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Asking journalists to see the story before it's published is not fair process

A trend of journalists being asked to share their stories before publication is a sign that newsmakers do not understand how journalism works, and think they can control the narrative. In reporting on sustainability issues, pre-publication review could lead to greenwashing.

If there is one thing that annoys journalists writing about sustainability issues more than anything right now — besides the usual gripes of gloomy news, the ever-shortening news cycle and shoddy PR people — it is probably being asked by a source or interviewee to see a story before it is published.

Such requests aren’t new. But they are increasingly common, according to numerous journalists I have spoken to this week, and could reflect a depressing trend of where journalism is heading.

I don’t mean reading back or checking quotes. That, in my view, is fair enough (although some journalists would disagree) to check for accuracy, particularly among sources who have shared sensitive information.

What I’m refering to is being asked to share an entire article with someone we’ve interviewed before it gets published. 

This goes against the traditional relationship between journalist and source, which is typically one-way; a source shares information with journalist (either because they want coverage, they want to impart important knowledge, or they want to vent), the journalist crafts the story and publishes the information. 

The content of any story written by journalists is guided by the publication’s editorial standards and what it considers to be the public interest.

But the dynamic is changing, and more newsmakers seem to feel entitled to pre-publication review, particularly when the story is about them (the most common requests of this kind have come in our ‘People’ section) or their employers. 

One source recently told a colleague that they wouldn’t give him a quote unless they could see the entire story before it was published. As is Eco-Business’s policy, we would never give a newsmaker pre-publication review, unless it is a piece of branded content that a client has paid for, and which is labelled as such.

The fact that people are asking [to see the story] is a an insult to our editorial integrity.  

But if sharing a story before publication means avoiding mistakes, what’s the problem? 

Kirsten Han, a prominent Singaporean journalist who writes extensively about human rights, says she understands why some sources in Singapore may ask to see a story before it goes to press, because what they say could get them into trouble, for instance, academics on foreign work visas whose words could be misinterpreted.

But she says she would only share the relevant paragraphs with sources, and tells them she will only make edits for accuracy.

Asking to see a story in its entirety shows a lack of trust in how journalists go about their work, and a lack of respect for the profession. But that isn’t the reason most serious publications would never give copy approval.

A Reuters correspondent shares that it “sets a dangerous precedent,” because there is an implication that the journalist is not sure about the reporting, and may be willing to change the story to suit a source.

In journalism on sustainability-related issues, this could pave the way for greenwashing.

This is particularly true of some corporations featured in stories that attract more scrutiny and debate. Big companies with ever-pushier communications teams (which I wrote about last year) are the most likely to ask to see a story before it goes “live”.

Kuala Lumpur-based freelance environmental and science journalist Nadiah Rosli observed that when she worked for Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama, she received most story review requests from corporations or sources with public relations officers working for them.

Now, as a freelance science writer, she does share some technical content with sources to ensure the material is accurate. Sharing scientific data with a source will rarely if ever lead to changes, because the content is not sensitive, she says.

Pre-publication review requests are particularly problematic in the media dealing with sustainability issues. These stories typically cover serious, complex issues, and need to be told with a fair but often critical eye, without interference from vested interests.

Another media colleague suggests that as environment, social and governance (ESG) issues are pushed further into the spotlight by the Covid-19 pandemic, companies are increasingly aware of the sheen sustainability can give their reputations — and likewise of the brand damage of a less positive portrayal.

This means that newsmakers are becoming increasing protective — sometimes paranoid — about how they are perceived in sustainability-themed stories.

Corporates want to manage how they are presented, making sure they are not “quoted out of context”, as they usually tell journalists — which often really means they want more control over the story.

They want journalists to highlight the efforts they are making to be more sustainable, rather than the weaknesses they have to work on. To tell a fair and balanced story, both are essential.

Another motive for pre-publication review is ego. As more money flows into sustainability efforts, so more people enter the sector who are perhaps more concerned with how they are written about. 

The reality is that as media companies struggle to stay afloat and advertising revenue is gobbled up by tech players like Facebook and Google, the balance of power has shifted away from journalism. Newsmakers are trying to capitalise on this to bend the narrative in their favour.

This is why journalists are increasingly asked for the questions before an interview and even, Han gripes, asked what the angle is they’ll be pursuing in their story. 

These pre-publication requests probably also reflect a decline in trust in journalists and in journalism, as fake news eats away at the credibility of the media.

Last week, the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual study of the faith people have in institutions, found that since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, trust in journalists has fallen further than trust in government officials, CEOs or religious leaders. Only faith in scientists has fallen further.

For journalism to uphold its principles of fairness, accuracy and truth, journalists need to be unfettered from the expectations of those who make the news to seek their approval before a story is published.

It’s not the way news has worked for centuries, and it’s more important to remember that today.

The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s organisation, or other group or individual.

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