The great quote-readback crisis

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The collective conscience of journalism is still bothering itself over Monday's front-page New York Times story about the presidential campaigns demanding "quote approval" from reporters.

The latest journalist to weigh in on the matter is legendary newsman Dan Rather, who writes at CNN.com:

Any way you look at it, this is a jaw-dropping turn in journalism, and it raises a lot of questions. Among them: Can you trust the reporters and news organizations who do this? Is it ever justified on the candidate's side or on the reporter's side? Where is this leading us?

As someone who's been covering presidential campaigns since the 1950s, I have no delusions about political reporting. Candidates bargaining access to get the kind of news coverage they want is nothing new. The thicket of attribution and disclosure deals is a deep maze reporters have been picking their way through even before my time. But this latest tactic by candidates revealed by the Times gives me, to say the least, great pause. It should give every citizen pause.

Meanwhile, over at The Guardian, Adam Gabbat notes that the Times piece has forced a number of U.S. news outlets to either reaffirm or reevaluate their quote-approval policies, if they have ever had one; we've noticed before that at lots of publications it falls under a gray area, with different editors and reporters having different standards, and the vast majority relying on the specific situation to determine whether they're willing to read quotes back to sources.

Whether or not a given publication adopts a public standard on quote approval, there are plenty of related practices that are similar in spirit but technically unlikely to be covered in any strict editorial policies. Is it, for instance, acceptable to speak to a source on background, then run specific quotes by them to be put on the record? Frequently this affords the source the opportunity to fine-tune the language, in the name of bartering something onto the record that previously wasn't.

And then there are the dozens of times when, asked for a comment, a public figure's P.R. person, sometimes without ever even contacting the principle subject, writes something up and emails it to the reporter to be attributed to the subject. When a reporter knows this has been the case, is it unacceptable to attribute it to the public figure?

At any rate, the wires appear to have come down hardest on the practice of quote approval, calling it "wholly unacceptable," while major dailies including The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times say they are reviewing it. Online outlets like BuzzFeed and Real Clear Politics are also on the fence, according to The Guardian.

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