“Can I read the article before you print it?”

10 Feb

I recently had a fellow writer tell me about a situation she had after interviewing a source for an article. The source asked her to let him read and approve the quotes she was planning on using in her story. She asked me what she should do. Since this is a common situation writers often find themselves in, I thought I could approach that topic today.

Feature writers find that sources often make three comments to them. They might say, “I’m not sure I really want you to use that quote” (or “This is off the record, right?”), or make the request, “Please clean up what I say to you. I’m not a writer. So make me sound better,” or ask, “May I read the article before you print it?”

Each statement creates challenges for writers. Here are my suggestions for how to handle them:

1. If someone asks you not to use a quote, try not to agree right off the bat.

Talk with the person and try to compromise on a quote. Say something such as, “Is there some other way you could phrase it?” or “Is there something related to that point that you would feel comfortable talking about?” The request not to use a quote most commonly comes into play when a person is talking about a controversial issue or about a personal experience that includes other people whom the source does not want to involve. By being open, honest, and willing to work with the source, you should be able to strike a balance. Realize that requests about sensitive quotes are usually easier to handle when writing feature stories for magazines than hard news for newspapers. Newspaper reporters often deal with sensitive or controversial news, which is more likely to cause problems.

2. If someone wants you to “make me sound better,” reassure him that you will.

The main change is usually cleaning up simple grammatical mistakes. The source may say something incorrectly, but correcting it doesn’t really change the nature of the information. In that case, it is okay to polish a quote. In some instances, you will want to retain a source’s dialect or colorful language. In that situation, you may wish to leave the quote as it is.

3. If someone asks to read the article before it comes out in print, you should usually say “No.”

Getting approval from sources is a taboo for most newspaper reporters and “hard news” writers, and that is usually the case for feature writers as well. The main reason is that having a source read a manuscript can add greatly to the amount of time required to get it into finished shape. Some people who make such a request do so because they want to control the situation. The request, of course, can create problems for the writer and editor. If, though, the person wants to see the article simply for an innocent reason — for example, because she’s never been interviewed before — you may consider compromising and read a quote or a paragraph to her. Gauge each situation on an individual basis, considering both practical and ethical concerns.

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One Response to ““Can I read the article before you print it?””

  1. Jeanie McLean February 22, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    Thanks for covering this difficult subject. I actually have one client who requires the sources approve the stories before they are submitted, and I’ve found that almost everyone just approves without comment, or changes a simple thing that doesn’t matter to anyone but him (or her). Those interviewed frequently almost never ask to review copy. It’s mostly those who have never before had their name in print who ask to see it first. I feel for them, as I don’t know how I’d feel if someone I didn’t know was writing about me! I know how easy it is to misunderstand something or even misrepresent someone’s views. I would be interested in more discussion on this topic.

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