Company's prepublication review gets mixed reviews p.31

Posted
By: M.L. Stein It may enhance accuracy, but whether it's good for
journalism is another question
A San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News reporter who showed a story about Nasdaq to Nasdaq executives before publication defended the unusual move on the grounds that it strengthened the piece while not compromising the paper's editorial control over it.
It was the first time the newspaper had ever shown a complete draft of a story to its source, according to editor Jerry Ceppos.
The story, headed "Shortchanged on Nasdaq?," got Page One play Sunday, Sept. 6. The thrust was that investors in the Nasdaq market supposedly should pay low trading costs because of "spirited competition" among firms executing the orders ? but that fees are actually high. Staff writer Christopher Schmitt explained that, often, only a few dealers handle trades of a company's shares, and that raises transaction charges. The extra cost to investors could reach hundreds of millions of dollars annually, the paper stated, pointing out that 90% of the high-tech firms in the Silicon Valley are listed on Nasdaq.
The newspaper, in a jump-page column, disclosed that the main story and sidebars were provided to Nasdaq prior to publication because of "the complexity of the subject matter." The unsigned column said Nasdaq executives were allowed to contest the reporting and suggest changes but the newspaper retained control. The paper also said it convened a panel of financial experts and academics to examine the stories and make suggestions.
In an interview, Schmitt said Nasdaq officials "made a number of comments which we considered and decided not to make any changes over them. But they did suggest some changes that were worthwhile and we made them. The basic structure of the story is still there."
Ceppos was out of town and could not be reached. But he told the San Francisco Examiner that the paper had never shown a source a complete story before publication. An exception was made, he added, to ensure factual accuracy of a "very, very complex story." He denied that the move was related to the criticism the paper had taken over former reporter Gary Webb's "Dark Alliance" series about an alleged CIA connection to drug sales in minority neighborhoods. The series could not be substantiated despite examination by the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and others. Ceppos himself eventually backed off and told readers the report had oversimplified the crack epidemic and its origins.
However, Ceppos told the Examiner's David Armstrong that "more than most newspapers, we have been involved in discussions about the philosophical and practical aspects of accuracy and fairness because of 'Dark Alliance.'"
Schmitt said that he and special projects editor Jonathan Krim had the idea "about the same time" of letting Nasdaq managers review the article. "When you have a complex story that involves some arcane things, and there are some smart people out there, the work benefits from scrutiny."
Though Schmitt had never before shown the complete draft of a story to a source, he said the paper occasionally has called in experts ? but not sources ? to "preview our findings."
He said one story about racial bias in California's courts was reviewed by judges, attorneys, prosecutors and police officials. Another invited group evaluated a series on the effect of computer technology in schools, he said, and the sessions "were extremely helpful."
Other editors gave mixed reviews to the Mercury News' move.
Ralph Langer, editor and executive vice president of the Dallas Morning News, said the paper has taken no similar action, although sources have been called back for fact-checking.
"I think this is a healthy thing to do and maybe we ought to do it more often," he observed. "Not to let people edit stories but to make sure we got sophisticated information right. There's nothing wrong with that as long as you're not saying, 'Here's the story. Give it back to us.' You don't have to turn over the editor's chair to them."
Langer did not rule out the possibility of allowing a source to read an entire draft. "We've talked about it for a really complicated story," he acknowledged. "I think we would be comfortable doing that."
Nor have sources reviewed Seattle Times stories, according to executive editor Michael R. Fancher. "Unless," he added, "a reporter made an arrangement with somebody and I was unaware of it."
The problem in such an agreement, Fancher said, is "doing it for one source and then having to say no to the next one, who wants the same thing."
Another hang-up, he said, is that when reviewing a story for factual purposes, "inevitably, people start to edit it and want to play the role of both reporter and editor." Were he to allow a source to read a completed draft, Fancher said, he would evaluate the source's recommendations and tell readers if anything was changed and why, since readers "would have legitimate questions. All in all, I would rather not do it. It's not a good way to do journalism."
Still, Fancher did not rule out the possibility of prepublication review by a source.
"I suppose if you wanted to get it precisely right and the chances of even being slightly wrong would be catastrophic, it might be done," he said. "But there are lots of ways for a reporter to double-check accuracy without letting someone else get into the reporting process."
Peter Bhatia, executive managing editor of the Oregonian in Portland, gave Ceppos the benefit of the doubt. "The Mercury News is a very credible paper, and if Jerry said he had a reason to do it, I would take him at his word," Bhatia stated. "Because of the difficult times we live in, we're on the line every day to make sure that everything we print is as credible and fair as it can be."
But source review is unusual, and, in fact, Bhatia could not recall it being done on the seven newspapers for which he has worked, even though "it's common to go back to sources to assure that what we're saying is accurate."

?(Done to ensure factual accuracy of a "very, very complex story."
?(? Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos) [Caption & Photo]
?("[A] healthy thing to do and maybe we ought to do it more often.") [Photo & Caption]
?(? Dallas Morning News editor Ralph Langer) [Photo & Caption]
?(The problem is "doing it for one source and then having to say no to the next one who wants the same thing.") [Photo & Caption]
?(? Seattle Times executive editor Michael Fancher) [Photo & Caption]
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site:http:///www.mediainfo. com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher September 19, 1998) [Caption]

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