Saturday, 2 August 2008

Sourcing the news

Young journalist Yogesh Joshi wonders:
With the following stringent rule-book, that reuters follows, can we a part of indian press ever be able to deliver, or shall we deliver better ?

Accuracy entails honesty in sourcing. Reuters' for that accuracy, and for freedom from bias, rests on the credibility of our sources. A Reuters journalist or camera is always the best source on a witnessed event. A named source is always preferable to an unnamed source. We should never deliberately mislead in our sourcing, quote a source saying one thing on the record and something contradictory on background, or cite sources in the plural when we have only one. Anonymous sources are the weakest sources. …

Here are some handy tips:

  • Use named sources wherever possible because they are responsible for the information they provide, even though we remain liable for accuracy, balance and legal dangers. Press your sources to go on the record.
  • Reuters will use unnamed sources where necessary when they provide information of market or public interest that is not available on the record. We alone are responsible for the accuracy of such information.
  • When talking to sources, always make sure the ground rules are clear. Take notes and record interviews.
  • Cross-check information wherever possible. Two or more sources are better than one. In assessing information from unnamed sources, weigh the source's track record, position and motive. Use your common sense. If it sounds wrong, check further.
  • Talk to sources on all sides of a deal, dispute, negotiation or conflict.
  • Be honest in sourcing and in obtaining information. Give as much context and detail as you can about sources, whether named or anonymous, to authenticate information they provide. Be explicit about what you don't know.
  • Reuters will publish news from a single, anonymous source in exceptional cases, when it is credible information from a trusted source with direct knowledge of the situation. Single-source stories are subject to a special authorisation procedure.
  • A source's compact is with Reuters, not with the reporter. If asked on legitimate editorial grounds, you are expected to disclose your source to your supervisor. Protecting the confidentiality of sources, by both the reporter and supervisor, is paramount.
  • When doing initiative reporting, try to disprove as well as prove your story.
  • Accuracy always comes first. It's better to be late than wrong. Before pushing the button, think how you would withstand a challenge or a denial.
  • Know your sources well. Consider carefully if the person you are communicating with is an imposter. Sources can provide information by whatever means available - telephone, in person, email, instant messaging, text message. But be aware that any communication can be interfered with.
  • Reuters will stand by a reporter who has followed the sourcing guidelines and the proper approval procedures.

We don't always get it right. There are times we should have pressed harder to get a source to go on the record with his or her name; there are times when we should have spiked (thrown away) a story because the sourcing wasn't totally up to our standards.


Mahesh Vijapurkar said...

Sourcing is a prominent weakness in Indian print media. What causes concern to me is the tendency of reporters to:

1. Write stories on the basis of inputs from a single source.

2. Often, to give it a flavour of a multi-source story, attribute it to "sources" and imagine that readers would be easily conned. One does not know if the readers ever protest but the editors don't seem to, anyhow!

3. Write long sentences and put them in inverted commas and attribute them to "sources". Does it mean that several sources - at least two - spoke much the same thing in exactly the same set of words in the same sequence, punctuation included? This is a practices that aggravates me no end.

4. Often qualify a source as "reliable" which to me means those without such a qualifier are "unreliable".

5. The reporters have the obligation to keep sources confidential but should try to indicate why the sources are not willing to be identified. Stories do not even indicate that the reporter has managed to check out what an unidentified source has said and confirm that what has been dished out is accurate or even close to it.

6. Often we see stuff attributed to "observers" who, my long experience in journalism leads to me to believe, are actually the reporters wearing a mask and fictitiously creating "observers"; they are themselves the observers sited in the copy!

These smack of dishonesty in journalism.

I'd welcome comments on this. Perhaps Dr. Kiran thakur would oblige? Of course, young journalist Yogesh Joshi is welcome to have the first chance to bowl!

- Mahesh Vijapurkar
Independent Journalist, Editorial Consultant & Journalism Trainer

yogesh joshi said...

Vijapurkar sir,
thanks for taking cognizance of the post.
Well, What you is absolutely right.

But I see the situation changing. At least in english media where kite-flying is almost being discouraged. I am saying this from an example of a newspaper where I work.

Also, use of "sources said on the condition of anonimity as they were not authorised to speak to media", has grown up in the copies. This isn't to say the best practice, yet, it is a step towards what you have pointed out.

To me, this bring some sort of substance, if not authenticity, to the copy.

Another thing; Often being noticed in business daily 'mint'. If other media houses carries any story with anonymous sources and mint takes a follow up. It has been found to have mentioned in the mint "the mint however could not confirm reports carried by media."


Mahesh Vijapurkar said...

What the Mint does by putting in appropriate caveats is a good thing. if only other publications are as careful!

In fact, one rule I'd like newspapers to enforce is to try to give the readers a fair idea of the source - 'one who is familiar with the talks', 'who has read the documents', 'who sat in on the discussions' etc. so that it becomes clear as to who has provided the news. Difficult, but then, journalism is not fun and games and irresponsibility.

If a source is being kept anonymous, then the reader should be told why. How many of us do so?

Hardly any, if ever.

Mahesh Vijapurkar