Coming off of election years, national news publications, such as the New York Times, cite issues with campaign offices having tight lips and hesitant hands. The offices revise, redact, and reform quotes to fit a narrative. Journalists have trouble developing stories because of this policy called quote revision, which enables the places and people they report on to manage what they say officially. Stories and reporting tactics are hampered because the honest quotes — the less-than-polished, off-the-cuff words of people — are refined by bureaucracy and management.
Now, the problems for college journalists are not of the same sensitivity or degree as those of national news organizations; they are, however, persistent and ubiquitous on our campuses. At Swarthmore, as a small college community, not only does everyone know each other, but everyone knows what others say. This fact can often cause friction for college papers. Sources understandably want to ensure their images are not marred in the publication of a controversial piece or in the leak of sensitive information. However, these intentions conflict with journalism’s goals of telling honest, well-rounded, and meaningful stories.
Previously, the Phoenix has maintained a de-facto quoting policy through which sources could retract quotes that were once on the record. This policy was meant to serve the campus community. In recent years, however, the policy has had the unintended consequence of limiting writers’ ability to cover stories earnestly and the Phoenix’s ability to report campus events accurately.
As a result, the Phoenix has decided to change its quoting policy, so the campus benefits from better reporting while it maintains access to quotes. The new policy states that sources who had previously provided quotes on the record are expected to be treated as on the record. Retracted quotes will be considered in only extreme cases. Less frank quotes reduce stories’ ability to convey the truth. In the event of an extenuating circumstance, a source may withhold their quotes pending a meeting with Phoenix staff. This is actually not a new policy at the Phoenix; rather, it is the reiteration of our current policy. Certain editors have ventured away from this policy in the name of transparency and dialogue, but these decisions have caused more problems than solutions, and thus we feel compelled to reiterate our original policy. Furthermore, although we will not allow sources to retract or revise their quotes, sources may request for their quotes to be sent to them before publication.
It is also important to clarify the distinctions between information that is considerd “on the record” and “off”. On the record information is information that can be quoted or used toward a piece’s final published form and is attributed to the source. This information is usually obtained over in-person interviews, phone calls, and email correspondence. Off the record information cannot be reported in the final published piece. However, off the record information can be used to motivate further research and find new sources who can provide the same or different information on the record. Once a Phoenix reporter identifies themselves as a reporter to a potential source, all correspondence thereafter is assumed to be on the record unless otherwise specified. Also, a source may be referred to as an anonymous source, pending a meeting with Phoenix staff.
For reference, this change comes after many other established institutions have made similar policy changes or comments. The New York Times, in addition to other college publications like the Harvard Crimson, holds similar quoting policies in order to avoid these skewed and sterile quotes.
The Phoenix recognizes that we are not the New York Times, and the situations both papers find themselves in are very different. Our change is not because of a concern with “getting the scoop” or catching people in a bad light. Although we do want to hold the college and community accountable, this reasoning is not the root of this policy change. Instead, quote revision prevents dialogue and the exchange of ideas from taking place. Therefore, restating and reaffirming our practices and policies as they were intended to be followed ensures that we are a place of discourse where ideas are offered up for discussion and comparison.