Lizzie is a writer based in London and has contributed several features to Journo Resources. She is interested in politics and visual culture and has also been published by Rewire News Group, The Appeal, BOMB Magazine and others.
September 28, 2021 (Updated )
A friend once mentioned her frustration that a journalist who had recently interviewed her for an article did not send the quotes for approval prior to publication. At the time, I remember thinking their assumption was out-of-step with journalistic best practice.
But then I recalled the first reported feature I wrote, for which I interviewed the president of a food service industry union. While I established the conversation as an on-the-record interview, it still felt impromptu – if it had taken place in person, I imagined myself hurriedly catching up to them in a crowded hallway. I could not help but wonder if my source would take issue with seeing a particularly pointed quote of theirs in black-and-white, or if they would even remember saying it.
When Sarah Lonsdale, Senior Lecturer in journalism at City University, started her career as a journalist twenty-five years ago, her interviewees would never request to see their quotes before an article was published. In recent years, though, this practice has become increasingly common, Sarah told Journo Resources – a change she attributes in part to the increasing influence of the public relations sector, as well as a generalised distrust of journalists in the age of social media.
So, what sort of responsibility, then, do journalists have to their sources? Is it ever considered journalistic best practice to get copy approval from interviewees before filing a piece?
As A General Rule, The Answer To Copy Approval Is No
As a general rule, journalists should not offer their sources the opportunity to see their quotes for approval. In her role as an educator, Lonsdale instructs her students to “never give copy approval” to interviewees. This is especially the case with public relations firms or media-trained organisations. “If they ask for it, it’s a complete ‘no no’”, Lonsdale said.
“What copy approval implies, I think, is a lack of trust in a journalist to do their job properly”; it “takes the power from the journalist,” Lonsdale told Journo Resources. It also undermines the impartiality of a piece and editorial process: if getting sign-off on quotes from interviewees were a requirement, it would place journalists in an approval waiting game as their deadline looms. There can be exceptions to this rule of not offering copy approval to interviewees, though.
Wudan Yan, an independent journalist based in Seattle, Washington who covers science and society, told Journo Resources that that when a topic has a high level of sensitivity, or if she is “representing a population or group of people who have traditionally been misrepresented,” she will sometimes offer to send the relevant section of writing to her source to confirm that it correctly captures their perspective and the sentiment they intended to communicate. “You can just copy and paste their particular sections in a separate word document and send it over” to them, Yan explained.
Wudan Yan (L) and Sarah Lonsdale (R)
Lonsdale said that vulnerable case studies are “investing an enormous amount of trust” in journalists in giving an interview. With this type of source, Lonsdale told Journo Resources that while she would never send a source a full draft to look over, she will offer, like Yan, to send quotes for the interviewee to look over.
Accurately Representing Vulnerable Communities
While an elected politician, for instance, would be expected to have an understanding of the way media works and should be held accountable at their word, members of the general public would and should not be expected to have any media training or savvy. Individuals, especially those who have experienced trauma, may not know the boundaries of their narrative that they want to share with the public.
There can also be an instance in which a journalist is covering a topic that they may not feel entirely expert in – perhaps the story falls outside of their beat, or is particularly technical. “It’s the journalist’s responsibility to do enough research and background reading to be confident that they have understood the issues” relevant to their assignment, Lonsdale told Journo Resources.
That said, in the process of reporting, a journalist’s understanding of their story can evolve as additional information and expertise is gathered. In this case, journalists can simply reach out to the relevant expert and ask for a follow-up interview in order to have a more in-depth conversation or to double-check a particular point. This is not the same as offering copy approval, though. Instead, it is, as Lonsdale puts it, a “careful approach to gathering information.”
How To Respond To Copy Approval Requests
There is a consensus that journalists should offer to show quotes to interviewees who come from marginalised or misrepresented communities, or who do not have media training.
Outside of this remit, if your source is an expert or media-trained professional (such as a PR, a researcher, or a representative from a government institution or non-profit), a good starting point in responding to a copy approval request is to ask your source what their concern is. This is the approach Yan takes if an interviewee asks to see their quotes.
If your source is concerned about factual accuracy, and you know the publication you are writing for fact-checks, you can reassure them that a fact-checker will be in touch to verify details. (Although, as the Columbia Journalism Review has reported, while fact-checking may be common in legacy print publications, it can hardly be said to be standard practice, especially online). Equally, you could share details of the editing process, or previous clippings from your work.
Otherwise, journalists should not offer copy approval to their sources because this practice blurs the line between independent and client journalism, however unintentionally. While it’s not uncommon for PRs to ask for copy approval, this isn’t a situation where copy approval should be given.
• Generally, the answer to requests for copy approval should be no. The exceptions to this are vulnerable or sensitive case studies, or those from communities who are typically misrepresented.
• In this case, communication is key. Make sure to explain the angle and purpose of the piece and how their comments will fit in. Ensure they know the process of publishing and what will happen when, and what it might mean for them. You might want to share the relevant sections or quotes to ensure their story has been accurately told.
• When dealing with requests from PRs, academics, or other media-trained individuals to see copy, ask why they would like to see it. This will allow you to reassure them without giving them approval. For example, you can explain the editing process at your publication or point to previous examples of your work.
On Road Media, a charity that brings people and media professionals together to tell stories, advocates for a more rounded approach to storytelling through journalism.
“Sometimes journalists can forget they are speaking with humans, not stories,” Jamie Wareham, Interactions Manager at On Road Media, told Journo Resources. And yet a journalist’s word can have real-world impacts on the communities that are at the centre of their writing.
Instead of treating sources as one-off case studies for a headline, journalists should brief their sources well, be clear about what the story is going to cover and who else will be interviewed.
There are, of course, scenarios in which it is not possible to build in the time for this approach. For instance, a journalist may be assigned a news piece with a quick turnaround. But establishing this type of communication with a source, and keeping them informed about the process, builds trust at the outset and only helps people to feel comfortable in sharing their story.
Sources are integral to good journalism. For that reason, it is paramount that journalists represent the perspective of their sources with accuracy and honesty. Lonsdale tells her students that if their interviewee’s name is John Brown, they should still ask how to spell it – just to make sure.