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Ethical Case Study: A lesson on the rules of
prior approval of quotes, content


by John Bowen

The question of whether reporters should have to obtain prior approval of quotes is in the news again with NPR’s Morning Edition of Sept. 18.

Here’s a lesson about involving students in that discussion on both commercial and scholastic levels.

On that show, New York Times columnist David Carr talked about Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair magazine about President Barack Obama and having to get pre-approval on quotes.

The subject also emerged earlier this summer when Washington Post reporter Daniel de Vise allowed University of Texas officials to review the draft of his story and suggest changed. More recently, New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters wrote about such pre-approval being a common practice.

Some commercial publications are revisiting their policies over this once professionally frowned-upon practice.

The controversy would also make for a great discussion with your students in two ways: one, on the ethics of the practice itself and two, on its potential implications for scholastic media. On the collegiate level, The Harvard Crimson made headlines said it was withdrawing its practice of allowing school officials such approval.

Our lesson is broken into the suggested activity, resources and Common Core Anchor Standards in Writing and Reading.

The multi-day lessons could go something like this:

Day i
• Download the Sept. 18 Morning Edition audio or transcript of Newsmakers trade access for quotation approval. Share with the class and have students take notes.
• Divide the class into groups of three or four.
• Discuss the practice in terms of the ethics of prior approval and the historical attitudes toward prior review by those outside the medium. What might be some plusses and minuses of the practice.
•Some questions for discussion might be:
–What might be conditions where the practice might be beneficial? Harmfiul? Why?
–Would the practice change your role as a journalistic organization?
–How might the practice affect other journalistic guidelines and principles?
–How might the practice affect the perception of your media’s objectivity?
–What, if any, precedents might be set?
• Divide the background links (below) so group members examine articles and report back to the entire group what they found. You might also urge each group to consult ethical codes of relevant journalistic groups.
• Discuss the additional information in terms of what group members feel would be Best Practices for your media. Discuss ethical considerations, dilemmas and practices and which would most accurately guide your media. How can they best explain their decision and the process of reaching it to their communities.
• Work  – following group discussion – to draft a guideline for your media stating your ethical policies toward prior approval of quotes and information.
• Be ready to present your draft for discussion and to defend/explain your decision. That process would be repeated for each group.
• The class will attempt to reach consensus (totality of agreement is up to you) on the guidelines.
• Discussion about each group’s guidelines should include legal, and especially ethical principals and practices.

Day 2
Once the groups have reached consensus, talk about processes and ethical principles and processes were important to them, and why. Then move on to additional discussion about a new angle, the legal one.
• Have students read SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte’s blog, Send a draft of your story to a source? Some journalists do it – but be mindful of the risks.
• Ask students to return to their groups and discuss how this new information –and other resources from JEA (see below) – might have an impact on their decision. The teacher can act as a resource guide with JEA and other materials.
• Points of discussion might include:
–Whether they had thought of the potential legal issues of prior approval or prior review
–How that might affect their journalistic processes and principles

• Students have the option of suggesting alterations for their new ethical guidelines, leaving them the same or other approaches they might design.
• Return students to the whole group to discuss their findings and make possible changes to their guideline statement.

Day 3
• Once consensus is reached, assign each student to draft an editorial explaining their media’s position on prior approval and the processes they took to reach it.

The group can then discuss, in groups or other approach, the possible approaches and craft an editorial position for publication.


Most timely
• The  NPR link (how to get reader to the link)

• The puppetry of quotation approval

• Latest word on the trail? I take it back

• What’s the deal with quote approval?

• Michael Lewis let White House approve quotes for Vanity Fair article

• Obama’s Way (Vanity Fair article)


• Washington Post reporter sent drafts to sources

• AP doesn’t let sources approve quotes beforehand

• What are advantages, disadvantages of prior approval of quotes

• National Journal boss on quote-approval: It’s about control

• A call for reporters and sources to weigh in

• Unethical journalism in the news: Storify

• Washington Post tightens rules on sharing drafts with sources

• A letter to our readers

Codes of Ethics
Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)
NSPA Student Code of Ethics

Additional for high school:

Updating your editorial policy

• JEA statement on prior review

Examining your status as a forum

• A conversation about prior review

• Guidelines if facing prior review

• Points to consider on prior review

• Questions about prior review

College and Career Readiness Standards for Reading
Key Ideas and details

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Craft and Structure

4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

7. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

College and Career readiness anchor Standards for Writing

Text types and Purposes

2. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

3. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Production and distribution of Writing

5. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

6. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

7. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge

8. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

9. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

10. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

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