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Sourcing: The Foundation of Journalism

The profession of journalism is based on a relentless pursuit of the facts.

You don’t become an expert by writing a news article. You become an expert by doing research and being right; by raising valid points that no one else is covering in the news. Over time, you earn respect and authority by consistently producing quality work.  If one of your sources makes an accusation, it is your job to call the accused and get his side of the story.  If someone references a statistic or percentage in an interview, it is your responsibility to confirm that figure before publishing it.

Watchdogs and journalists earn trust with the American people by being right. They double and triple check their words to ensure they say what they mean. They do not flippantly post a story just to scoop another publication. And in the rare occasion when a reporter does get something wrong, he or she has the integrity to print an update or a correction.

Facts change minds, not opinions.

Citing your facts and sources improves your credibility as a writer and reporter. Your readers don’t have to take your word for it because they can read, hear, or see for themselves with the linked information you provide. For all you lawyers out there, think of it as proof without a reasonable doubt. As citizens grow more and more skeptical of government operations and media coverage, it is increasingly important that you “build your case” or write your article from an objective standpoint. Let the reader decide for himself, based on the facts you present, whether or not something is malicious or just business as usual.

The Wikipedia definition of “citation” sums it up pretty well: A Citation has several important purposes: to uphold intellectual honesty (or avoiding plagiarism),to attribute prior or unoriginal work and ideas to the correct sources, to allow the reader to determine independently whether the referenced material supports the author’s argument in the claimed way, and to help the reader gauge the strength and validity of the material the author has used.”

Some helpful guidelines:

*Calling for comment or quote.  When you are calling a person or organization to get a quote for a story, you want to take down specific details about the interaction. Who did you speak with, even if it was just a receptionist or personal assistant?  Get the name and title of the person, as well as the date and time you spoke. Be sure to share your anticipated story deadline so the source knows when to call you back if he wants his perspective included in the article. The details become very important when/if someone claims that they never got a call from you to verify information or ask for a quote.  If that happens, you will be ready with all the details to prove him wrong and protect your journalistic integrity.

SOURCE IT: You can print something like this:  “Calls for comment to Organization X were not returned” or “The press office at Organization X declined to comment on this issue.”

*Quoting a public speech.  Public statements, press conferences, or speeches made by elected officials are fair game for quoting and printing in an article. But make sure you include “as stated at his press conference last Tuesday at the State Capitol” or “as explained in a public speech to the Rotary club last month.”  Since we are such a visual society, you may want to search for a video or audio clip of the speech so your readers can listen or watch for themselves. If you find one, be sure to credit the blog, news agency or individual who originally recorded the clip.

*Always give credit for original work- If you are including something in your article that is not your original reporting, you MUST cite it. There is no room for negotiation on this matter. If you didn’t hear a quote with your own ears, you must say who did. If a source did not speak with you directly, you must explain who did. If you link to a video or photo, be sure to give credit where it’s due.

People lie, but documents don’t.

People can be lenient or even reckless with the truth- it’s within their First Amendment right to do so. But you don’t have that luxury when you are writing as a citizen journalist. You must pick and choose which sources are relevant and reliable. Just because you find someone willing to speak on the record about an issue doesn’t mean he or she is the best person to speak with authority on that matter. It’s much more reliable to find a document that supports a source’s claim. Here are a few examples:

Confirming a basic fact:
CLAIM:  “Suzie Q. used to work in the auto industry in Detroit.”
SOURCE IT: There must be employment records and W2s to verify employment history. Are there any old coworkers you can find who will confirm? Is there a staff photo? Did the company have timecards you can refer to? Since it’s the auto industry, she may have been a member of the union- check local membership lists.

Confirming a statistic or claim:
CLAIM:  “Crime has been on a steady increase in this city for the last 5 years.”
SOURCE IT:  Where does that statistic come from? Call the local police department or the state’s attorney office. Is there census data that can confirm these numbers? Also, what does the source consider “crime?”

Confirming rumor or heresay:
CLAIM: “I got a tip that the local GOP is falling apart and has no more supporters.”
SOURCE IT:  Did paid membership drop in the last year? How was attendance at their last convention? Has leadership been invited to speak or participate in any events lately? How is their financial support? Are donors still giving money?

*Press Releases- When you receive a press release (especially in e-mail format), you should examine a few key factors to verify that the document is authentic. Is there an official logo at the top that matches the one on the group’s website? What email address was the press release sent from?  Does the email address have an appropriate suffix?  (.edu for education institution, .gov for government office or agency, .org for a non-profit group, etc.) Who is listed as the point of contact? Is that person listed as a staff member on the group’s website?

SOURCE IT:  You have a few different options. 1. Get a screenshot of the press release and include that in your story. You can upload as a .jpg image.  2. If the release is also on the group’s website, link to their appropriate web page.  3. If you have a hard copy of the release, scan and save as a .pdf document, and then link to it. 4. Take a photo of the document and upload that to your story.

Note:  If you have access to a document but are unsure how about how to include it in your story, we will help you with the technology. Email us at Info@WatchdogWire.com.

Mary Ellen Beatty

Director of the Citizen Watchdog program. Contact me at MaryEllen@citizenwatchdog.com

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