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Don’t get trapped into a single-source story

July 17, 2013

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Sins. We’ve got ’em. Don’t make stuff up. Don’t plagiarize. Don’t take part in political activities. If you’re a business writer, you can’t own shares in companies you cover. For all the fad of “be a part of the community,” I am still old school: Don’t join much of anything outside the profession. Our role is to stand apart. If you want to be a Rotarian, this is not your calling. One transgression I see more often is the one-source story, from the small-business profile to what is essentially a re-written (if that) press release. It shouldn’t even happen at a weekly. But now it is found in major metropolitan newspapers.

The reasons aren’t hard to guess. Newsrooms are operating on skeleton staffs. Competition for news if more intense than ever before. In some cases, news organizations demand high counts of stories and briefs, no matter their quality or even newsworthiness. Taking dictation from a single source is an easy way to feed the machine. It’s also a bad, bad way to operate, a mockery of professional journalism.

The dangers and pitfalls are many. At the extreme end is being played by a business to actually put out misinformation. When I was little more than a cub reporter, in a place I won’t name to protect the guilty, a business put out a press release about a settlement with a federal agency over shady practices. As is commonly done, the release was written in a way as to make it look like a victory for the company. And it ran that way, nearly word for word, in a competing newspaper. Now, I am not the brightest bulb in the knife drawer, but I did contact the agency and learned that the company had in fact been dinged on nine out of ten counts. That’s the factual story I wrote. (The CEO called me and laughed that I had caught their charade).

Single-source profiles can put child molesters in a favorable light (I’ve seen it happen). Advocacy group press releases or “reports” can be highly misleading. But even what seem like run-of-the mill stories are degraded if they come from one person or entity. Even if they aren’t wrong, they are often boring process, lacking context or other essentials that should make it rise to the level of grabbing readers’ attention. The proliferation of news outlets should be requiring us to be better rather than just grind out crap.

Consider some of these steps to avoid embarrassment or causing comas among readers:

  • Always call to make sure the press release is real. News organizations are more in danger than ever of being tricked by somebody who wants to move a stock or settle a grudge.
  • Is it newsworthy? In other words, given limited time and staff, does this information rise to the level of news that is (ideally) important, necessary, compelling and either exclusive or a must from a competitive standpoint? Does it affect a large number of people or is it otherwise significant? One of my philosophies as a business editor was that most people and companies that wanted to be in the newspaper shouldn’t be, and those that didn’t should be. Don’t be afraid to say no. Readers reward us for picking the most important (or even weirdest) news out of the firehoses of information.
  • If you don’t work at a news organization that allows for that ethos, or even a conversation about priorities — or one that wastes a local reporter covering something middling that the wires already have — don’t surrender. Find ways to make the story better. Always think: How can I add value to this that the reader can’t get elsewhere? One good practice is trying to have a fact in every sentence. Don’t waste time with quotes unless they’re good. And find another source that adds further value: An (honest) analyst, consultant, retired chief executive or union leader. If that source disputes or questions the first source or press release, so much the better. And add context, which can include everything from the history behind the story to the movement of the stock price.
  • With profiles, don’t be afraid to ask the person who else you can talk to who might give some perspective on her. Ideally, you’ll talk to competitors, suppliers, etc. Always run the person through the electronic morgue and court records, even if it’s a profile of Susie from Susie’s Cupcake Shop. Tension, conflict (and resolution, if that happens), stakes, depth and useful intelligence make people want to read business news.
  • There may be exceptions. I worked at some chains that would require us to put in the company’s earnings or an executive change that was, I am ashamed to admit, virtually the press release faxed from headquarters. But these should be extremely rare. Accuracy and accountability are currencies that are extremely valuable — and once even in question can be very hard to get back.
  • Always seek out public records and credible, gold-standard studies and metrics to add depth and authority to reporting.

Today, with the ability to pay enough professional journalists in question, society faces a serious danger. It is that those in authority, whether in business or government, will decide what is news, along with when and how it is to be told.

This is the road to a soft authoritarianism at the least. In an ideal world, you report the news when it is “becoming.” Reactive news organizations are committing suicide. But at the least, avoid one-source stories. Now go and sin no more.


  • Jon Talton

    For more than 25 years Jon has covered business and finance, specializing in urban economies, energy, real estate and economics and public policy. Jon has been a columnist for the Arizona Republic, Charlotte Observer and Rocky Mountain News, and his...

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