Washington Post’s new rules on quotations and story drafts

Controversies over quote approval on the campaign trail and a Washington Post reporter sharing his story drafts with the PR people at the University of Texas at Austin prompted this memo:

From: Marcus Brauchli
Date: July 26, 2012 4:08:01 PM EDT
To: NEWS – All Newsroom
Subject: Rules on quotations and story drafts

To the staff:

Over the last several days, there have been reports raising compelling questions of journalistic ethics in the practices of allowing sources to set rules on the use of quotations and the sharing of story drafts. We’d like to remind everyone of some core principles and lay down guidelines that should govern those practices at The Post.

The central principle of our journalism is to report the facts as closely as we can ascertain them. We should never do or promise to do anything that would shade the truth or call into question our commitment to reporting the news accurately and fairly. That is essential to the trust we enjoy from the people we work for, our readers.

In response to the issues raised recently, we are modifying the relevant sections of The Post Stylebook. Please read this carefully. We encourage further discussion and will incorporate these specific points in upcoming sessions of Newsroom University.

Marcus Liz John Shirley Peter

Our objective in quoting people is to capture both their words and intended meaning accurately. That requires care in negotiating ground rules with sources. We do not allow sources to change the rules governing specific quotations after the fact. Once a quote is on the record, it remains there.

Sometimes, a source will agree to be interviewed only if we promise to read quotations back to the source before publication. We should not allow sources to change what was said in an original interview, although accuracy or the risk of losing an on-the-record quote from a crucial source may sometimes require it. A better and more acceptable alternative is to permit a source to add to a quotation and then explain that sequence to readers. If you find yourself in this gray area, consult with your editor.

Some reporters share sections of stories with sources before publication, to ensure accuracy on technical points or to catch errors. A science writer, for instance, may read to a source a passage, or even much of a story, about a complex subject to make sure that it is accurate. But it is against our policy to share drafts of entire stories with outside sources prior to publication, except with the permission — which will be granted extremely rarely — of the Executive Editor or Managing Editor.

In negotiating terms of engagement with a source, reporters and editors should be prepared for everything they say or write, in any medium, on the telephone or in person, to become public. They should make no promises, agree to no compromises and offer no concessions that aren’t compatible with this policy and The Post’s standards. Clarity and straightforwardness in our communications with sources is essential.