Ask a Freelancer: Should I Let a Source Review My Article Before It’s Published?By Nicole Dieker February 3rd, 2015
I’ve been freelancing for a while but only recently decided to focus on freelance writing full-time. Since I’ve been taking on more articles, I’ve noticed a trend of sources wanting to either see my questions before the interview or review a draft of the article before it’s published. It doesn’t happen too often, but enough for me to wonder if it’s something most freelancers encounter. Is this normal? What’s the best way to handle it?
I recently received an email from a person who wanted to interview me for a white paper. Instead of committing right away, I responded by asking for more details about the project, which was wise, because after he explained what he was looking for, I knew I wouldn’t have been a good source. If I hadn’t asked for more specifics, both of us would have wasted time on an interview that wouldn’t have been very useful.
When people want to know what questions you plan to ask, they’re often performing their due diligence to make sure they can provide the information you need. Since this request is fairly common, I just address it outright when contacting a source for the first time to avoid any confusion: “I’d like to interview you on This Newsworthy Topic, and I will be asking questions such as X, Y, and Z. Is this something you’d be interested in doing?”
Protocol for forwarding questions in advance really depends on what type of article you’re writing. Most of the time, giving some background information will help you get more detail out of an interview subject. However, if you’re asking tough questions and want to pay attention to body language, then you probably want to keep the questions confidential.
As the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy’s Journalist’s Resource explains: “Though it is not good professional practice to give questions in advance to sources such as public officials, with experts you may want to email some general questions before speaking on the phone or in person.”
Ultimately, the real gray area comes into play when sources ask to review a draft of an article before it gets published.
That happened to me one time after I interviewed someone who worked for a major company. He wanted to make sure he hadn’t said anything that should have been off the record, I thought that sounded fair, so I sent him the draft.
Then I told my editor, who said, “Don’t do that again.”
Showing sources drafts of articles can certainly compromise the integrity of your reporting. But, doing so can also help you ensure facts and names are correct. If you research the topic online, you’re probably going to find a lot of chest-beating journalists talking about concrete ethics. That’s not to say these people are wrong, they’re just the ones most likely to speak up about it.
However, Washington Post writer Erik Wemple brings a really interesting perspective to the debate that many veteran journalists might be overlooking: “It’s a convention built on the idea that journalists are so brilliant that they can get a complicated set of facts and circumstances dead-bang right on the first try without feedback from the people who know the topic best.” As you may have guessed, Wemple isn’t apologetic about sharing drafts with his sources.
I have worked with some sources who have “gotten around” the issue of approving quotations by only agreeing to answer questions via email. In this case, the source knows precisely how he or she will be quoted because the source has written out the quotations verbatim.
Ultimately, you have a responsibility both to your sources and your audience. You have a responsibility to quote your sources accurately, share any information that should be off the record, and—in my opinion, anyway—present your source in a way that doesn’t make him/her inadvertently look bad. How do you do this without letting your source review your draft? Here are a few ideas:
— Email your source after the interview to check on specific facts rather than sending a finished copy.
— Ask during the interview if your can publish a particular piece of sensitive information on the record—something I often do when a source states his or her salary, for example.
— Ask to clarify any part of the interview that was ambiguous or might be misinterpreted.
— And if your source contacts you with a concern about a part of the interview, address that concern.
If you’re unsure about what to do when that PR rep wants to confirm everything you’ve written about a brand is accurate, talk to your editor, who is usually the best person to help you find a solution.
In many ways, the advice I wrote in the Ask a Freelancer column about different methods of interviewing also applies here: For each article, step back and ask yourself one crucial question: What method of communication best aids the integrity of the story?
So while I wouldn’t necessarily make a habit of sharing drafts with sources, doing so can actually be beneficial from time to time. Remember, the most important goal should be to get the facts right, and if you have to overrule a hardened journalistic practice to do so, that’s okay.
Nicole Dieker believes that you should always defer important questions to your editor—unless, of course, you’d like to send your question to the Ask a Freelancer column. Please email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.Image by momopixs