Washington Post reporter shows drafts of story to college PR department

The Texas Observer’s Forrest Wilder reports Washington Post education reporter Daniel de Vise showed the University of Texas at Austin PR office at least two complete drafts of his article about a controversial standardized test and let them suggest edits. (The Observer got email exchanges through a public information request.)

Daniel de Vise

“Help me out by not circulating this material very far and by stressing that it is an unpublished draft,” the Post reporter wrote in an email to UT-Austin director of media outreach Tara Doolittle, a former Austin American-Statesman editor. “If you or anyone at the university has any concerns about it, I implore you to direct them to me. I’m one of a very few reporters here who send drafts to sources!”

In another email obtained by Wilder, de Vise said that he’s “never had a dissatisfied customer in this process. And that includes an article a few months ago about a school with one of the nation’s worst graduation rates.”

What the media ethicists say about this:
– Incoming UC-Berkeley journalism school dean Edward Wasserman: de Vise’s tactics are “hard to square with even the most source-friendly reporting practices.”

– UT-Austin journalism professor Renita Coleman: “It’s been a time-honored code that you don’t show sources stories before they run.”

– Poynter’s Kelly McBride: “I actually think that what those emails show is a very genuine effort on the part of the reporter to get not only the facts right but get the truth while remaining independent.”

De Vise declined comment to Texas Observer — I’ve also invited him to comment — but education editor Nick Anderson says “the story was completely up to our standards” and de Vise’s “interaction with sources are made in an effort to be fair, complete and accurate as possible.”

PR man Darren Allen writes on my Facebook wall: “Although I’ve been on the PR side for nearly seven years after 25 as a reporter, I would never ask or expect a reporter to send me a draft. I think my editors back in the day would have rightly fired me me if I ever showed a draft to a source.”

The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews wrote last October: “I show all of my stories before publication to all people mentioned to catch errors. Many of my colleagues think this is being too open, but I find people are friendlier when kept in the loop.”

* Washington Post reporter allows college officials to alter story on controversial test (Texas Observer)
* Trying to assess learning gives colleges their own test anxiety (Washington Post)