Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

10 warning signs about credit

By · Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

Journalists and content consumers, alike, share a need to know where information comes from, who is providing it and how it was gathered. Whether the content is a long-form story in print or a link shared on social media, we need to be able to trust it.

To that end, we share 10 warning signs about credit that should raise concerns.

  1. A lead with no attribution. Placement of attribution depends on how a story is written: a summary first graph or a narrative introduction. Regardless, a lead with no attribution should get your attention. Make sure information is attributed somewhere in the opening paragraphs. Readers should not be left wondering the source of information. A good test is to ask yourself: “Who said this?”
  2. “Officials say.” Who are the officials? Are they ever identified by name, title and agency or organization?
  3. “A number of people.” How many? Does the story mention a specific number? When broad statements are attributed to people in general, be sure the story states the number and its relationship to the whole. For example, knowing that statements are attributed to three people out of a neighborhood of 150 people can make a difference.
  4. “People say.” Who are these people? Why were they chosen as sources? Be specific: students, residents, voters, homeowners, renters, drivers, carpoolers. Identifiers add context and can affect the message.
  5. “According to a report.” Is the report named and is material attributed to it? Great. Doing that will ensure proper credit is given. But that is not always enough. Sometimes the reporter should get a copy and scan it. The reporter could attempt to interview the author of the report for greater perspective. The same is true of a study, an initiative, a recommendation — any material considered the primary source. Avoid reporting material as truth just because it is a report or a study; there could be mistakes in it, or it could contain complicated information that requires the kind of clarity and substantiation a reporter is trained to provide.
  6. Polls and surveys. Do mentions of these in stories also include pertinent information, such as what kind of poll, who conducted it and who paid for it? They should. Check out the entry for polls and surveys in The Associated Press Stylebook, which provides a concise and complete list.
  7. Perfect sources. Does an expert or a witness sound too good to be true — the perfect information, the perfect quote — and is this an exclusive interview? Pay attention to your instincts and explore further for signs of possible plagiarism or fabrication.
  8. Experts. What makes the person an expert? Is background and expertise clear? If the person has a stake in the story, that should be explained; or, perhaps the person should not be used at all.
  9. Sources with sameness. Are sources from the same industry or profession? Do they share the same nationality or ethnicity? Gender? Do they live in the same suburb or in the same part of the city? Unless the story is so focused that it requires sameness in sources, be sure there is a variety. You might have to look closely to notice this one.
  10. Other sources. Does the story include information from wire services that was inserted — and is it attributed? It should be. How about material gathered from another reporter? Does that person get a “contributing reporter” mention at the end of the story? Policies at news organizations vary on this point, but any person who had a part in the reporting also has responsibility for that information; so a good policy is to credit each person in some way.

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