Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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Charles Owens

August 1, 2012

‘Etch A Sketch’ or not, direct quotes should never be altered or changed

— — I always stop and wonder when a story without attribution, or any form of official source, appears in print, or on television. You get a lot of that nowadays in this digital age, both from television stations and the Internet.

But one of the golden rules of journalism is to identify your source with the exception of those rare occasions when permission is given for your source to remain anonymous. And then you still say according to an anonymous source. But if there is no identified source, the questions begs to be answered. Where is the information coming from?

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but one of my professors in college many, many years ago offered some unusual advice. At the time, I was still learning the ins and outs of journalism. The five ‘Ws” if you will. The who, what, when, where and why that is expected to be at the core of every professionally written news story. But at the time, I remember my old college professor telling our class that it was OK at times to clean up the quotes people give us. The professor argued that some trusted sources wouldn’t mind having their quotes cleaned up to make them sound better. I really enjoyed learning from this particular teacher, but I had to stop and think about what he said. It didn’t sound like the most sage advice to be giving a class full of would-be journalists.

I have thought about his advice from time to time over the years. But I’ve never been tempted to follow his suggestion. But he was correct — at least to a certain extent. Sources, or people who I have interviewed over the years, have repeatedly told me to “clean up” their quotes, and not to make them sound bad or stupid.

 I always respond by telling them their comments sound just fine. And they normally are. And what they say is what you almost always read in the printed press. Rarely are quotes ever changed — unless words are missing, or the quote makes absolutely no sense. When that happens, the direct quote is normally omitted from the story altogether. Sometimes — although it doesn’t happen on a regular basis — we will have to call people back just to clarify or correct a direct quote.

Now, you may be wondering where I’m heading with this, and I’ll explain. A lot has changed over the past couple of years. Today, it is often a race to be the first to get the news out to our readers. Not only in our print edition, but our online edition, by Twitter blasts, email newsblasts, Facebook and other sources. But guess what? We still don’t tweet, blast or update our Facebook site without an official source. We may be new school, but we are still old-school at the core. The five ‘Ws” are still important. So is an official source. The police chief. The county commission president. The mayor. The fire chief. The town manager. An official source is still a necessity. No source. No official confirmation. No tweet. No blast.

Yet I still see stories all of the time from professional news agencies with no source. And that’s a shame. Even back in college, at the school newspaper, we had to have official sources.

Scripp’s Howard columnist Martin Schram raised an alarming red flag in his weekly column last week. He reported that several respected members of the Washington press are now allowing the camps of President Barack Obama, and Republican challenge Mitt Romney, to proof and alter comments from the candidates before they appear in print.

That’s a big no no. It is alarming to hear that some media organizations are doing this. Thankfully, the Associated Press has steadfastly refused to make any quote clearing concessions with the candidates as ground rules for interviews with officials, as Schram pointed out last week.

If the candidate makes an ill-advised comment — like then candidate Barack Obama did in 2008 when he promised to bankrupt coal-fired power plants — the readers deserve and expect to see his actual words in print.

 The same goes for the Romney advisor who made the infamous “Etch A Sketch” comments about his boss. This particular statement was certainly ill-advised, and gave critics of Romney an opening to argue that the former Massachusetts governor has flip-flopped on a number of campaign issues. But imagine if that comment had been censured or altered by campaign staffers before appearing in print.

Journalism 101. Quotes can not be altered or changed. Candidates, elected officials, and others should never be allowed to proof, or censure comments, before they appear in print. And official sources should still be a must before anything appears in print, online or on television.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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