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Unimpeachable sources

January 24, 2018

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The fundamentals of good journalism are more important than ever. Here's a refresher. (Merrian-Webster Dictionaries image by Merrian Webster via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
For journalists, relying on the right sources is more important than ever. Here’s a refresher. (Merrian-Webster Dictionaries image by Merrian Webster via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

I’m a big fan of the bells and whistles of modern storytelling, such as 360 journalism and data visualization. I’m equally enthusiastic about delving into audience analytics.

But cutting-edge reporting shouldn’t come at the expense of the foundation of professional journalism. We all learned it in Reporting 101: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Especially at a time when journalism is under siege by our executive branch and a growing number of news cynics, doing your fact-checking, being critical and taking a deeper dive into a story are all more important than ever.

Being lazy is not an option; reporters need to cite every printable fact. An interview and a “he said, she said” series of quotes is insufficient, even if they are taped.

Someone’s word is not enough

Case in point. I recently interviewed a nice, elderly man for a feel-good Veterans Day story. He had been deployed to the Arctic in 1955, as the Cold War was intensifying, to build snow runways. He had his war medals in a frame, and shared a photo of himself in U.S. Army garb. While the Korean War ended in 1953, my source said that all soldiers who enlisted before January 1955 were considered Korean War veterans, and he identified as such.

An astute editor pointed out that I needed an official citation as to what constitutes veteran status for those in inactive duty. Call the Department of Defense, he said. And he was right. My source’s official status is Korean War Era (italics mine) Veteran.

This may not be a world-altering point of distinction, but it proves a point: Someone’s word is not enough.

Consider politics. In an off-year election that lacks the flashiness of a presidential run, reporters often interview candidates for profiles. Asking a candidate how much they have raised and spent isn’t good enough. You have to pull up their campaign finance filings and statements. Always ask for their official resume rather than relying on their word.

Transparency and accuracy are not only a bedrock for politicians and public figures, but for journalists too. In the end it simply boils down to professionalism.

Tips and strategies that help with citations

Primary sources

A mentor and one of the first editors I worked for as an intern, drilled me in primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include interviews, official documents such as birth certificates and drivers’ licenses. In addition, always ask sources for a business card and in specific cases their resume. Don’t go by websites, which aren’t always updated.

Tax returns

Tax returns are private information but always ask for them when it comes to political candidates or public figures.

SEC filings

These are a click away for public companies. Essential forms are the 10-K (the comprehensive summary of the company),10-Q (the Cliff Notes version of the 10-K) and the 8-K (unscheduled events that are important to shareholders).

Bank accounts and calendars

Bank accounts and calendars often get to the true heart of the story. 



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