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Should you ever share a draft of your story with a source?

Should you ever share a draft of your story with a source?

Picture of William Heisel

It’s exciting to talk about going to jail to protect a source. It casts the reporter as the thankless hero, beholden to nothing but the truth and willing to sacrifice everything for the freedom of the press.

It’s much more practical, however, to talk about how you can keep yourself out of court entirely. One way is through the judicious practice of letting your sources know what you are going to publish.

I have no data to back this up. But I can make a reasonable guess based on my informal polling of friends and colleagues over the years that most journalists would not ever think that sharing a draft of a story was even an option. There’s good reason for this. If you show a draft of your story to a source there are two possible bad outcomes:

1. Your source will argue with you — or threaten legal action against you — to change something in your story. A big hospital chain might feel that your story would literally grind their operations to a halt, and the fear of that could lead to some very drastic legal threats or measures.

2. You share a draft with one source before publication, and then someone else in the story threatens legal action against you after it’s published, calling into question your decision to share a draft of with one source but not every source. A patient may corroborate everything you wrote about a doctor, but then the doctor may provide proof — after publication — that the patient was lying.

So don’t bother, right?

I would argue that if you have done a solid job reporting and you have created the right dialogue with your sources, you should be able to perform a critical fact check with them that can actually make your story more bullet-resistant — no story is bulletproof — when you publish.

Here’s how. At the very outset of your reporting, let your sources know that part of your reporting process may include you contacting the source several times over the course of the reporting to check different findings with them. That doesn’t mean you are giving them permission to veto certain findings. You are simply making sure you have covered all necessary ground before you write your story.

Then, when you finish the story, go back to each of the sources about whom you are going to be publishing something that could have a significant impact on their lives. This is subjective, of course, but I always think about the things in a piece that could alter the course of a career or color a person’s reputation in their community.

If you have a story that relies heavily on legal documents and administrative records, you may not need to take this step. I have published many, many posts over the years where I gather legal documents and health care records and then distill them for the audience, pointing back to the source material along the way.

But often you are also relying on interviews and your interpretation of different pieces of documentary evidence. Court records and medical files are great, but they are often full of acronyms, time stamps, and even conflicting information that needs to be interpreted by people who lived through the experiences you are trying to describe. You are drawing lines from point A to point C, not knowing whether there was a point B in between.

Reading sections of a piece to a source also can be a crucial way to re-check your own biases. What are the facts that you have chosen to surface in your story and are there other facts that you have —consciously or subconsciously — suppressed?

Lastly, going over sections of your story with sources is an incredible mechanism for ensuring you aren’t subconsciously hiding behind your story. It’s an easy thing to do, no different than posting something on Twitter that you would never say to a person’s face.

Here’s an example of how checking your story with your sources can be a good thing: I read sections of a story to multiple sources for an investigative piece on a hospital-induced infection. The hospital had channeled nearly all communication with me through their spokesman, and he and I built a cautious respect for each other over the course of a few months. When I read him the sections of the story that related to the treatments the patient in the story had experienced at the hospital, he did not ask to change a single thing. Except he did point out to me that I had made a critical error in one part.

It turns out, that single error would have been hugely embarrassing.

I had thought that the surgeons in the case had chosen to make a major incision in the patient, greatly increasing the likelihood of an infection. Instead, they had conducted a procedure through a very small incision, actually reducing the chances of an infection.

What was the source of my error? It was a misinterpretation on my part of a notation in the medical records. The notation said, “LAP.” Given many of the other procedures that occurred over the course of the patient’s stay in the hospital and the way she died, I incorrectly interpreted this to mean “laparotomy,” which typically involves a larger incision in the abdomen. Instead, it meant a laparoscopy, which involves a tiny incision. As studies have shown repeatedly, minimally invasive procedures generally have a lower risk of surgical site infection.

The patient died from an infection nonetheless, and my story painted a fairly damning portrait of what went on in the hospital. But had I published with that error, it would have undermined everything else in the piece.

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