Writers and Editors (Pat McNees's blog)
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The interviewee's right to "edit" a transcript or story

December 12, 2011

Tags: censorship, interviewee's rights

A reader asked: When I am going to interview (unpaid) interviewees and publish an account of their experiences, do I give them the transcript? Do I have sole discretion about how what I write is written or does the interviewee have the right to revise? What should we discuss and agree to in advance about what's going to happen? I need guidelines.

The answer: It depends on whether you are a journalist, an oral historian, a personal historian, or a collaborator/ghostwriter (to use just four examples, among many), among scenarios I am qualified to discuss.

Journalists are discouraged from sharing interview transcripts or drafts of what they’ve written with the people they've interviewed, on the principle that the journalist's duty is to report the truth, without "prior restraint" (censorship). Offering copy for approval goes against the whole idea of freedom of the press (along with involuntarily sharing the names of confidential sources). Sometimes, however, there is a case for quote approval, not copy approval. Journalists reporting on technical matters, for example, often run quotes by an expert, scientist, or physician they have interviewed, usually by reading the copy aloud (the idea being to check for accuracy, clarity, facts, and spelling—not to let the interviewee change the story to suit his own purposes).

Another exception is an “as told to” or first-person piece in which the interviewee is also the author, so to speak. Then, it is not uncommon for the interviewee to read the piece. Sometimes there may also be a legal reason for letting interviewees approve their quotes—for example, if you are writing a missing-person piece and family members are saying things about “whodunit” and they and you don’t want to be sued. Certainly when you have to compress comments, quotes, and the story to fit, you may want to at least read aloud to the interviewee the tightened material to make sure you haven’t distorted the meaning. On many stories (or Q&A pieces), journalists have to creatively edit the interview material, patching quotes together—keeping the strong ones, eliminating rambling, and so on. You try never to alter the interviewee’s spirit and essential meaning, but if you’ve altered what was actually said, many journalists run the “rewrite” by the interviewee—particularly if it’s a serious subject. And of course all quotations are subject to light editing—eliminating “um, ah, I mean, like” and other nonessentials.

Many publications would be horrified to know a journalist has given a physical draft of a story to an interviewee or third party, partly because they want to avoid even the appearance of censorship (or of being manipulated for PR purposes) but also to prevent another publication getting a scoop on the material.

The tradition with oral histories is to transcribe an interview verbatim (word for word) and to return it to the narrator for corrections. Inevitably you will miss something, writes Valerie Yow in Recording Oral History, and this review may save you both trouble later. This is also an ethical issue: "When you commit something oral to print and deposit it in archives so that it becomes available to the public, the narrator has the right to see what has happened to her or his words." Oral historian Elisabeth Pozzi-Thanner always returns the transcript to the narrator for corrections: "Should the narrator make major changes, not just in terms of the language, but also of content, I make sure that both transcript versions are kept side by side (and clearly distinguished) in the archives: The word-for-word transcript, true to the spoken word, and the second version, edited by the narrator."

Fortunately clear guidelines are available for oral history transcripts: Principles and Best Practices for Oral History (from the Oral History Association). Oral historians emphasize intellectual honesty and avoidance of "stereotypes, misrepresentations, and manipulations of the narrator’s words." OHA's guidelines emphasize honoring all stipulations and restrictions on prior agreements with the interviewee, and state: "If written documentation such as consent and release forms does not exist then the institution should make a good faith effort to contact interviewees regarding their intent."

If you are a personal historian or a collaborator/ghostwriter telling someone else's life story, and in particular if someone hires you to tell his story, he clearly has the right to edit what you write in his name. Personal historians vary in whether they show raw interview transcripts to the client (the person who pays for the project) or the narrator (the person whose story is being told, which may be a different person) or to any interviewee (one of various people who may be interviewed for a particular story). Certainly many of us have been in the position of being hired, say, by the son of the narrator, and the narrator, who very quickly feels she can trust us, tells us things she doesn't want anyone in the family to know (often this is about some "sin" she feels the need to get off her chest but does't want to share with the family). Most of us would feel in that case that our duty is to the interviewee, to maintain their confidence.

As to whether we let the interviewees edit the raw transcripts for a personal history -- generally, we don't, although they may have the right to ask to see it. Most of us, when we read raw transcripts of interviews, are appalled at how dumb we sound, or insensitive, or naive, or hard-hearted, or even how wrong. If we are being trusted to tell a person's life stories, we generally wait to show them the draft as we have written it, based on the transcripts. If it's a transcript presented as a polished oral history, it may be only lightly edited. If it's a well-crafted narrative (a personal history or a memoir, rather than an oral history), we are probably going to rearrange the parts and transform transcript material into smoother, better storytelling -- and that's what we would show the narrator and/or client. (We might not always edit for perfect grammar; the point may be to capture the voice, and if it's an "ain't" and "your'n" kind of voice, we may leave it that way.) I use the same approach when I am ghostwriting or collaborating: Although I may discuss the general content and format and storyline, I present the text only when I think it is nearly ready. No need to expose our clients to all stages of the sausage making.

I'm answering your question about standard practices on showing the interviewee a transcript. There is a whole separate issue about "whose story is this?" and "do I have the right to publish it?" and "if we disagree about how something is written, who decides on the final version?" or even "does a person have a right to read/have a copy of the transcript of the interview?" (On that final question, if a professional writer is working with a subject matter expert as a collaborator or ghostwriter, typically the expert's decision is final on matters of content, and the writer makes decisions on style and grammar -- and taking time for the expert to review the interview transcripts would be seen as inefficient, as corrections can be made on the written draft of the story.) On all such points, spell out your mutual expectations clearly and put them in writing. (Updated 5-21-17)

Of possible interest:
What Are the Risks of Misquoting an Interviewee? (Mark Fowler, Rights of Writers 1-21-11)
Who Owns an Interview? (Mark Fowler, Rights of Writers 1-7-11)