Skip links


From 'Watch Dog' to 'Lap Dog'

Posted At: September 24, 2012 1:41 P.M.
by Sam Nathews

As Election Day draws nearer, it seems the steam radiating from the two political engines has begun blurring the lines that differentiate journalists and PR professionals.

In May of this year, The New York Times published an article that removed the wool from the eyes of the American public by highlighting a new facet of the journalist-source relationship that has become common practice among some major news outlets: quote approval.

Quote approval occurs when a reporter allows his source the opportunity to approve or disapprove a quote or statement the source made before the story is published.

In the Times’ story, the author describes how both Romney and Obama campaign staffers often only allow reporters access to the respective candidates or statements from official representatives under the condition that those individuals will be granted power to give the final “nod” before those statements are published.

As of now, this practice seems to be confined to the increasingly nauseating political arena, but who’s to say it won’t eventually bleed over onto other sections of the morning paper?

I know what you may be thinking, and I agree. There’s nothing wrong with journalists circling back to sources to ensure accuracy of information. Reporters do that all the time, and I’m all for it. This isn’t where things get hairy.

It is not OK for journalists to sacrifice accuracy in exchange for access — no matter how exclusive or high profile the source may be — especially if that source is campaigning to become president of the United States. This is where things get hairy. (And, judging by this memo issued on Sept. 20, 2012, forbidding “after-the-fact quote approval,” The New York Times seems to think so, too.)

How major are the edits made by the journalists’ sources? You be the judge:

Vanity Fair writer Michael Lewis, in a separate article, told The New York Times that he subscribed to the condition of quote approval in order to gain rare access to President Obama. Lewis told the Times that the White House redacted very little of importance from the record, but the Times wrote, “Mr. Lewis said there was one particularly moving exchange with the president that he wished he could have described in greater detail. But the White House nixed the idea, perhaps wary of having the commander in chief described as in tears.”

Whether you believe that description of the president holds value is up for debate, but one thing is certain: The moment he removed that accurate depiction of actual events from his story, Michael Lewis became another White House press aide.

By allowing sources the luxury of quote approval, journalists essentially become an extension of an organization’s communications department. Great for us, right? Maybe not.

Although this practice may sound like a dream come true for you, me and Joe the PR Pro initially, it actually presents a long-term problem for the PR industry.

Allow me to explain how on Earth quote approval is bad news (no pun intended) for us.

Participating in quote approval makes us, the PR pros, less thoughtful in our media responses, underprepared for media interviews and, overall, less effective representatives and advocates for our clients.

Or, as Brad Phillips, president of Phillips Media Relations, more elegantly opined in his article from on the topic:

“As a media trainer, you would think I would like this practice since it gives spokespersons more control over the story. And sure, if journalists are going to let people get away with this nonsense, political campaigns may as well keep doing it.

“But my goal as a media trainer isn’t to teach people how to wrest stories out of the hands of journalists to serve as their de facto editors. It’s to prepare spokespersons to deliver effective media interviews every time they speak to the press.”

Aside from the practice of quote approval turning us into less-than-stellar professionals, there is another incentive for us to not only avoid participating in it, but also to discourage the practice entirely.

Why? Practices such as quote approval destroy the public’s confidence in the media — confidence that is quickly fading, according to a new Gallup poll, which shows 60 percent of American people do not trust the mass news media.

When the general public decides the news media has abandoned its role as a “watch dog” to adopt that of a lap dog, trust is eroded. That erosion of trust then chips away at the credibility established by a third-party endorsement, which will only eliminate a hugely effective conduit for our message.

Who will be steaming then?


  1. Post comment

    First of all, great read. Secondly, the idea of quote approval does indeed sound alluring. You are basically spoon feeding the “facts” to the journalist which will ultimately, in most cases, result in a favorable story about your client in the end, ideally. However, as PR professionals we had the idea of transparency instilled in us by our professors. We were always told that it is our job to convey the the news. I feel if we pick up this habit of quote approval, then we are no longer being transparent and the public will question the integrity of our clients.THe way i see it is that no one is perfect, so why try to portray yourself as such. Needless to say, it will become a world of half truths. Sure, yes, we want to paint the prettiest picture of out client or clients as we can but we will no longer be the watch dogs of the media and we will be viewed as skilled double-talk artists. Lets hope this never comes to fruition.

  2. Post comment

    Good piece, Sam. Well written, and I share your concern. I believe that a large slice of our current problems can be laid at the feet of media who have oftentimes set aside their obligations to the truth in order to gain access. I would take issue with only one thing. I don’t think Lewis’ article is a good example to use. The writer had six months of pretty intimate access to the president. Lewis himself has described surprise about the access he was given, over the concerns of others, and by Obama’s insistence that Lewis get the gig. Anyone I think, including me, under those circumstances would want some level of approval over what was to be published. Some of that might be political, but it could also include more weighty concerns. This was not simply a one on one interview over an hour’s time. In any case, please keep that dog in the hunt!


Comments are closed.

Return to top of page