December 2005 Vol. 10 Issue 4
Watching your words with reporters

A reporter calls you and wants to write a story.

We’ve all been there. Your first thought after agreeing to the interview is, "I want to see this story before it goes out." In journalism that's known as a “source check,” and most reporters won't let you do it.

It's a journalistic law of sorts not to let sources look at stories before they’re published.

"I can't let you write the story or control how I'm going to do it," said Debbie Knox, a reporter with WISH-TV in Indianapolis. "We know our audience and we know what's going to work.

Another reporter, Tanya Brown, who covers the Purdue beat for the Lafayette Journal and Courier, said, “If I allow you to read quotes first then I'm compromising my ethics."

Chris Sigurdson, head of the Department of Agricultural Communication, sees other reasons why reporters avoid source checks.

"Very rarely do sources make stories better, make them harder hitting or make them more interesting,” he said. “Often, they get into toning it back or trying to control how they appear."

It would be difficult for reporters to allow source checks and still be true to what they heard and saw. "Few sources actually work to make it better, they work to protect themselves," Sigurdson said.

Style and ethics aside, journalists usually don't have time to let sources examine stories before they are published.

"We’re working on a very tight deadline,” said Janet Raloff, a reporter with the Washington D.C.-based Science News. “From the time I finish a story, to the time it ends up on the pages, it may be three hours."

Raloff's publication has tried offering source checks, but such short deadlines, and sources taming down quotes, made it a short-lived practice.

"In the past, when we’ve tried, on occasion, to run quotes by people they’ve changed quotes. They decided that their peers wouldn’t like the way it came across and they always toned it down to something really boring," she said.

A few places do offer source check. Purdue AgComm is one of them. AgComm writers have the time to offer source check but they also do it for a couple other reasons, Sigurdson said. "AgComm source checks for two reasons. One, to ensure accuracy and two, to make sure the source agrees with and supports the messages being sent out."

The fact remains that source checking writers are in the minority, so what are Purdue Extension personnel to do?

Reporters and media relations professionals suggest that you ask questions to make sure the reporter "gets it." It's also a good idea to provide reporters your home or cellular phone numbers so they can call you if they have questions.

Few reporters can hold a story an entire day just to ask you a question, but they will take the time to call you if they've got questions about a confusing point.

And reporters don't share those numbers. "I don't give those numbers out to anyone," Brown said.

You also can provide source material. If you have a Web site or paper that explains what you're talking about, share the URL or e-mail them the paper and you can always offer to check over the quotes or technical aspects of the story. Just don't expect the reporter to send you the story.

In the end it comes down to trust.

"I don’t know anybody who’s out there trying to do something wrong," Knox said.

While it may be nerve wracking talking to a reporter, think of the interview as free publicity for Extension and Purdue.

Kay Hagen, kjh@purdue.edu

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