The mayor’s demand: What’s a new reporter to do?

As a new reporter, you’re assigned to cover city government. After just weeks on the beat, the editor calls you into the office. The mayor had called to complain. The mayor says you misquoted him in a story and have the facts wrong. He taped the interview and can prove you were wrong. You check your notes and realize you did have errors in the story. The paper runs a correction. A couple of days later, you call the mayor for an interview on an important upcoming vote. He says he won’t agree to talk to you anymore unless he can read your stories before publication. What do you do? What are the potential problems you’re facing? 

Please respond to these questions and provide your brief reaction to this scenario in the comments section of the blog by the beginning of class on Thursday, Feb. 19.  Be thoughtful in your answers. Can you find any industry standard or thinking on pre-publication review?

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14 Responses to The mayor’s demand: What’s a new reporter to do?

  1. William Whited says:

    In this scenario, if the mayor will not talk to you without you giving him the article before publication, you may want to talk to your editor. If your editor or employer says you should give the mayor a preview of the story, you should do so. This will probably help you to not be ignored by the mayor and his staff. You may want to see if you can talk with other city officials as well.

    Sharing the story before publication can create a greater sense of security for a source. However, many ethical issues exist. If a reporter creates a stripped down version of a news story to share with sources, that goes against proper journalism. I think many journalists come across sources that can cut them off in an instant. Another issue is that you may not know immediately if a source will take a story release, spin it around and sue the news organization.

    If no agreement is reached within a reporter’s organization and with a city official such as the mayor, the reporter should continue his or her job by consulting other sources such as public records and other officials.

    Ultimately, a reporter is at the mercy of sources. If one source drops out, the reporter should move onto the next, even if that means changing the style and focus of the story.

    As for an industry standard, I feel that a reporter should follow newspaper policy and what his or her employer suggests. Little can be done if officials refuse to talk again and a reporter has been banned.

    I faced the situation of whether to give UNL Dean of Agriculture David Jackson a copy of my record grants story after grading by the professor. I will honor his request. He may be a key source in future stories.

  2. Adam Ziegler says:

    While the reporter obviously screwed up by letting errors get by into his story, under no circumstances should he allow the mayor to read entire stories before publication. Newspapers need to remain independent from any other entity in the community so they can accurately report what’s happening, and not feel answerable to anyone that could stop them from publishing a story they don’t agree with. By giving the mayor the chance to look over an entire story before it’s printed, you’re effectively giving him veto power over any story you print, which is unacceptable.

    After the reporter has finished writing the story, it would be fine for them to call the mayor and double check the facts or quotes attributed to him to make sure they’re accurate, especially after the problems last time. But allowing the mayor to have approval over the entire story is taking things too far.

    Just because the mayor threatens not to talk to you doesn’t mean you should cave into them. Reporters can’t allow their sources, no matter how important they may be, to have control over them. If the mayor is going to overreact to some errors by refusing to talk, then you find another source.

    Odds are that pretty soon after he quits talking, the mayor will go back on this as soon as he needs the paper for something. Not talking to the paper ultimately hurts the mayor too, because the paper is an important way of communicating with the public. While refusing to be interviewed can stop the paper from printing stories the mayor doesn’t like, it also prevents it from giving the mayor any good press, and in the end he’ll probably recognize how important that is to accomplishing things.

  3. Kiah Haslett says:

    I first would have sent the mayor an e-mail apologizing for the mistake, in addition to a formal correction running in the paper.
    And as per newspaper policy and journalism ethics, reading the story is out of the question. However, I would not object letting him hear back the quotes I have from him after the interview is concluded to make sure nothing was taken out of context. I would also give him another opportunity to speak about his misquotation in the previous article for the subsequent article.

    If he still refuses, I would have to explain that this is newspaper policy and he can expect the same refusal to read the story from all reporters and the risk of losing the free publicity to the citizens of his town offered by the newspaper.
    Depending on how obstinate he was, I would even consider running a notice on the editorial page about the mayor’s actions so citizens will know why he is no longer a source for the newspaper.

  4. Cassandra Thomas says:

    I would talk to my editor and determine the best possible way to address the situation. Personally I would not want the mayor to read my story before it is submitted for print. If the paper I work for does not object to the practice, however, I must conform to their guidelines.

    I do not think journalists should allow sources to read their articles before publication because it jeopardizes the content they are willing to print. If journalists know that a source will be upset by a certain aspect of a story, they may not publish undesirable information about the source. Journalists’ main duty is to the readers not to the source.

    After talking to your editors and explaining the situation to the mayor (and apologizing), the matter is out of your control. If he still refuses to talk to you, then you might have to choose a different direction for your story. If the problem continues to affect your career, then you might have to choose a different beat.

  5. Nate Pohlen says:

    Having the mayor proofread my articles is a dangerous thing. He may not provide detailed information anymore. He also would gain power over me by reading stories before they are published.

    As a journalist, I would face the problem of having to write my articles to please the mayor. That is not an effective way to write stories. I would not allow the mayor to read the stories unless my editor tells me I have to, but I don’t think an editor would do that. I think they’d assign me to a new beat before they allow the mayor to read the newspaper’s stories before publishing.

    I would try to reach a compromise and allow the mayor to read his quotes, however. Or I might, with my editor’s permission, consider allowing the mayor to read a small article of mine, but make sure that it’s a one-time deal. If he finds something wrong in it, I’m probably getting re-assigned beats, if not fired. But more than likely he’d approve the article, and I would have some trust back. I would not allow articles from then on to be reviewed, and hopefully the mayor would continue to talk to me.

  6. Rob McLean says:

    In this scenario, I would apologize again for my mistakes and thank him for his time. I would not let him dictate what I could and could not write. A journalist’s job is to fact check the politician’s rhetoric and policies for society’s good. A reporter could not do his job if he must OK a story with the subject before it goes to print.

    But doing this limits access to the subject. If your job is to cover city government, and the mayor refuses to speak with you, then you may not be able to do your job well. Readers might start turning to a competing news outlet for city hall stories.

    There are ways to get around an uncooperative politician. If the mayor refuses to speak with you, his members of his staff might be willing to talk. They may even have better information because they are experts in the field, where the mayor is only an executive.

    There are also events that the mayor cannot close off to the press, such as public hearings and meetings. Those can be useful sources of information.

    An article on the Poynter website discusses the debate among journalists over this subject. Judith Miller wrote an article on the military’s hunt for Iraqi weapon scientists, and let her sources review her work before publication.

    Kelly McBride, author of the Poynter article, said “[P]re-publication review is often the last resort for reporters trying to talk their way into places they are normally not allowed to go.” She offers three bits of advice on whether to conduct a pre-publication review; the most important being, “Is the story worth it?”

    I would argue that on a day-to-day basis, covering the mayor is not worth pre-publication review. I might change my mind if he was being investigated for a crime, or he had breaking news vital to the community. But agreeing to that review in the normal course of the job is inappropriate.

    Here’s a link to that Poynter article: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=53&aid=31355

  7. Brittney Schuessler says:

    First, there shouldn’t have been errors in the story, especially a story involving the mayor. The quotes and facts should have been checked before it printed. When working with people you will need to talk to again for other stories it is important to develop a professional relationship. Given that the mistake was made, I would have called the mayor personally, or I would have written an apology in addition to running a correction in the paper.

    When you misquote people and get facts wrong you can end up facing numerous problems, and having the mayor deny you an interview is just one of them. You can lose crucial sources, credibility and even your job if the problem persists.

    Under no circumstances would I allow the mayor to read the story before it printed. I don’t think I would be doing my job if I let a city official manipulate the news. Of course, I would talk to the editor about the situation, and I’d comply with the paper’s policies, but I wouldn’t be opposed to calling or emailing the mayor the facts and quotes used in the story from the interview.

    Considering my assignment is city government, this is a pretty big problem. If the mayor still refused to talk after an apology and negotiations, I would talk to my editor about other sources or a different direction for the story. Then, I might even talk to the editor about a different assignment. If the mayor is a vital source to the story/assignment it might be best for the paper, me and the mayor if I were assigned to a different beat.

  8. Liz Gasaway says:

    The major problem with the whole situation is that the mayor is an incredibly important source for anyone covering a local government beat. As the mayor is usually a very public figure with influence over a lot of things in the local government’s workings, so his direct quotes are fairly important for a good story.

    Negotiation should be tried, but there isn’t really an excuse for prior restraint, but the mayor should accept maybe calling and verifying the quotes and facts regarding the story in question.

    Try apologizing and explaining that you made a mistake that won’t be made again. If the mayor doesn’t accept the apology and the offer to double check the facts without submitting the story as a whole to him, then go to other sources. It is important to get the direct quotes from the man himself, but aides and other people in the office are probably privy to the information itself, as well as many documents.

    The information is out there, and there are ways to get at it. It may not be as interesting or strong without comments from the voice of the city himself, the government has no right to censor the information in any way.

  9. Johnna Hjersman says:

    In this situation, I would not agree to letting the mayor see my stories before publication. I would tell him this practice is not accepted in journalism and explain why. If he still refused to grant me an interview, I would talk to my editor, perhaps suggesting another reporter take on the interview if necessary.
    Allowing sources to review stories before they are published gives them too much “power” over the content of the story and the journalist writing it. Journalists, after all, are meant to act as watchdogs over government officials and public figures. If these people were given the chance to read the stories about them before publication, it could hinder the journalists’ reporting and voice. Even if the story is factually sound, the source might not like the way it was written.
    The sources might want to censor the writing, omit certain facts or add other details so they are presented in a better manner. Either way, the source’s input to the story will never be objective, which is how the journalist and the story must remain.
    Also, allowing sources to see stories prior to publication creates the risk of the story being leaked. This might not be dangerous in most cases, but is always a possibility.
    In any case, allowing sources to read content before it is published will almost always result in problems and should be avoided as much as possible.
    When I was a freshman, I encountered a similar issue while writing an alumni profile for my Art of Writing class. After I interviewed the woman my profile was on, she practically demanded I send her a copy — even before I turned it in to my own professor. Oddly enough, the subject of my profile was a journalism instructor herself. Why she didn’t stick to the journalism practices, I don’t know.

  10. Sara McCue says:

    Despite the fact that the newspaper ran a correction, that may not be enough for the mayor. I think people often underestimate the power of a personal apology. The first thing I would have done after realizing my mistake would be to attempt to contact the mayor and apologize to him myself. This could make a difference in my future professional relationship with him.

    I would explain to the mayor that I can’t allow him to read my stories beforehand, but I would make sure to do so professionally. I would inform him that I can read his quotes to him to make sure I have not mistakenly quoted him incorrectly, but I would tell that’s all I can do. Allowing the mayor to read all stories might make the stories turn out biased. He might want to change things that aren’t even incorrect. If necessary, I would have the editor-in-chief follow up with the mayor and explain to him why he can’t be allowed to approve all stories. If all parties are professional when approaching this matter, it should be easy to resolve. The mayor obviously won’t want to lose media coverage because of one small incident.

    It may be possible to run city government stories without interviewing the mayor, but after awhile, this would become a hassle. I think the most important thing to do is attempt to mend the relationship with the mayor.

  11. Allyson Felt says:

    In this situation, I would not allow the mayor to see my stories. The original story should not have had errors in it. Self-editing is an important aspect of reporting. That being said, I would not show the mayor my stories because this can cause numerous problems.

    First of all, any source who demands to see a story before it is submitted may want to change details or take out certain aspects of the story. Part of being a journalist is getting every side to the story and trying to maintain neutrality. The mayor may want to change things so that the story weighs heavily in his favor. Another problem that may arise is the mayor may count on “editing” every single one of the stories after this.

    Allowing sources to see stories should not be allowed as much as possible. You should try and ask questions to clarify things you are confused about. You could try reading their statements back to them if you are unsure of what they said. Letting sources read stories is risky.

    After I explained this to the mayor and he still wanted to see the story, I would talk to my editor and ask if someone else could be assigned to the story. Hopefully, our paper as a whole did not lose the mayor as a source because of my mistakes. Hopefully, I would have learned the self-editing lesson.

  12. Katie Steiner says:

    No matter what the reporter did, he or she should not agree to let the mayor read stories before they’re published. While I the policy may vary from publication to publication, I think overall most newspapers will not allow reporters to let sources view their stories before they’re published. So when the mayor asks to view the stories, the reporter should direct the mayor to their editor, and say it’s their call whether the stories can be read before publication.

    I think the best way to handle the situation is to have a meeting with the mayor, the reporter and the reporter’s editor, and go over what the reporter can do to improve and win back the mayor’s trust. The mayor needs to understand that everyone makes mistakes, and that the reporter has learned from their mistakes. Hopefully, the mayor will be forgiving.

    On the other side, the mayor is a public figure, and therefore wants to make sure he isn’t misquoted. Perhaps the mayor and reporter can reach an agreement on how they handle interviews. But from an editor’s standpoint, the most important thing is to ensure the working relationship between the mayor and the newspaper, so if that means getting a new reporter on the beat, than that’s what you have to do.

  13. Ivana Jackson says:

    I understand that beginning reporter make mistakes, but this was a big one and as a result the mayor won’t talk to me. I would first consult my editor and inform him of the mayor’s request. The problem with allowing the mayor to review my story before publishing is that he may not agree with the facts in the story and try to persuade me to write the story another way. As a government official he could potentially have alternative motives. In addition other sources may not feel comfortable if they learn that your stories are given to the government for approval. One of the key parts of journalism is to oversee government and government officials and inform the public, we can’t do that effectively if the government becomes a member of the editing staff.
    Hopefully my editor is able to help me talk to the mayor and get him to speak with me without reviewing my story. If the editor is not able to persuade the mayor than maybe other sources in the mayor’s office will be able to assist. It would require more reporting but that’s a result of my mistakes.

  14. Tawny Burmood says:

    In this situation I would have called the mayor right away to apologize once I found out the quote was wrong. Running a correction was the right thing to do, but as a reporter he or she should sincerely take the effort to apologize for their mistake. I think this would save the reporter from a source refusing to any future interviews.

    I would be very hesitant to allow the mayor to read the whole article before print. Because he is a public figure, he may try to change the way the story is written. The mayor may not always like what is written, but it’s important that quotes are accurate. In this case I would offer to go over the quotes with him or parts of the story to ensure that I don’t make the same mistake.

    If the mayor still refused to any interviews without reading the article prior to print, I would consult my editor. It also may be wise to meet up with the mayor face-to-face to re-establish the relationship. Explain to him it’s the paper’s policy. Also I would let him know how important it is to have public officials in the articles. As a reporter we always want every side to a story. So let him know to do your job efficiently, it’s important to get his side of the story.

    If he still refuses, the only thing to do is to go find other sources. It may be difficult, and if it ends up that the mayor would be willing to talk with a different reporter, then the newspaper should consider moving him or her to a different beat.

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