“Everything here is negotiable…”
Those are the words of a Washington Post reporter in a recent email to key sources for a coveted front page article. Included in the email was a working draft copy of the story. The news outlet Texas Observer obtained copies of the emails and broke the news…that is, the news within the news. The Post subsequently addressed the issue with an article reported from an inside-the-newsroom perspective.
The article asks:
“Should reporters let their sources see their stories before they’re published or aired?”
The Post article goes on to point out that, “Some journalists think it helps make news reports more accurate.”
This view was also supported by a Post blogger who covers media issues.
Previewing the Piece
Yes, a reporter sent his key sources advance copy to “negotiate” an information exchange before a final draft article was submitted to his editors. This is conventionally viewed as an unorthodox method by professional journalism standards. Nevertheless, it does happen because a lot of reporters use their own unique methods of gathering information. This media relations issue – previewing the piece — has significant relevance for government communicators attempting to shape a story.
As a govie dealing with the media, you want to find out as much information as possible from a reporter regarding their request. Doing so will better enable you to strategically shape the story before the story shapes your agency. Failure to do so runs the risk of doing “damage control” after a negative or inaccurate story is out. It’s common knowledge that fewer people pay attention to media corrections and retractions compared to the original story content.
Moreover, if you are responsible for briefing an agency head, or other high-level official, then you want to share as much relevant info with them as possible prior to an arranged media interview. Therefore, it never hurts to diplomatically ask a reporter to see advance copy of a story. Remember, the worst they can say is no.
Explain to the reporter why previewing the story will be mutually beneficial. Convey to the journo that you need to double check copy and quotes for factual accuracy and objective context before the story is out. Tell the reporter that your butt is on the line, as is theirs.
Getting the Story Right
It’s important to remember that journalists are usually just as concerned as govies regarding a story being objective and free of errors. After all, while the story may involve your specific agency, the reporter’s reputation is likewise on the line.
Thus, the bottom line for diligent, objective and ethical journalists is to get the story right the first time. This is even more important for reporters in today’s ultra-competitive 24/7 news cycle, where every paragraph or statement may be parsed by other media, government officials, stakeholder groups and the public.
Many times reporters will make follow-up requests for more information even before a government communicator follows up with them. For example, a reporter may make another contact for a reaction after speaking to other sources, or want to double check info or data during the editing process. Every follow-up contact you have with a reporter represents an opportunity to strategically shape the story to benefit your agency.
While the “Fourth Estate” generally begrudges letting sources review draft content and quotes, this practice nonetheless occurs even at the highest levels of journalism – as evidenced by the Washington Post incident cited above. A reporter may volunteer, albeit occasionally, to let a government communicator preview a piece. If and when this occurs, be ready to capitalize on the situation by ensuring message consistency and accuracy. As noted, no reporter or media outlet wants to resort to a correction, clarification, or retraction after a story is out.
Maximizing media relations
Of course, reporters are more likely to give govies a sneak peak of a story if a relationship already exists built upon mutual trust and goodwill. This is one reason why it’s essential to foster and maximize positive media relations.
While some reporters will periodically allow sources to preview draft copy and quotes, many won’t. Thus, usually the only way to find out is to be proactive and ask. If a reporter says no, they will usually explain that it’s against the policy of their news organization or not the way they personally go about reporting.
If that’s the case then fine, at least you tried. Further, it demonstrates to reporters your serious nature and meticulous attention to detail as a government communicator – which, in turn, will hopefully keep them honest in their reporting.
Moreover, if a reporter rejects your request to preview a story, and then parts of the piece end up being wrong or taken out of context, that reporter may think twice next time about granting your request.
Government communicators need to recognize this media relations reality and strategically leverage it to best position public perception of their agency.
“Media Relations: Shaping the Story — Part 2”
“Talking to Reporters: Ten Tips”
*** All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.