There’s an interesting discussion over at Ezra Klein’s for anyone who’s ever been a reporter or been interested in reporting. The impetus was this post at Penquins on the Equator:
I was rather surprised to learn, for instance, that TNR’s fact-checkers don’t check quotes with subjects; they just check quotes against the writers’ notes, which strikes me as less than optimal, particularly given that Stephen Glass fabricated notes to deceive the checkers
Ezra explains that this is common practice for most media outlets that do fact-checking (which is not, of course, most media outlets):
Here’s why: Quite often, a subject will ramble on in an interview and say something they didn’t quite mean to say. These are, generally, the quotes most worth using. But if read back, the subject will deny it, or argue over context, or generally try to edit out whatever bit of illumination they actually let slip. So you don’t give them the second edit.
Some of Ezra’s commentors seem appaled by this, accusing Ezra of meaning that journalists are more interested in getting a salacious quote than getting the truth, and why do reporters still take notes these days anyways, instead of just recording everything?
I agree 100 percent with Ezra’s explanation of why you don’t call sources back to check quotes. I’ve done this a few times, and it can be a disaster. Best case scenario, they just want to “improve,” what they originally said, and you end up wasting time talking to them about the same subject again, risk offending them if you tell them you’re going to stick with the original quote, or appease them and end up with a shmaltzy press-release-esque revised quote from them. Worst case scenario, they said something interesting or revealing off-the-cuff that, when repeated to them, they’ll inevitably want to change and, again, you either go with the original quote anyway, thereby offending them and risking losing a source, or you lose the quotes that were interesting and revealing in your story. Not to mention that by the time fact-checking takes place, a story is usally done, and to change quotes around then would mean the writer has to go back and reconfigure the whole story.
As for the recording interviews thing … well, it’s kind of a pain in the ass. A lot of interviews are conducted by phone, and not all phones are set up to record conversations. When things are recorded (on the phone or in person), there is always the risk that something will happen to the recording, which means the reporter will have to take notes as well as record — in which case, the reporter is probably gonna go from his/her notes anyway. Listening back to the whole recorded transcript of an interview is time-consuming, especially if you’ve interviewed someone with a tendency to ramble. At daily newspapers with tight deadlines, you often just don’t have time to essentially do an interview twice. And I imagine it would probably be a strain on fact-checkers if they had to go back and listen to the entire recorded conversations of everyone every reporter talked to to make sure quotes were not only accurate in wording but in meaning and intent.
All of this to “solve” something which, you know, isn’t really that much of a problem. To paraprhase Ezra, everyone knows the name Stephen Glass because this kind of thing is so rare, not because it’s so common.
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