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Upon Further Review: Opinions

Should you show your article to a source before publication? We asked about two dozen writers and editors if they'd ever done so; if so, what the circumstance and result were; and if not, why not.
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Steve Yahn, executive editor, Editor & Publisher magazine:
That I can remember, I've never shown an article to a source for an advanced read. Why? Because I should be smart enough and diligent enough to get it right on my own.

Eric Freedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and Michigan State University journalism professor:
An advance look at your article is an ethical no-no for freelancers and staff writers—in most cases. However, I will read back a source's own quotes, but that's all—and only if he or she specifically asks. I never volunteer to do it.

You and your editors, not the sources, should control both content and presentation, and your primary obligation is to readers, not sources. An advanced look also creates potential practical problems: What do you do if your sources misremember what they told you in an interview? Or feel embarrassed by what they said? Or change their minds because of what other sources say? And at what point would you allow them to see the article—before you submit it to the magazine? After it's been fully edited? Too late to make any changes?

The exception: When you write for an in-house publication and the article quotes or deals with the company, organization, staff or executives. In those situations, it's standard for the higher-ups to review the article before it appears in an official publication.

Cindy La Ferle, weekly newspaper columnist for The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak, Mich.; nationally published essayist and feature writer; and former travel magazine editor:
As a community columnist, I am especially careful when I quote sources who are not accustomed to being quoted in newspapers or magazines. There was a time I asked my readers to participate in an e-mail poll for some material I needed for a column. The question I asked them to respond to was pretty innocuous—such as, "do you think most people are over-booked with activity these days?" I decided to use half a dozen responses—the best in the bunch.

Thankfully, I quoted the readers EXACTLY as they'd written in their e-mails. So I was astounded when, after the column was printed, one woman told me that her quote made her sound "stupid" and that it wasn't "exactly" what she said! I printed out her response and sent it to her, showing her that it was indeed an exact quote.

Situations like that one have made me appreciate e-mail interviews. I know this is controversial among other journalists—and I realize you can't get the same "feel" for a person as you would in a face-to-face or voice-to-voice interview. However, unless you tape record your interviews and then pull EXACT quotes from the recording, you're bound to be less accurate with quoted material.

Having been interviewed several times myself, especially after my book was published, I am often astounded at how cavalier—and careless—other professional writers can be when they quote a source. Sometimes I'll read a sentence that was nowhere NEAR what I actually told the reporter. Therefore, I try to be very sensitive when I use quoted material.

As for showing a piece to a subject before it's published ... I have done this, only occasionally, when I was particularly nervous about a piece, or worried that the person interviewed might be concerned later about controversial material. I've done this with Q&A pieces, such as the time I did an interview with Linda Weltner, former Boston Globe columnist, for Writer's Digest.

Again, I have found that some sources prefer an e-mail interview—for the very reason that this method allows them to think about the questions asked, and also gives them a written record of their responses. It keeps everyone on his or her toes.

When I write my personal columns, which are typically observations on daily life, I am especially careful to discuss quotes from my family ahead of time. This is especially important to my teenage son, who's very sensitive about seeing his name and verbiage in the paper—for obvious teenager reasons!

On the other hand, there are times when I prefer NOT to show a piece prior to publication, especially if the topic is not particularly sticky or sensitive, as in a feature article. Sometimes, as with newspaper deadlines, there's really no time to let people preview a piece.

Linda Formichelli, author of articles that have appeared in more than 70 magazines:
I used to routinely show completed trade magazine articles to my sources before turning the pieces in to the editor. I often wrote on complicated topics like reprographic printing processes and call center technology, and I figured that showing the articles to the sources was an easy way to check my facts before turning in the article. The sources were usually very good about pointing out factual errors, and the editors who knew of this practice never expressed any concerns.

Then I had an experience with the PR woman from hell. She treated me like her flunky, calling at all hours not to correct mistakes, but to demand that I alter quotes and make other changes that would cause her client to stand out above all the other companies quoted in the article. I decided right then that that was the last time I would show a completed article to a source. I had developed more confidence in my writing abilities, and besides, I realized that faxing the article, waiting for the sources to reply, and making the changes was adding hours onto the time it took me to complete an article.

Paul D. McCarthy, president, McCarthy Creative Services (; author and co-author of books, articles, reviews and essays; and former senior editor at Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins:
I've never shown an article to a source before publication. What I have done and would do is show the source how I plan to use their quotes or material, essentially to check for accuracy, but not grant editorial control. But I would not show the entire article to the source before publication, unless I'd previously discussed with my editor, and gotten their concurrence.

That's the "brief" response.

The longer, more contextual response is that in 25 years in book and magazine publishing as editor, writer, consultant and literary agent, I have worked with many of the country's finest investigative journalists. Where sources are concerned, editorial control is a real issue.

Once a source is recording as being willing to speak on the record, with the material to be used at the writer's discretion, then I think they explicitly cede control of use to the writer. Again, though, since accuracy is important, good writers will confirm accuracy if necessary (if the taped interview for example isn't clear on one area), or ask for amplification, etc.

Very rarely in my book and magazine experience, has a writer shown the ENTIRE work to a source before publication. Not only does that give the source too much potential editorial input into the whole work but it also risks the premature disclosure of some or all of the information in the article or book, which significantly diminishes the value of the actual published work.

When a book publisher licenses first serial rights, the material to be excerpted is very carefully negotiated so that it balances the interests of the magazine in offering early exciting material, without cannibalizing the best of the book and cutting sales.

Showing an entire article to a source before publication, when full disclosure of the material is possible, as a matter of customary practice, seems to me to be risky for the reasons mentioned, and ultimately not necessarily in the best interests of the writer or the publication.

Amanda Lynch, Writer's Digest columnist and writer for several Pittsburgh area and regional publications:
1. Have you ever shown an article to a source before publication? Yes.

2. If yes, what was the circumstance and what was the result? Only in one situation will I happily show any source an article before publication—if they are paying for it (i.e. trade mag. advertorial, company paid insert into a book). If I am contracted with a publication to write an objective article, the editor always gets to see it first. When someone asks to see your work before the article goes to editing, they are questioning your journalistic integrity.

If you keep solid notes, attribute quotes correctly and don't make the person sound foolish, you'll be fine and they should trust you, especially if it is a non-controversial piece. However, some people tend to feel they should get whatever they want—they aren't used feeling out of control and to someone saying no to them. In those situations, I always turn the article into my editor first, then send a copy to the source.

This rarely happens, since I've established myself as an honest journalist. The people I interview gain confidence from the interview process. Sticking with this standard has helped grow my reputation as a responsible writer, eliminating the need for anyone to question my ability.

Example: I interviewed a marketing vice president for a high-profile bank once—for a small local senior news publication. She wanted to see the article before I turned it in. I said no, I don't work that way, the editor will get her copy and then I'll send you a copy. The source, whose comments were not controversial, weren't perfect—no one is ever perfect when they are interviewed. She decided to change one of her quotes to sound better. The editor agreed since the bank was a high-paying advertiser. This was minor, but when you allow a source to make adjustments, changes and make themselves "sound better," the article decreases in quality and honesty.

Don Ranly, University of Missouri journalism professor and Writer's Digest editorial board member:
Here at the Missouri School of Journalism we have had a system of "fact-checking" for some time now.

We insist that students call sources and verify facts and read back direct quotes. We find that this most beneficial.

Steve Weinberg of our faculty, former director of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and prolific writer, first objected to our policy and then embraced it—even in his own writing. His only regret, he says, is that he didn't do it earlier in his career. He finds that sources are not only more trusting but also more open.

However, checking facts and direct quotations is a far cry from letting sources read the manuscript. That can lead to loss of editorial control and to real hassles. I personally have never done that and would not recommend doing it—unless, of course, I was working strictly in public relations. If I am that person or company's publicist, of course, that person or company has a perfect right to see the product for which he or she is paying. But unless that is the case, writers who allow sources to read an article might and should feel like publicists.

Carolyn Campbell, author of the books Together Again and Love Lost and Found and 300 magazine articles:
I have always been cautioned against allowing sources to read articles prior to publication. I've been told they will want to totally rewrite the story if permitted to see an advance version. I've made an exception to my "never before publication" policy on several occasions for three reasons:

1. If the material is highly technical or complicated, and I want to confirm my own understanding.

2. The source specifically asks to see the article.

In either case, I try to satisfy myself and the source by allowing them to read as short an excerpt as possible. If I want to confirm that my information is correct, I will say, "May I read the following paragraph (or section) to you to confirm that the facts and ideas are accurate?" If the source wants to read the article, I will say, "I will read you all quotes and facts that pertain to you. That is all the editor will let me release ahead of publication." (This is the only official exception editors have allowed me to make.)

3. In the case of my two published nonfiction books, the publisher's attorney required release forms from the subjects in my book. I complied and sent them copies of the manuscript ... and then held my breath until I got the signed forms back.

John Frank, Midwest correspondent, PRWeek, and former editor in chief of three trade magazines and managing editor of a six-paper suburban newspaper chain:
1. Have you ever shown an article to a source before publication? Yes, when ordered to by the owner of a beverage trade magazine I once edited

2. If yes, what was the circumstance and what was the result? After an industry supplier/advertiser complained that he had been misquoted in an article, the company owner ordered us to show articles mentioning the supplier to him in the future. The process was nothing but trouble. Few people remember what they said, let alone like how they sound. No one can resist editing their comments or completely changing their mind and saying something else.

3. If no, why not? As a rule, I would never do it; allowing someone to change their quotes, etc. destroys the authenticity of an article and the spontaneity that readers assume is built into any quote. Any article reviewed by a source becomes merely propaganda for that source.

Edrienne Kittredge, author of articles on adult learning and writing personal histories and executive director of the High Plains Heritage Center in Great Falls, Mont.:
I believe that showing a source an article before publication depends on the circumstance, with each situation having to be weighed on its merits. I have shown articles to sources before publication. In fact, just last week I received back a piece that I had faxed to a source (the lawyer for an elderly source) for review. I felt that it was necessary in this case because there were some confusing human relationships that I wanted to be sure about. The source penciled in a few changes, correcting two different dates, and returned the piece with an okay. I came away from the experience feeling comfortable that my "writing partner" (the source) concurred with what I had written—as opposed to fretting, wondering if I had dotted every "I".

Tamra Orr, author of 101 Ways to Make Your Library Homeschooling Friendly and writer for more than 50 national magazines:
I write on assignment for over 50 different magazines and almost all of my information comes through telephone interviews. In almost 20 years of writing, I have never shown an article to a source before sending it to my editor. I've only been asked a couple of times and when I was, it was usually by someone who wasn't sure how he/she felt about what they'd said. For these people, I have been willing to call back after I've written the article and read their quotes to them for verification. I think one of the reasons I do this is because, 15 years ago, when I was interviewed for the local newspaper, I was so horribly misquoted that I was temporarily the community laughingstock. The discomfort of that has never left me.

The biggest advantage of showing the article to your sources first must be to make sure their quotes are accurate. To avoid this, I suggest you make sure you get the quote down correctly the first time. I often write it down and then read it back to them. I would never offer to show them the article before I sent it simply because it implies lack of trust, not to mention, it would slow down the process of getting the article to the editor. I always offer, however, to send them a tear sheet of the piece when it comes out.

Drew Robb, freelance writer who has had more than 300 articles, primarily in the technology area, published in the past three years:
1. Have you ever shown an article to a source before publication? Yes.

2. If yes, what was the circumstance and what was the result?

Good circumstance: When I ghostwrite for others, they always get to see it and make changes before publication.

Good circumstance: Highly technical stories or those for big-ticket pubs where you get flack if your facts are a little awry. I don't send them the whole story though, only the section where they are quoted or where their company is mentioned.

Bad circumstance: Once sent a story about a government agency to a person for sidecheck. He got cold feet, showed it to his PR department and they asked me not to print. I told the editor and we printed it anyway as they were not protesting accuracy, only due to internal politics.

3. If no, why not? Many mags say absolutely not to. Yet one of these editors had my on the phone for hours to clear up complaints about one story. Two turned out to be last-minute editing changes; one was someone with a big mouth who got into trouble for what he told me. Had I let him see what I was planning to say, he would have told me no and I would have changed it to his satisfaction. That would have saved me hours of wasted time due to him denying what he did say on the phone. That editor told me not to show people the copy, but in practice, he convinced me otherwise due to the hassle. In the next piece I did for that pub (they pay very well), I showed the quotes of each person to them for comment beforehand.

Michael Bugeja, professor, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and ethics adviser to the president, Ohio University:
Magazine journalism differs from newspaper journalism, chiefly because the former targets an audience by psychographics and demographics. As such, the audience already shares important bonds. Magazine editors reinforce those bonds not by telling the audience what it should know, but by providing the audience with what it perceives to need. Newspaper editors tell the audience what it should know whether it wants to know it or not. Its audience is defined by circles on a map—how far the delivery trucks go. Its readers share the same community, their common bond. Hence, newspapers and, to an extent, broadcast news outlets have to report the unvarnished truth, especially as the "Fourth Estate" or foil to government.

What I am about to say now does not hold for investigative magazine articles such as you might find in a few city-based investigative publications or national ones like The New Yorker, Atlantic, or Harper's—to name a few. But your general targeted publication—including, by the way, Writer's Digest—has the perceived needs of audience (and advertisers) utmost in mind. That focus—called magazine concept—eliminates much of the need to go through the potentially combative ritual of refusing to show quotes to sources. After all, is it in the reader's interest to get an accurate quotation about the role of dactyls in rhymed verse ... or to risk a mistake that needs to be clarified in a letter to the editor in an issue four months hence?

That is why, in all my poetry columns that appeared in WD, I sent advance copies to my sources and asked them to see if they were quoted accurately. I included a general warning, however, asking them to review their quotations to ascertain if there were any factual errors—emphasizing that they could not change any part of or meaning of the quote or other information about them—unless I had made a mistake. In the decade that I did this, most sources pointed out grammatical errors or typos in their own or other parts of the column—stuff I was grateful for—but no one, to my memory, asked me to change or otherwise doctor a quotation.

On the other hand, many years ago I tried to do an investigative piece intended for WD on anthologies that ask contributors to pay $35 (at that time) for a copy that includes their work. I sent to those anthologies excuse letters from my ethics students at Ohio University, typed as poems under the ridiculous byline—"I. Emma Poet"—and did not include any SASE as instructed to do in ads by those companies. Each anthology took the bait, praising these excuse letters as poems. Now, in that case, because this was an investigative piece, I would never give sources the right to see their advance quotations. Doing so would run the risk of their denials. That undermines accuracy, which is why WD is asking others to weigh in on the topic.

I should mention, however, that WD refused to consider that anthology column, asking me to do an alternate piece on publications that accept poems without asking contributors to purchase copies. (I did that.) And though the current WD editor is a personal fan of mine, whom I worked with as a news journalist and admire as a magazine journalist, no doubt she will think long about whether to publish the above anecdote, however tame, because of long-held tenets of magazine journalism. (If you're reading this paragraph, she is placing truth above concept as an act of courage—not magazine practice.)

Accuracy is paramount in magazine journalism as in newspaper journalism. But the method of getting the quotation right—showing it in "concept" pieces or withholding it in investigative ones—requires, as everything else, knowledge of the medium.

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