Balance of Power Shifts to the Source?

On the first day of my news writing and reporting class, before we cover leads and nut graphs and quotes or anything else, I talk to students about interviewing techniques and best practices. Two issues I make sure to raise: (1) Don’t let the source review any quotes and (2) The first choice is to conduct the interview on the phone.

The rationale for these rules are quite simple: (1) You don’t want sources being able to edit themselves or worse even demand that comments they didn’t like in retrospect be removed; and (2) When given the chance to respond to e-mails or tweets or instant messages, sources have more time to write polished responses that might not reflect their immediate thoughts on a topic — or worse yet don’t even come for them (see press liaisons).

In short, giving in to sources who demand quote approval or interviews through e-mail (unless there’s a justifiable reason) allows them to dictate the rules of the game and shifts the balance of power too far away from journalists.

By now the controversy over news outlets allowing sources — particularly high-powered political sources — to approve quotes has been well documented. After months of outcry from journalists and journalism watchdogs, several outlets, most notably the New York Times, have recently forbid this practice.

But now the phone interview issue is making news. As Romenesko reported this week, an increasing number of sources are demanding that interviews take place anywhere but on the phone. A reporter wrote in saying,

I have been noticing an exponential increase in the number of people who will only communicate via email. It’s not “ordinary people,” but lately it seems like anyone, in any large organization, just refuses to talk on the phone. “Submit your questions in writing” or “send me an email” is the most common response. I’ve been doing this for a few years, and I know groups have different policies on this, but in my limited, anecdotal experience, the practice is just exploding.

The post notes that this isn’t just happening in the political world but also in business and other enterprises.

While this controversy might not gain as much traction as quote approval, it is just as troubling because it speaks to the changing relationship between source and journalist at a time when professional standards seem to be changing rapidly.

My message to students: Take a principled stand against allowing sources to dictate the rules of the interview. Quote approval is a universal ‘no’. Only in rare cases do I see the value of e-mail or Twitter interviews. While interviews in writing might appear easier for both sides, the reason to do interviews at all is to gather authentic, contemporaneous statements. These most often come from spoken interviews.

If you’re a journalist and your source makes one of the above demands, unless he is Deep Throat you should be wondering — what is he so afraid of?