On Quote Review: The Collegian’s New Policy
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
In last Sunday’s Student Council meeting, the minutes of which can be found on page 2, a representative from the Business and Finance Committee (BFC) aired his concerns about recent changes to the Collegian’s interview policy. “They used to send me which quotes they were going to include in an article before they published it, and they’ve just stopped doing that,” he said.
The representative was referring to the decision of this year’s editors to do away with a “quote review” policy that allowed anyone interviewed by this paper to review their quotes before publication and edit for language or substance.
This revisionist quote policy gave interviewees the power to change meaning after the fact, a power with the potential to undermine the candidness of their quotes and, in turn, the insight of our reporting. We cannot, in good faith, allow that to continue.
As more of our sources expect free rein to strike words from the record and redraft, it has become increasingly difficult for our reporters to provide perceptive coverage of this campus.
Over the course of the last year alone, sources have asked to revise their quotes to make them sound more eloquent. One source asked to add additional information to the body of a quote; another asked that a quote be taken off the record retroactively. All of the above situations violated established rules of journalistic ethics.
When interviews are given on the condition that quotes be sent back and changed after the fact, we are failing in our mission as a newspaper and effectively becoming an extension of the Office of Public Affairs.
It is worth noting that many of our most prominent sources at Kenyon do not request to see their quotes in advance, including President S. Georgia Nugent.
Although the Collegian will no longer allow sources to revise their quotes, we will continue to offer quote “read back” as a courtesy.
Quote read back maintains accountability between interviewer and interviewee: if a source is concerned that he or she misstated a fact, the source can have quotes read back over the phone or in person by a Collegian editor. Likewise, if a source is concerned that his or her words have been mis-transcribed, the source has the option to have the quotes in question read back. If we determine that a mistake has been made, we will revise the quote.
We have arrived at this decision after months of discussion among our editors and a careful consideration of the practices of collegiate and professional news organizations. The Associated Press does not allow quote approval. In August, The Harvard Crimson announced they planned to do away with quote review, claiming interviews that could later be revised ceased “to fulfill their purpose — to capture and channel the forthright, honest words of Harvard’s decision-makers to all those who might be affected by the decisions.” And last week, The New York Times announced they too were prohibiting “quote approval.”
As editors, we always want to make sure the Collegian is held to the highest ethical standards and follows the best journalistic practices. And in instances like this one, when other news agencies are implementing policies that we firmly believe will benefit the Collegian, we will follow suit.
We take misquotations seriously and, as with all other errors, strive to avoid them. To those we have misquoted in the past, we can only say: we regret that we have damaged your trust in us, but know that as the school year continues, we will continue to implement new policies to improve accountability and accuracy in every facet of our reporting.
Each week, the Collegian publishes thousands of words of copy, much of which is written by novice reporters. Every word is read by at least seven different staff members. Still, errors will evade this rigorous editing process. If that happens, we will correct them promptly — as recommended in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics — and make sure we’re taking measures to prevent similar mistakes in the future.
That’s why, after a series of recent inaccuracies in our sports section, we are in the midst of adding two fact checkers to our editorial staff. It’s also why we will be holding our reporters to even higher standards. We require our reporters to voice-record all interviews and to save those recordings for at least two weeks after publication to ensure that quotes can always be verified for factual accuracy and wording.
The representative of the BFC characterized this policy decision as “backtracking in terms of the accountability and transparency you have with interview subjects.” In actuality, this policy protects our sources while simultaneously doing right by our readers, who deserve to hear the facts as they are and not a revised or augmented version.
Since we announced this policy change to our staff at our fall training session, we have heard from multiple members of the campus community that they are nervous about consenting to interviews without prior review of their quotes. The truth is that we would rather go without a quote — no matter how useful — than permit sources to use our pages to mislead our readers.