Some students, working at the top college newspapers in the land, appear less aggressive than their older peers in the “real world.” They even seem overly deferential to deans and college administrators.
They let “sources” get by entirely with an email, rather than a personal interview. Editors at elite college papers often permit subjects of their stories to veto or alter what they earlier said.
But stung by a wave of reform at several top schools, college papers are shunning the use of email interviews and are limiting the ability of subjects to later alter their quotes.
The latest debate about student journalism came from students themselves as they returned to campuses last fall. Outsiders, such as journalism professors, have been left to scratch their heads, often writing on sites that invite comments.
The editor of the Harvard Crimson decided to end the paper’s long-standing practice of allowing people who had been interviewed by the paper — including school administration honchos — to approve the use of what they’d said. The procedure, known as “quote approval” or the less severe “quote review” implies a veto power.
University chieftains had become too accustomed to being granted the right to rewrite quotes, editors Ben Samuels and Julie Zauzner suggested. Journalists, often traveling in pairs, would visit Massachusetts Hall and University Hall, “the two stateliest and most secretive buildings in Harvard Yard,” they wrote. The trouble came later.
“Sometimes, nothing is changed,” the pair wrote. “But often, the quotations come back revised, to make the wording more erudite, the phrasing more direct, or the message more pointed. Sometimes the quotations are rejected outright or are rewritten to mean just the opposite of what the administrator said in the recorded interview.”
The student editors dropped the policy that had been in place for years, fearing their reporting had become “less candid, less telling and less meaningful.”
The new rules would require reporters to explain why a source had ducked a phone call and insisted on an email interview. Reporters could no longer grant “quote review.”
Two weeks later, Princeton’s paper followed suit. Editor Harry Rome came up with his own twist. He decided to allow limited “quote review,” but limit email interviews.
The use of email “has resulted in stories filled with stilted, manicured quotes that often hide any real meaning and make it extremely difficult for reporters to ask follow-up questions or build relationships with sources,” he wrote. Rome urged that reporters limit email replies to facts like numbers and dates.
“To be clear, if a source said it, a source said it. We don’t do revisionist interviewing,” he insisted in a note to readers.
Next came the Stanford Daily, the following month. “We are failing our readers in our duty to give them quality journalism and not serve merely as a conduit for community PR,” editor Billy Gallagher wrote. He limited the use of email interviews to simple facts.
In October, Ohio’s Kenyon College killed “quote review.” Its editors cited policy reviews at the Harvard Crimson and the New York Times.
The student debate is revealing because such practices are rarely debated aloud. Almost every journalist has dealt with questions of email interviews, and interviewee preference to review and change what was said, even if taped. But few instances produce such a string of debate. Student editors are lining up like dominos, prompted by each other.
At off-campus papers, such debates are often held in editors’ offices, but rarely mentioned. But student editors appear compelled to write about changes in policy, even if only to explain them to readers — and school authorities.
At many papers, a reporter will take an email interview if that’s all he or she can get, even if subjects will often duck a personal interview and default to email instead. Some journalists consider letting a subject review quotes — or an entire story — to be unethical. But others believe any feedback adds to the story’s true feel. It’s one thing to get the facts and dates right, and to spell names correctly. It’s another to capture to true context of what was said or how it was uttered.
The student debate has drawn reaction.
“It’s a generational thing,” wrote Kathryn Quigley, an associate professor at Rowan University. “Students today reflexively use email for almost every interview... They have to learn to TALK to people. The interpersonal social skills of students today are awful.” Quigley posted her notes on Jim Romenesko’s journalism website, one of the most widely read.
Lou Corsaro, assistant managing editor at the Pittsburgh Business Times, cited the “zero tolerance” rules favored by the Ivy League student editors as “silly and unnecessary.”
Allowing sources to review what they said is a “courtesy of letting sources know they’re being quoted,” he wrote, suggesting the paper keep the ultimate right to use what’s said.
In the past week, Henry Rome, the Princetonian editor, wrote Romenesko about his five-month-old reforms.
“We are getting more access, not less,” he noted.
The writer (email@example.com ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.