I was alerted by an Eric Asimov tweet to an article in the New York Times about the growing tendency of interview subjects insisting on approving quotes before publication.
This is a huge no-no for journalists. One of the rules of journalism is that no one gets shown an article for approval purposes. It just isn’t done.
But people in the news want to control what is said about them. If you are a journalist, you need access to important people in the field that you are covering. In my case, I need access to the leading winemakers, wine scientists, retailers, and so on. I rely on the time-generosity of busy people. They could easily say no. This gives them leverage, which can be abused.
Commonly, people who create the news control who has access to them for interviews and quotes. They can punish those who write things they don’t like by withdrawing that access. Or, as is being reported in the NYT article, it is becoming common to insist on quote approval before granting the interview. That sucks.
As a wine journalist, I come across people trying to control the media all the time. It’s worse when you go through PR agencies or in house PRs, rather than speak to people directly. Many companies clearly have a policy that no communication is released to journalists without being manicured and censored by the comms people. They inevitably take out anything remotely interesting or controversial, and render the quotes so bland that if you used them your article would sound like PR, not journalism.
And then there are the people who just don’t respond. A delayed response or no response at all is a more subtle form of media control: it’s hard to write an article without any quotes.
Of course, journalists have responsibilities too. We need to make sure our quoting is accurate, and that our treatment of stories is fair. We should avoid allowing our agendas to distort the stories we write. If journalists behave unprofessionally in these ways, then they deserve to have their access cut off. And there are occasions where access really has to be limited, and in this case a ranking system of journalists will need to be used. That’s OK.
What disturbs me is a sense of collusion between journalists and those who make the news. A cosy relationship—where a journo gives a nice soft ride to subjects in return for continued privileged access—is death to good journalism. It’s PR.
In the wine industry, there is an ‘establishment’. Many wine journos choose to remain part of this establishment. They don’t rock the boat. They get looked after very well, and they churn out largely comfortable, reassuringly positive stories. If anyone complains about the cosiness of this relationship, then people point out that it’s just wine and that it’s not like reporting politics or business or foreign affairs, as if that somehow makes it acceptable. Yes, I understand that the world isn’t black or white, but it would be great to preserve at least a few different shades of grey.
I respect people who don’t try to control me, and speak to me even though there is a chance they might not like what I write. I am very happy for them to record interviews (if I were a newsworthy person I would tape any interaction I had with a journalist and let them know that I am doing it). But I am not going to show them articles or quotes ahead of publication. And increasingly I am recording all my interviews as well as making notes, just to protect me from claims that I have not quoted someone accurately.