Fact check, media training, interviews

No you can’t check my copy

A major bugbear for a lot of journalists, which comes up often in my media training sessions, is that people want to check what we’ve written before it appears in print. They then get quite puzzled when the answer is a polite but firm “no”.

There are a number of reasons journalists won’t and shouldn’t show you an entire article before it appears. I should make it clear that this is about independent journalism rather than sponsored articles and supplements – when you’re paying it’s a different matter.

I wish I hadn’t said that

My first journalist assignment, some 27 years ago, was to write a piece for a small magazine given away free in W. H. Smiths, to publicise releases of CDs and videos (this was pre-DVD). It was 1988, it was the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who and I was briefed to talk to as many of the leading men as I could.

I remember Colin Baker in particular and will always be grateful to him as the first interviewee to give me a break, particularly given the circumstances under which he’d left the part. He gave me time on the phone and was terrific. Being new, I sent him the quotes to check and he changed something from a story about what brought him into the “eyes” of the Doctor Who team to what brought him into the “world” of Doctor Who.

Now, I’m not precious. This didn’t matter a jot and the piece was fine (where “fine” means bland “first attempt at journalism written by a star-struck fanboy”, but that’s a different issue). However, it does illustrate that many people when checking things will come back to what they wish had happened, what they might have said with hindsight. That’s not the function of journalism.

A few years later I was working on a computer trade publication and a guy setting up a computer manufacturer laid into people who spent a fortune on machines from IBM, Compaq and others. I wrote the piece and he called back, deciding he’d been unwise to tilt at those particular windmills. I told him it was too late (which was true), the page had gone – and anyway, he’d said it, unprompted. It’s our job as journalists to offer the truth about what was said, and also some insight – and this doesn’t mean giving an interviewee the opportunity to backpedal.

Exceptions

The only real exceptions are those in which there’s only one possible interviewee. Ironically, although he didn’t insist (and I suspect he wouldn’t), Colin Baker was among the few who could have demanded copy approval because at that point there were only five people alive who could give me an interview about being the Doctor on TV. If he’d said “not without copy approval” then I’d have had nowhere else to go. The example I use in media training sessions is that if I wanted an interview with Lady Gaga there’s only one person in the world who can grant it to me, so her terms would have to stand (I have no idea whether she insists on approval or whatever).

For others, particularly in business journalism, journalists are primed to resist copy approval, as it’s called. There are practical reasons too:

  • There is never enough time. You want to approve your quotes, fine; your comms department has to approve them too, less fine, because you’re building in layers of process we can’t accommodate.
  • The sub-editors and others in our process might change the quotes. Not with any malice but if a piece is overrunning by a line and we can fix it by cutting your words without damaging the sense, we might just (I’d resist this on the grounds of accuracy and change my words instead, but I’ve seen it done).

So those are genuine practical reasons not to allow copy approval, and that’s before we get onto the people who believe we’re part of their marketing department and therefore they should be allowed to “correct” any reviews we might write that don’t concur that their product or service is the best in the universe, ever.

Information on Guy Clapperton’s media training sessions is available by clicking here.

6 thoughts on “No you can’t check my copy”

  1. Good piece. There are a couple of other points I’d add – reasons that I am reluctant to give sight of copy in advance without a really good reason, though I don’t take an excessively highfalutin moral stance on it either:

    1. People don’t always grasp the difference between “comment” and “approval”. So they think that what you’ve sent them is the utterly final version, and get upset when you make what seems to you a relatively minor change – “sweeping” for “wide-ranging”, or somesuch. It leads to bad feeling and painful, time-consuming explanations and mollifications.

    2. Lawyers get involved. Lawyers who would never need to know about the piece if you’d just gone ahead and published it, because actually there’s nothing really prejudicial to their client in there anyway. But of course they’re paid to look for problems, so if they get advance sight of copy, you can be sure they’ll find LOTS. Corporate comms people are similar, as you say, if not quite so bad.

  2. Agreed. Also, there’s always the risk that the interviewee will say “There’s no way you can run that piece, or I’ll sue.” Which leaves the editor with a hole to fill. Plus, if the subject of the interview wants to see copy, it normally means that their PR people want to. Who will then send it to the client and initiate a workflow which can take 2 weeks. Best avoided.

    Whenever I’m interviewed, I always make it clear that my quotes don’t need to be used verbatim, and can be rearranged in any way the journalist likes so long as the original meaning is preserved. It makes life easier for all concerned, and usually makes me sound better too!

  3. It took a little while to understand all this when journalists first started to approach me for comment.

    What I learned though was that the easier I made life for them, the more likely they were to contact me again for quotes and comment in the future.

  4. Thanks Mark. I think one thing of which we hacks can be guilty is expecting everyone else to understand the rules of engagement just as we do, automatically. Many people speak to a PR person first but not all have the budget or inclination.

    It’s a little more involved than making life easier, though; someone who might fundamentally change what they said with hindsight (and I’ve seen that) is going to undermine the truth in the article, which isn’t what journalism at its best is about. We won’t allow ‘one rule for you, one rule for me’ so we don’t allow anyone to change their quotes.

    As long as people think before they speak there shouldn’t be a problem. Which can often mean there’s a problem!

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