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Outlook: Why I Let Sources Read Stories Prior to Publication
Outlook: Why I Let Sources Read Stories Prior to Publication

The benefits go beyond checking and verifying content

By Ed Cohen

Philippe Lechien

I’ve known great reporters and editors over the years who never let their sources read a story before it’s posted or published.

They’re afraid that they’ll be branded a flack. Or that their source will turn their masterpiece into a puff piece. Fresh, realistic-sounding quotes may come back sounding like software documentation. Give professors the draft of a story, some editors believe, and they’ll revise it to sound like an article for an academic journal.

On many campus writing projects, source reviews are mandatory. The client paying to print and mail that viewbook or president’s report demands sign-off privileges—and should get them. But with magazines, the protocol is less clear.

When I write or edit a piece for a college or university magazine, I usually invite source review. Here’s why:

  1. Accuracy. I always tell my sources that accuracy is my No. 1 priority. It’s true. Nothing makes me sicker than discovering I did something wrong that I could have done right.  
  2. Rapport. Often when you’re interviewing someone for a story, it’s the first time you’ve met. Why should they trust you? Many faculty and administrators have been misquoted, quoted out of context, or included in a factually flawed piece. That’s why I usually start interviews by saying, “Don’t worry, this is going to be a stress-free experience. You’ll get to see the story before it goes public.” This puts people at ease, which promotes candor and usually generates better quotes.
  3. Most people are reasonable. When I show sources the draft of an article, I say, “Please give it a read, and let me know if you have any corrections or suggestions.” I word it that way intentionally. I’m going to correct factual errors, but everything else is up for discussion. For example, I wrote a piece about colonizing Mars. An ethicist I interviewed took the position that earthlings need to be careful about introducing germs into a foreign environment. In my draft, I used the analogy of how the diseases European explorers brought decimated Native American populations. The natives had no resistance. The ethicist wanted to use the term immune naïve to describe the natives. We reached a compromise, referring to indigenous populations instead. In 20-plus years of negotiating stories this way, I can think of many times a source saved my butt from a mistake. I can count on one finger the times we couldn’t find common ground and had to abandon the piece.  
  4. It gets me interviews. When you act responsibly and produce good work, word gets around. At the start of an interview, I’ve had people mention a story of mine they liked. Often it was about one of their colleagues. The secret was out: I could be trusted.
  5. My editorial independence remains what it is—limited. Readers know that the editorial sensibilities of an institutional magazine will be different than those of the local newspaper or a national news organization. We should aim for careful, direct, journalistic writing. Still, one of my favorite quotes about journalism is “Freedom of the press is for the person who owns the press.” If you’re publishing a school magazine, the school owns the press, not you. If you want to be free from interference, start your own blog.

Doing source reviews this way is not capitulation; it’s more like verbal fitness training. It takes skill and stamina to satisfy source concerns yet keep the story accurate and readable. It takes diplomacy, too. Recently, a source asked me to change “third-place finish” to “third-place victory.” (I explained that victory means first place.) A more common obstacle is the source or supervisor who insists on calling things “excellent,” “innovative” or “critical” without providing examples to prove the point. Sometimes the facts exist, but the source hadn’t thought they were necessary. Or that they could go in footnotes, which magazines don’t have.

As with other kinds of fitness, the more you communicate with your sources and work collaboratively, the better you’ll get at source reviews. Don’t be afraid to give the exercise a try. 

About the Author Ed Cohen

Ed Cohen is the director of marketing and communication for the National Judicial College in Nevada.




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