Sorry, You Can’t Read the Story Before It Runs

I get a few requests each month from sources who want to review stories before they go to press. Implicit or explicit in that request is the right to make changes. Each time, I tell them no and have to explain why, so maybe a lot of readers don’t understand that bedrock principle of journalism.

When you make the request, it sounds reasonable: “I just want to make sure you quoted me correctly and I got my point across.”

But turn it around and look at it as a reader would. The easiest explanation is an example using the most powerful man in the state. Now, Gov. Neil Abercrombie has never asked me if he could vet a story in advance, but, let’s just say, in this parallel universe, Hawaii Business allows the governor to review a story about him. He gets to read it before any other reader and make changes. Or maybe he doesn’t even request changes, but at a minimum he gets to plan and launch his counterattack or this-article-is-great strategy in advance.

What just happened to the credibility of that story and our magazine in your eyes? Fell pretty far, didn’t it? That’s because you expect me to act independently of the governor or any source. You want my judgment, my impartiality and that of my staff. If I can’t provide that, you might as well read press releases from the governor’s office.

But you answer back: “I’m not the governor, just an ordinary business owner who wants to make sure my story gets told fairly and accurately.” That’s exactly what I want to do, too. But I have to be able to include other facts that I think our readers need to know. You may or may not agree with those facts, but when I have control over the storytelling – without your intervention – my readers will take that story a lot more seriously than if they found out you had a hand in it. You can’t have both your control and my credibility; one has to give.

What Hawaii Business readers expect from our team is intelligent and fair judgments on what to cover and how. We will channel the voices of many sources – we want everyone to make their best case in our pages – but we need to decide how that’s done.

It’s an imperfect system. Occasionally, we make mistakes that could have been corrected if a source had seen the story in advance. We’re sorry that happens, but the greater damage is the credibility lost by handing over control. If you run a business, you know how important your reputation is. If I give in on what seems like an innocuous story, people will always wonder about everything else in the magazine.

Categories: How We Work, Opinion