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Do Minnesota journalists let politicians rewrite quotes?

The New York Times had a front-page story today outing a noxious practice it and others allow: letting politicians veto and in some cases rewrite quotes from briefings.

Such "quote approval" is shockingly common in D.C., where hyper-competitive political journos are frequently accused of being stenographers to power.

Journalists already trade disclosure for (presumably candid) access when they allow sources anonymity — "administration official," "high-ranking staffer." The public should trust that stuff less, but at least the journalist retains some control. Quote approval and quote laundering gets a named source, at the credibility-sapping price of tranferring editorial control to your subject. Reporters' defense — the quotes don't change much — is fairly pathetic.

Which raises the question: Do Minnesota political journalists do this?

Editors or spokesfolk for five Minnesota news organizations — the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota Public Radio, the Associated Press, Politics in Minnesota and MinnPost — say no.

I'm not yet sure of the Star Tribune: Political editor Pat Lopez declined to answer, referring me to her boss, managing editor Rene Sanchez, who did not return an email or call in a three-hour window this morning. I'll update if I hear back.

[Update: Sanchez says, "No, we don’t do that and I can’t think of a circumstance in which we would."]

Politics in Minnesota managing editor Steve Perry, whose staff blankets the state Capitol, says, "We've neither used this practice nor taken part in briefings in which it was a condition. Doesn't seem to have filtered to the state level as far as I can tell."

Pioneer Press Dennis Lien agrees, adding that no politician he's covered has made quote approval a condition for attending a briefing.

Associated Press spokesman Paul Colford — whose organization was not listed among the weak-willed in the NYT piece — says, "We don't permit quote approval. We have declined interviews that have come with this contingency."

MPR spokeswoman Christina Schmitt: "We don't allow anyone to retract quotes, edit quotes or review quotes pre-broadcast or pre-publication."

MinnPost managing editor Roger Buoen, a former Star Tribune editor: "I can't recall allowing a politician to edit a quote at MinnPost or at the newspapers we've worked for. MinnPost doesn't have a formal policy on this question, although we follow what I understand is the general practice of local news organizations of not allowing that sort of thing."

Lien says he has read quotes to politicians, in limited, understandable circumstances: "The only times I've done anything like that is if I've missed a word, either because I didn't take notes fast enough or write or type clearly enough, and still want to use the quote. Then, I've gone back to the speaker and said something along the lines of, 'I'd like to use the following quote (and repeat what I have), but I can't make out the missing word or words. Do you recall what it was or they were?'

"But that has been very infrequent. Typically, if I have any question about a specific quote, I simply don't use it."

Geographically and influentially, St. Paul is a long way from D.C., and you hope pols don't get any bright ideas from the NYT story. Even if they do, you hope local media orgs aren't so weak-willed about "getting beat" that they would agree to it. 

(At the very least, as journalism professor Jeff Jarvis notes, reporters making this trade-off have an obligation to tell readers they did.)

Current or former politicians or staff — have you ever tried or succeeded with this manuever locally? Let me know at dbrauer@minnpost.com ... but I won't promise to let you launder your quotes.

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Comments (3)

Just a general comment

RE: The whole "approval" (or denial thereof) process:

Many years ago I was a presenter at an event which was covered by the media. My particular presentation was to a group of young children, and my manner of speaking was adjusted accordingly.

In the published article, the reporter quoted me in a way that created the impression my comments were made in the context of an interview. Which made me sound like a person with a limited command of the English language, given the fact that the reporter was actually quoting what I was saying to a group of 5 year olds.

Because of that experience, whenever I read a quote that seems a bit "off", I remind myself that I probably don't have the full context and that the the person being quoted was almost certainly not given an opportunity for review (for example, had I been given an opportunity for review, I would have simply requested that they were quoting my presentation to 5 year olds).

I don't think an opportunity for review (of an article) should be the bad thing journalists seem to consider it to be. Why not just be reasonable about it, don't change actual quotes, but be willing to consider clarifying context if asked, and understand the "review does not necessarily equal capitulation to all requests".

Sure, you all deny it

That only it means it must happening!

Outrageous comments and quiet corrections

Politicians allowed to change what they say will lead to more incendiary comments made for impact and then a much quieter correction. Politicians have to be held responsible for what they spew. Many of the outrageous comments they make are designed specifically to raise money. If they can't think far enough ahead to control their comments then they don't deserve to be in public office. We are rapidly becoming a society of the outrageous. Common sense and compromise has evaporated. Voters you have the opportunity to vote in November and choose what kind of politician you want speaking for you. Vote wisely!