Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

Two Minute Tips

Watch sources for lying

August 22, 2019

Share this article:

People who want to be sources have their own interests and intentions. Getting publicity is routinely one of them. Some people, whether in business, analysts, or academics, will go too far. (Credit: Pixabay user geralt)

Finding good sources can be a challenge and chances are you spend a good amount of time looking for them. You want someone with knowledge of the topic, perhaps special insight into what you are investigating, and the ability to discuss then in an intelligible and insightful way.

Those are your goals. However, people who want to be sources have their own interests and intentions. Getting publicity is routinely (although not always) one of them. That’s fine—it’s a basic tradeoff in business coverage—up to a point. But some people, whether in business, analysts, or academics, will go too far. They will fake a background or expertise, try to quickly bone up on a topic to seem like an expert, or otherwise misrepresent themselves.

An example is a story that ran in Business Insider. It claimed that a company’s co-founder repeatedly gave a false age “in an apparent effort to be included in articles showcasing young founders.”

I’ve seen it many times myself. You begin to talk to someone and the answers you get are too thin or vague. Or the person claims some background or maybe an award or accomplishment on the part of a company and it makes you wonder.

Sources lie. Not all, and not all of the time, but enough that you have to be careful. Here are steps to take.

Background check your sources

You know to need to ask people for information and, given deadlines, that can mean taking details about them and their organizations as they give them. Not every article is an investigative piece where you have the time to double- and triple-check every single statement. But there are two situations where pushing for the additional work is called for.

One is if the personal or company details are a significant aspect of the story. If you’re writing a story about people under a certain again, make sure the person you’re talking to qualifies. If a company is claimed to be a Fortune 500, as a PR person tried to claim to me, then it should be on the official Fortune 500 list.

Find verification sources

If you need to verify information, you’ll need independent sources, as the potential problem is that your normal sources might be lying to you. For information on individuals, head to public data. Driver’s licenses, voting registrations, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, court records, and others can provide a lot of insight. If you don’t have ready access, there are services that provide them. One that may surprise you is genealogy sites. Some have access to broad sets of documents.

Then there are business documents. Check incorporation records with the appropriate state agency. (Remember that incorporation may be in a state other than the one in which the business operates.) There may be regulatory agencies or industry associations with useful information. Or, doing a search on previous coverage, see if anything that appears contradictory pops up, indicating that there might be some question about what you’re being told.When you have what appears to be the correct information, go back to the source and present it to them. They may deny it, but the more you find on official records, the more you might reasonably suspect that there’s no conspiracy and that the source is the one that is trying to change the record.

More Like This...

Checking sources for ‘fake stories’

“Fake news” has become a thorn in the side of reporting. Yes, there are always stories that have failings in bias, bad research, or other problems. But the idea of

Double-check all the things people are sure they know

You’d think this would be a given, but too many business stories incorporate information that, while popularly believed, is simply wrong. If you don’t check statements that business experts, academics,

Forget the source’s fancy pedigree

You know the drill. You receive a response to an outstanding query, or maybe it’s something tepid coming in over the transom. The email lauds the potential source. Went to

Get Two Minute Tips For Business Journalism Delivered To Your Email Every Tuesday

Two Minute Tips

Every Tuesday we send out a quick-read email with tips for business journalism. Sign up now and get one Tuesday.