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Don’t use sources who are phonies

August 27, 2019

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Far too frequently people want attention and they don’t care if they bamboozle you to get it. Here’s what to look out for when working with sources. (Photo via Pixabay.com)

If your experience reporting is anything like mine, you’ll constantly hear from people who want to be sources and their reps. It may be in response to a query you placed on a service, a reaction to something you just wrote, a reaction to a popular news story and a desire to become an expert commentator, or a let’s-give-this-a-try approach to contacting journalists.

Honestly, I send a lot of these to the circular file because I get too many and people are trying to get attention for something I’m not currently covering. But I do look at them and, if considering one—or someone I actively contacted directly or through an employer—a quick check on whether there are problems is always a good idea.

Far too frequently people want attention and they don’t care if they bamboozle you to get it. Although I can’t remember enough of the details to find them again, a couple of examples from years ago show some of the reasons you check.

In one, a person would wait all night to get to the front of the line for some event, like a new iPhone release. Then when reporters would inevitably go to the front of the line to speak with someone, there he was. Time and time and time again. You could hardly call it a person-in-the-street interview.

In another, a reporter in Providence, R.I. had an opportunity to interview a musician who was notoriously reticent. So, on he went over the phone after making arrangements by email. But the email address was a fake and so was the musician. Something similar happened to Breitbart editors when they were taken in by someone claiming to be Steve Bannon, after he was canned by the White House and had returned to Breitbart, as CNN reported:

In the emails, Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow pledged that he and several other top editors would do Bannon’s “dirty work” against White House aides. The emails were shared with CNN by the prankster.

In other emails, Marlow suggested he could have Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump ousted from the White House “by end of year” and shared a personal smear about their private lives, perhaps an indication of how low the website is willing to go to achieve its agenda.

There are many other ways a source can make ill use of you. Maybe it’s pretending an expertise that isn’t true. Or claiming a status for a company that isn’t true, like the time a PR person tried to pass off a company as a Fortune 500 member when it wasn’t true. Or the PR person who had been told some ego-aggrandizing CEO had founded a company when, as it turns out, the company was one I had worked for in the past, knew the founder, and recognized that the named executive, whom I also knew and was maybe the fourth person to front the firm, was full of fertilizer. If I hadn’t known offhand, a bit of research could have uncovered the truth.

Can you imagine if you had used Bernie Madoff as an expert in investing without looking at his history of success and wondering how he could never have lost any ground?

Perhaps the biggest issue these days are with entire companies. Corporations do something terrible, end up getting a massive black eye, and then immediately try to massage their images by peddling studies or promoting their executives as experts. And these people may be knowledgeable in their fields. By using them, you become part of a PR gambit and associate your coverage with brands that could stir up distrust and anger among readers and be seen as depending on untruthful organizations.


  • 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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