Scott Stanford: Prior review would damage credibility
Steamboat Springs — I have received requests recently to allow the subjects of stories to read those stories prior to publication.
A person profiled in Locals wanted to read the story first. A Realtor with the listing on a property profiled in our real estate section wanted to see the story before it published. Even School Board member John DeVincentis asked to see the story about e-mails he sent in 2004 and 2005 before it published.
Such requests aren’t new. During my first week as editor in 2001, I met with some of the Steamboat Springs City Council members. One suggested we write council stories the day after council meetings and allow council members or staff to read the stories prior to publication.
The reasoning is always the same – the subjects simply want to make sure the information in the stories is accurate. Indeed, many of the errors we make likely could have been prevented if we had simply let the articles’ subjects review the stories in advance and call such errors to our attention.
Still, I always refuse such requests.
The concept at issue is “prior review” – allowing someone outside the newspaper staff to review and edit content before publication by the newspaper. We just don’t do it.
Writing is not a reporter’s most important skill; rather, the ability to gather information is. Reporters must be able to record accurately what they see, hear and smell. They must know where to go for information and what questions to ask.
As editors, we have to trust their observations, even if they sometimes make mistakes. When we start allowing story subjects, prior to publication, to second-guess the information the reporter gathered and what the reporter saw and heard, the story’s credibility is compromised.
Besides, prior review simply isn’t practical. Imagine a crime story. If we give law enforcement the opportunity for prior review of that story “just to make sure the facts are accurate,” don’t we then have to afford the accused the same opportunity? How would we resolve disputes between the two?
The e-mails story is another example. Who gets prior review of such a story? DeVincentis? Cyndy Simms? Joby Mc-
Gowan? Donna Howell? The School Board? Where does the list end, how would we resolve conflicting edit suggestions and who would trust a story filtered through so many lenses?
Of course, many of the requests for prior review are on stories about less serious matters such as the Locals and real estate profiles mentioned earlier. Why not allow prior review in such cases? Two reasons – first, prior review erases the line between news and advertising content and, second, prior review of feature pieces opens the door to prior review of other articles.
Many argue that the newspaper and its reporters have their own biases. I could try to debate that, but I likely could not change perceptions. As it stands, readers are free to factor in such perceived biases as they form their judgments of newspaper articles. If we allowed others to review stories prior to publication, the matter becomes much more complicated. Then, it’s not just the newspaper’s perceived biases that the reader has to contend with.
If you have questions about prior review or other newspaper issues, please call or e-mail me.
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Work to form a new strategic plan for the Steamboat Springs School District will start next week with the first sessions of a listening tour aimed at getting broad community feedback.