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How to vet story sources

March 10, 2017

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Proxy statements offer a wealth of information for business journalists that is not available in other financial filings. (Photo: Pixabay user geralt)

Years ago a PR person pitched his “Fortune 500” client to me. Having never heard of the company although it was in a field I followed, I went to Fortune.com and checked the latest list. The company didn’t appear on it. Faced with a question of his veracity, the rep said that he meant it was a Fortune 500 type company.

Uh, right.

In any reporting, you must assume people will present incorrect information. When covering business, it’s best to assume either people will misrepresent an issue or not know what they’re talking about, even when they are talking about themselves and their companies.

Check the company and person

In their zest to get coverage, some people will bend or break the truth. You need to verify basics. Check the company website—and if you have a feeling something might be wrong, go to InterNIC.net and do a whois search to see when the domain was created and who owns it. (Here’s an explanation of whois for reporters from AdWeek.)

Perform a separate web search for the company’s name. Is the company mentioned by business partners or customers? Can you find reviews? Is there anyone listed on LinkedIn with a connection to the company other than the CEO? Legitimate businesses leave traces. If you can’t find them, consider a different source.

Similarly, check online for the person you’re supposed to interview. Does this person have a social media presence? Check online for the source’s name and location. If you’re suspicious about the person’s reliability, plug in the word “lawsuit” to see if someone’s reputation might be legally tarnished.

Verify the claims

Companies and their PR representatives will offer all manner of claims about market importance. (If only you were paid each time you saw the adjective “leading” attached to a company, you could probably retire.) Check each claim, verifying the company’s industry standing through the trade press and business databases such as hoovers.com (using the free search). Use a web search engine or, better yet, Nexis to find mentions. Market analysts who cover specific industries pay attention to notable companies. If everything is coming up empty, you’re facing inflated claims.

Book more interviews than you need

Look for more sources than your story needs so if one doesn’t pan out, you have others. (You get the added benefit of more depth and variety of voices for your reporting.) Imagine getting on the phone with a CEO of a firm and asking questions only to notice that the person seemed to know absolutely nothing. That has happened to me on occasion and I could easily drop the source from a piece because I had replacements.

Ask for details

General claims begin to fall apart once you get past the surface. Don’t let someone pontificate about a business topic before asking about customers, size, products and so on. If a source claims to have a product, ask when it started shipping and who sells it. There are many users of crowdsourcing who want to pretend they have an established business.

The more thoroughly you vet sources, the less of a chance you have of being caught out in a story and looking foolish.


  • Erik Sherman

    Erik is an independent journalist and author who primarily covers business, economics, finance, technology, politics, and legal/regulatory, while elegantly expressing the complex and often incorporating data analysis.

    View all posts

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