Right after the publication of Der Spiegel‘s interview with Nouri al-Maliki last month, there was, as you’ll recall, a certain amount of fuss about whether his apparent endorsement of Barack Obama’s withdrawal timeline had been mistranslated or taken out of context. And while later analyses of the original interview recordings seem to have vindicated the paper, this reaction by its editor jumped out at me:
Der Spiegel has no plans to release the tape (“We don’t see a need to improve upon our credibility by, say, putting the audio on the web.”) but is happy to play it—in person, over the phone—for any journalist interested in verifying.
“Anyone who wants to hear it can hear it,” says Müller von Blumencron. “But no one else has asked.”
This got me wondering: In the age of dirt-cheap storage space, why should anyone have to ask? In other words, why isn’t it just standard practice to make the source material for an article available online, linked from the article itself? As a rule, any interview I do for an article that’s longer than a few minutes gets recorded in some digital form, and I imagine the same is true for most journalists. I’m working on a story on IP theft statistics that involved obtaining various old studies not available online; it would be a bit of a pain to scan all these on my flatbed, but I assume most of my colleagues who work from an actual office have easy access to a faster scanner with a paper-feed tray that can turn a document stack into a PDF automatically. The most inquisitive or dedicated readers could then confirm whether quotations were taken in context, maybe even whether the reporter had missed something newsworthy.
Obviously, not everything can go online. Sometime we need anonymous sources, and sometimes an on-the-record source wants to say certain things on background. Fine. But at least for major, reported stories that are breaking significant news, it seems as though it wouldn’t be that hard for reporters to “show their work,” as Mrs Buxbaum always insisted in 8th-grade algebra. Not as a special response to doubts about a story, but just as a matter of course.
Update: Dylan Matthews makes a good point in the comments; it would essentially be necessary to cut and edit every recorded interview so as not to signal that there were points at which any one particular on-the-record source had gone off-the-record. Which would, admittedly, increase the overhead of this sort of thing.