In the Newsweek-Koran-in-the-toilet scandal of the past week, press commentators and pundits have overlooked what they must regard as an inconsequential detail: the ethics of showing a draft of one’s story to a source.
Far from being without consequence, it’s not only a question not only of journalistic ethics-but also of the independence of the press.
Newsweek’s reporter, Michael Isikoff, admitted that he showed a draft of his Koran-in-the-toilet lines to at least one source in the Pentagon. His admission brought no outcry from the press.
Maybe that’s because professional associations of journalists provide no clear standard for evaluating the practice, nor do textbooks for training reporters. The text most widely adopted in college journalism programs, Writing and Reporting News, deals with the issue, not in its chapter on ethics, but in a chapter called “Accuracy and Libel.”
“Should you show your story to sources or read it to them before you print it? Many of your sources will ask you to do that,” it advises.
“And many editors will say you shouldn’t,” it continues. “They claim the risks are too great that sources will recant what they have told you or ask you to delete any information that puts them in a bad light.”
The text then cites a former director of the prestigious organization, Investigative Reporters and Editors, as having confessed-or boasted–that “my practice of pre-publication readbacks and manuscript submissions has led to more accurate, fair and thorough newspaper pieces, magazine articles and books.”
In other words, and quite in keeping with American newspaper procedures, journalism textbooks provide a “balanced” report on the issue-drawing no conclusions, setting forth no advice, advocating nothing.
Yet standards can be and sometimes are invoked. The New York Times did not offer authorities a “readback” of its coverage of the Pentagon papers before publishing, nor did Woodward and Bernstein run their stories past the Nixon press office, though both series might have faced less challenge had the Times and Post reporters or editors done so.
Thirty years have passed since then.
I would suggest that in today’s environment, if reporters or editors at leading publications in Venezuela, for example, were to reveal that they send drafts of stories to officials of the Hugh Chavez government-they do not do this–the usual supervisors of the ethics of the American press would raise a furor. They’d rant that press independence had been assassinated in Venezuela.
Here, perhaps, its death was a case of unrecorded suicide.
DICK J. REAVIS is an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org