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Home > Publications > Quill > 'They' say? Who says?


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Friday, May 1, 2009
'They' say? Who says?

Jerry Dunklee

Sometimes journalists need to go back to basics. Beginning reporters are told to gather the five W’s and the H and find the lede among them.

More experienced hands have internalized these daily requirements of the job. They collect the facts, ask the questions that lead to compelling quotes, search documents and write the article or broadcast piece to tell the story as clearly as possible.

But I’ve noticed a trend that concerns me as a news consumer and especially as someone who pays attention to ethical issues. We seem to be moving more and more toward less precise and meaningful attribution of sources.

This is a basic tenet of good journalism and, of course, written in SPJ’s Code of Ethics: “Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.”

For obvious reasons, the journalism community has concentrated on anonymous sources in recent years. That is important, and many news organizations have rewritten their internal ethics guidelines to deal with anonymity.

But that is not the issue here. It’s the daily use, or lack thereof, of clearly articulated sources for too much of our reporting.

“Experts say …” “Economists say …” “Republicans say …”

Really? Which experts? What are their qualifications to comment? Who pays their salary or grant money?

These are not minor questions. They are at the heart of our creditability.

In a simple person-on-the-street piece about reactions to the economic stimulus package, shouldn’t the audience know whether the person responding to your questions is a Republican, Democrat, small-business owner or health-care worker? That knowledge adds to the reader/listener’s ability to judge the comments in context.

Too many stories drop these simple qualities. Often, even names or places are not attached to such sound bites or quotes.

The problem is constant.

“Americans are angry,” I hear a reporter claim. Really? Which Americans? Are you reporting a poll? What poll? How was it done? Who did it?

This is a regular problem at news organizations that have a more partisan slant, but it infects too much mainstream reporting as well.

How many times have we read or heard something like, “This is going to please the party’s base.” How does the reporter know that?

Some journalists rationalize this kind of reporting along the lines of, “I’ve been covering this beat a long time and I know how these people think.” OK, then show me.

There’s a tenet in good TV news editing that says video and natural sound should “prove” the story. Exactly. Too often the claim, in print and broadcast, is not proven, but simply stated.

“City Hall staffers are unhappy about the new ethics rules.” Why should anyone believe that unless it’s attributed to specific staffers or a poll of staffers or, perhaps, the staffers’ official group? Just claiming such an emotion is the result too often of lazy reporting.

Sometimes the reporter overhears a conversation in the cafeteria and decides all staffers are unhappy. It may or may not represent all staffers, but the reporter is passing along claims he or she is really not sure about. The reporter is assuming, and we all know where that leads us.

These kinds of unsourced reporting permit naysayers to claim bias.

It’s not usually intentional bias on the issue, of course. More often, this lack of precision is permissive professional standards by the reporter or the news organization. That’s sloppy journalism, but it is also questionable ethically.

If we want to be perceived as honest brokers of news, we need to pay attention to accurate attribution of sources. Editors need to use their cursors. “Who said this?” needs to be a daily question in every newsroom.

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