Thou shalt not concoct thy quote

Supreme Court decides on the rules of the quotation game

Masson v. New Yorker Magazine reversed an earlier ruling that the quotes attributed to Jeffrey Masson by Janet Malcolm were allowable.

By Steve Weinberg

Now a freelance writer in Missouri, Steve Weinberg was a staff writer for several newspapers and magazines and executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 7 (July/August 1991), pp. 3-4.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

“In this libel case, a public figure claims he was defamed by an author who, with full knowledge of the inaccuracy, used quotation marks to attribute to him comments he had not made.”

Masson v. New Yorker

If Janet Malcolm had let Jeffrey Masson read her profile of him for The New Yorker ahead of publication, a law suit recently sustained by the U.S.

Supreme Court probably never would have progressed to its current dangerous stage.

Most journalists oppose pre-publication review (PPR, for short) on ethical and legal grounds. They won’t show an entire story or even part of it to a source in manuscript form. They won’t participate in telephone readbacks. They won’t check direct quotations for accuracy and context.

But that journalistic taboo is misguided. I have practiced PPR as a newspaper staff writer, a magazine freelancer and a book author. Never have I regretted my practice. What I do regret is failing to do it during the first decade of my career because of mindless adherence to tradition.

I started using PPR occasionally while working as a project reporter on the Des Moines Register in the mid-70s. It was the first time I had the luxury of writing non-deadline stories and therefore the opportunity to check for accuracy. Many sources had feared talking to me, knowing when I called, it usually meant they’d be part of an investigative piece. But promising them the chance to check my manuscript gave them the self-assurance to talk after all.

It was nearly ten years ago that I started making PPR my normal practice. The story that played a major role in my decision was the same one that led me to forever abandon relying on anonymous sources. Ironically, it was not an investigative piece but a fairly light feature for a leading journalism magazine.

The topic: computer-assisted reporting, something very new in 1982. My peg was a Washington correspondent for a major metropolitan daily who’d devised marvelous techniques for building computer databases that yielded interesting pieces. Some of the reporter’s colleagues, however, disliked this newfangled journalism. I quoted one of the detractors, anonymously. My point: to show that anybody considering such a high-tech method might run into newsroom doubters.

That anonymous quote started a witch hunt within the newsroom to identify my source. The Washington bureau chief begged me, then angrily ordered me, to reveal the name to him. I refused. The anonymous source was upset, too, because of the witch hunt and because he/she felt I’d failed to use strong enough criticism.

During the midst of this brouhaha, I attended my first journalism ethics conference and realized the stupidity of anonymous sourcing and of risking inaccuracy unnecessarily.

Journalists have lots of ethical obligations; at or near the top of the list is accuracy. And accuracy encompasses a great deal, including getting facts straight, quotations verbatim, paraphrases in proper form when eschewing exact quotes, and providing context. PPR allows reporters and editors to accomplish those goals without surrendering control over the ultimate story.

Maybe Janet Malcolm will become a convert. Her main outlet has always been The New Yorker, which was previously renowned for its fact-checking. But her profile of psychoanalyst Masson was checked only part way. If he’d been permitted to review his quotes, he and Malcolm might have worked out their differences. Instead, they’re enmeshed in a multi-million dollar, multi-year, unnecessary libel action that could seriously erode journalists’ First Amendment protections.

By now, numerous journalists reading this are likely apoplectic. I’ve raised this topic in enough newsrooms while conducting investigative reporting workshops to know I’ll get hate letters and enraged phone calls. But the prospect of the Malcolm-Masson dispute going to trial is reason enough to subject myself to the ire once more. And every time I raise the subject, I hear from journalists who practice PPR but fear coming out of the closet.

PPR has many benefits. First, it often gets me access to sources otherwise reluctant to talk because they’ve been misquoted or because they have a vested interest in keeping quiet, or both. My written promise of pre-publication review puts some of their fears at rest. Of course, I spell out that the review is for purposes of accuracy only and that I retain total control over whether to make alterations.

Second, PPR has occasionally caught errors of fact or interpretation, which is the point.

Third, PPR has jogged the memory of sources, who often offer me even better quotes, even more compelling evidence, than during the original interview.

The objections I hear from journalists fall into four broad categories:

  • Sources might deny direct quotes or other information, thus censoring the story before it appears. My reply: If the denials ring true, it’s time to reevaluate the evidence. If, on the other hand, my shorthand notes, tape recording and/or documents confirm my version, I change nothing.
  • Sources might place pressure on higher-ups in the news organization to kill the story before publication. This is a melodramatic objection that almost never happens and has certainly never happened to me. If it did, I’d present my evidence to my editor or whomever and if he or she failed to back me, I’d never work for them again. I’d also make sure my colleagues knew of their cowardice.
  • Sources might threaten to sue upon reading the manuscript. So what, I reply. Courts almost always reject pre-publication censorship. Besides, if a source is angry enough to make that threat, the same source who hasn’t seen the article beforehand might sue after publication. Should that occur, many judges and juries would be impressed that the reporter offered an opportunity to check accuracy. 
  • Pre-publication review is unprofessional. Reply: No matter how much we like to think journalists get stories correct, this is wishful thinking.

Every journalist I know who’s been quoted but not afforded PPR has later complained about being misquoted or taken out of context.

Using PPR might spare media the necessity of running corrections and clarifications almost daily. It is shocking that some magazines, The New Yorker included, some newspapers and perhaps the majority of broadcast stations afford no opportunities for setting the record straight, short of litigation.

Any journalist condemning pre-publication review reflexively — because “it just isn’t done” — ought to try it at least once. In the unlikely event it backfires, then there is cause for debate.

 

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