About News

Sources Should Be Sources, Not Editors

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

I’d have posted this sooner but I was waiting on Adam Schefter to edit it.

Schefter, a National Football League “Insider” reporter for ESPN, became a target of widespread derision within the journalism community this week when the LA Times reported that Schefter sent an entire draft of a pending news story about NFL collective bargaining to a key source for review. It happened 10 years ago but is in the news now because Schefter’s action was revealed in emails that are part of current court litigation involving the key source.

I would try to give Schefter the benefit of the doubt by suggesting he merely wanted to ensure the accuracy of a complicated story. But one email blows that defense to smithereens. The reporter didn’t just ask if anything was factually wrong with the parts of the story that came from the source. Instead, the reporter wrote: “Please let me know if you see anything (in the entire story) that should be added, changed, tweaked.” Then came the coup de grace of professional embarrassment as Schefter referred to the source as “Mr. Editor.”

Schefter, who eventually apologized publicly for what he claimed was a rare practice by him, still insisted that he had not surrendered editorial control over the story to the source. But in fact, he did exactly that. Editorial independence is a journalism foundation, and to cede that to an involved source who probably has a particular agenda is fundamentally unethical.

But let’s complicate the subject.

What if Schefter had shared the whole story but with an email that said, “Story is done and won’t be changed. This is what we’re publishing”? This is a gray area suddenly. For me, this is still a no-no because, especially with negative stories, this can trigger a pre-publication blitz of angry calls to bosses, legal threats and other kinds of political pressure from targets.

Yet sometimes sharing at least some portion of a pending article is the right thing to do. For instance, if persistent efforts to get a target of criticism to respond to specifically stated questions have failed, sharing the article can be a legitimate last resort to elicit response, a move that places the virtues of balance and fairness above the good practice of keeping pending work close to the vest.

Also, it is quite common, actually, for journalists to review pieces of stories and interviews with the sources who provided those pieces to help ensure accuracy and clarity. This may be the case especially if a journalist who is a generalist rather than a specialist is reporting on a complicated topic. I’ve read some stories about, say, science or technology or cryptocurrency for which, if I were the reporter, I’d be highly tempted to do exactly what Schefter did.

But in the end, you shouldn’t.

I can’t help but wonder if Schefter lets key sources have such a full understanding of what he’s writing – if not behind-the-scenes control – that they feel more comfortable giving him insider scoops. Could be part of the secret to his success.

That brings up my last question: If you are going to do it, which sources are the ones who get the pre-publication review and potential influence? In the current case, it was the president of an NFL team, as opposed to, say, a player union rep. I think that’s significant. Mainstream, establishment media are more likely to give credence to, or defer to, sources with titles and power. That’s troubling, too.


Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.