The Texas Observer reports that Washington Post education writer Daniel de Vise allowed officials from the University of Texas at Austin to see and even edit drafts of a story he was writing about them regarding a controversial education initiative:
Before publication, de Vise shared at least two complete drafts of his article with UT’s press officers and allowed them to suggest critical edits, some of which ended up in the published story, according to emails obtained by The Texas Observer through a public information request.
Journalists have traditionally been taught never to share entire drafts with sources to avoid undue influence. But in preparing his 1,300-word story—which ran on the Post’s front page on March 14 under the headline “Trying to assess learning gives colleges their own anxiety”—de Vise flouted journalistic convention and allowed UT officials to suggest substantive changes to a major news story about a politically charged topic.
“Everything here is negotiable,” de Vise wrote to Tara Doolittle, director of media outreach at UT-Austin on March 5. “Help me out by not circulating this material very far and by stressing that it is an unpublished draft. If you or anyone at the university has any concerns about it, I implore you to direct them to me. I’m one of a very few reporters here who send drafts to sources!”
In another email, de Vise wrote that he’s “never had a dissatisfied customer in this process. And that includes an article a few months ago about a school with one of the nation’s worst graduation rates.”
De Vise also noted in an email that he had shared a previous draft with two other sources, Roger Benjamin, the president of the nonprofit that oversees the test, and Richard Arum, a professor of sociology at New York University. “Both men signed off on it,” de Vise wrote.
Such efforts are controversial and frowned upon by most journalism professors and many (but not all) media outlets since it allows the subject to influence the story, making it less objective. Nevertheless, it happens. Earlier this month, it was revealed that some major news outlets, including the Post, had given Obama administration officials prior approval of quotes they would use in stories in exchange for access.
The Washington Examiner expressly forbids its journalists from doing that even if it means less access to sources:
Once some reporters allow quotes to be censored in exchange for interviews, others either follow suit or get shut out. And once quote-censorship has become standard practice, campaigns will at least try to push the line further. It is not hard to see how “story approval” could eventually become a condition for a major interview.
De Vise and his editor at the Post told the Observer they stood by the story. Editor Nick Anderson said the interactions with the story sources were “made in an effort to be fair, complete and accurate as possible.” (De Vise has not responded to a request for comment from the Examiner.)
The Observer notes:
However, in a June 12 story on the firing of a Wall Street Journal reporter for ethical breaches, the Post, or at least one of its reporters, took an unequivocal stance on the issue: “[J]ournalists aren’t supposed to disclose unpublished stories, lest it compromise the gathering of information.”