

  3. Keith Trivitt
    September 17, 2012

    Smart post, Peter, and thanks for sharing the PR pros’ perspective on this issue. It is one I have closely followed for quite some time, both during my days working at PRSA (when the issue of quote approval was just starting to gain some prominent attention from reporters) and after having left the organization. Like you, I am frankly annoyed and dismayed that when presented with the harsh facts that they have for years been acquiescing to an approval process that they essentially have the power to veto, some reporters seem to roll over and give all power of the interview to their subjects.

    Here’s some of the comment I left on The Times’ Media Decoder blog today as David Carr tried to figure out what lies at the root of the problem:

    <span>The fact that it has become widely known that many reporters have been agreeing to quote approval for sources is a good thing, for journalism and for the public. As a longtime PR professional, I have never been comfortable when my clients asked for approval of their quotes before they were published because, as one commenter notes, when you agree to give an interview, you are ceding some of the control over how that discussion is framed. That is part of the power and allure of having a third-party validation of your insight and perspective. </span>

    <span>But there is a larger point that needs to be addressed here: If reporters don’t like quote approval (and it appears that many do not), they should simply stop granting it. Blaming it on PR pros or their interviewees is not only misplaced but is essentially admitting that they have given up control over their story. I don’t think that’s the message reporters should be sending their readers. </span>

    <span>If you don’t agree with quote approval, stop doing it and admonish your colleagues who do. But blaming others for the growing use of quote approval seems to be a case of pot calling the kettle black. Reporters know how they can and should stop the practice of quote approval and it is up to them to take the proper actions to address this pernicious and growing issue.</span>