OLD Media Moves

Quote approval and the business journalist

August 31, 2012

Posted by Liz Hester

Jeremy W. Peters of the New York Times started an interesting debate with his July 15 story about political campaigns demanding quote approval in exchange for access to top officials – one that caused many journalists to cringe.

You can read the original story here, but its most surprising aspect was its narrow focus. The article talked only about political journalism, but the practice is prevalent in financial journalism as well. There was no mention about how quotes from CEOs, bankers or senior financial executives are also reviewed and altered.

The story also missed a major point — bankers and other financiers don’t need reporters the same way politicians do, giving them more leverage in controlling the message.

One PR executive, who’s worked for both an agency and a large firm, said a slip up in the media could cost millions and pointed out that many clients value a firm’s ability to be discrete. It’s typical to ask to review quotes, and it usually happens.

This leaves a small amount of room for reporters to push back when an interview is “on background, check back quotes.” If a journalist refuses, s/he runs the risk of having no quote at all.

With ever-increasing pressure to beat the competition on deadlines measured in seconds, few organizations can afford to give up access to those at the top or spend large amounts of time negotiating. Often it’s easier to take the terms, get the information and get the story out. But what exactly is compromised when sources are allowed to change quotes?

“Quote approval” nullifies, or at least seriously dilutes, reporters’ ability and duty to be honest brokers of information,” former CBS news anchor Dan Rather wrote in CNN opinion piece. “When the quotes are sanitized, then delivered intact with full attribution, the public has no way of knowing what the concealed deal was.”

Rather, who also called the practice “jaw-dropping,” also pointed out that it was natural for political candidates to want to control the message and said it was up to the reporter to prevent that from happening. But politicians inherently need the media to get their names out or to show voters back home their positions. It’s the rare multi-millionaire who invests with a fund manager because of a Wall Street Journal quote.

In a July 20 broadcast for NPR’s On the Media, Bob Garfield interviewed Edward Wasserman, the Knight Chair of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, who said the practice made checked quotes no different than a press release. The nearly seven minute piece also included Associated Press Washington bureau chief Sally Buzbee, who said her reporters had a clear idea of the expectations and reporting standards. A spokesman for the organization said the AP wanted “no part of the rinse cycle.”

Bloomberg News sent a memo to select employees clarifying the policies on quotes and saying sending them to others to review is “a surrender of editorial control.” Carol Stark, editor of the Joplin (MO) Globe, wrote an editorial July 29 calling for the practice to stop and pointing out it wasn’t something allowed in her newsroom.

But while many editors are denouncing the practice, it’s still hard for a financial reporter to push back. Getting an on-the-record interview is made even harder when your competition shows sources quotes.

And if you’re just out of j-school and new to your beat covering a small corner of the financial market, good luck. It takes years to build relationships and most importantly, trust. Many in the industry won’t consider taking the risk of putting a banker on-the-record with a cub reporter. It’s hard to build a name and learn the market if you don’t have access to those most important to it.

The closest many financial firms come to the unknown is broadcast. There’s no taking back a live TV interview. Many of the executives are prepped, coached and given talking points, but the voice that comes across is authentically theirs. This was one of the arguments in the NYT’s original piece, that readers aren’t getting the color and personalities when campaigns scrub quotes.

On NPR, Mark Leibovich of the New York Times Magazine said it ultimately came down to a decision of information and access versus journalism best-practices. He admitted to checking quotes on occasion and wished for a blanket policy to hide behind when negotiating with sources.

Obviously, not all reporters check quotes and no news organization sets out to negotiate that type of deal with a source. PR executives are simply doing their jobs, shaping the message as best they can.

The conversation is one that will likely continue as reporters push back on sources and seek more on-the-record interviews or cite newsroom policies. But that conversation needs to include business journalism.

Liz Hester is a writer for Talking Biz 2.

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