Quote vetting — standard in Switzerland — sparks Anglo-Saxon media uproar

by Malcolm Curtis
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Tribune de Genève Blogs | July 22, 2012

The growing journalistic practice in America of allowing sources to vet and change quotes from interviews is drawing disapproval from media experts but the practice has long been the norm in Switzerland.

The New York Times this week reported on how the presidential election campaign teams of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are demanding — and receiving — veto power over quotations made by officials from both camps in interviews with reporters.

Journalists are complying for fear of losing access to inside sources but the result is comments that are bowdlerized, lacking in color, bereft of bad language or anything remotely provocative.

In Switzerland, it is commonplace for bankers, businessmen, academics, officials and others to ask journalists to see copies of articles with comments attributed to them before publication.

From my own experience this is not entirely a bad thing because it can reduce mistakes and misunderstandings over words taken out of context.

As a journalist coming from North America, I confess I initially had misgivings about the acceptance of this policy by Swiss journalists.

Among other things, the need for a source to vet articles means that it takes longer to file a story and in a profession where speed is important this is a hardship.

However, in most cases I have found that Swiss sources get back to you very quickly.

And one positive aspect of this practice is that it works against the kind of “gotcha!” journalism that pounces on gaffes or lapses that do not cast an accurate reflection on the source or the situation.

There are limits, of course.

I recall a spokesman for one of Switzerland’s top banks wanted to change a quote that I had used, even though it was taken from the financial institution’s own press release.

In another case, I had to completely recast an article about Geneva’s banks because the official I quoted from tape-recorded comments, uncomfortable about the look of the words on paper, decided that he wanted to rephrase what he said.

Clearly, when a source says something newsworthy — and then later recants after reflection — it can be annoying.

Many journalists have had the experience of a source saying something juicy only to follow up with: “For God’s sake, don’t quote me on that.”

In America, the norm is that everything in an interview with a reporter is on the record, and such pleas against quotation are ignored.

But in the long run, is the public badly served if a source is ultimately allowed to be quoted on what he really means to say, rather than something that inadvertently popped out of his mouth?

Many Anglo-Saxon journalists are up in arms over the idea that sources can screen what is being said about them.

“When journalists give sources the opportunity to fix up what they’ve said, we’ve become complicit in their spin,” Jeff Jarvis said in a commentary for The Guardian.

“When we do so without revealing the practice, we become conspirators in a lie to the people we are supposed to serve: the public.”

That may be going a bit far.

Print journalists already frequently conspire in the transcription of comments made during interviews to eliminate the “ers” and “ahs”, and to smooth over the repetitions and the grammatical slips that are part of everyday speech.

Such changes are made to make quotes more readable even if quibblers would say they detract from a faithful account.

Also, journalists are not required to go along with vetting requests from sources, although they risk losing access to them the next time round.

In Britain and the US, the problem is frequently skirted in political coverage through off-the-record briefings, which provide fodder for daily news.

Getting comments on the record is always preferable but reporters have to weigh the value of the information being obtained.

That said, the notion that politicians can demand print news organizations to change tape-recorded comments made by them is unacceptable.

Fortunately, most of what politicians in western countries say on the record is now broadcast in the public arena before television cameras.

Thankfully, so far as I’m aware, the pols are not yet at the point of demanding access to the video editing booth.

A version of this article was published by The Essential Edge Geneva website under the title: What I really meant to say was . . .

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About Malcolm Curtis

Freelance English-language communications professional (writing, editing, translations) based near Geneva, Switzerland. Let me know if I can help you.
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