Sources: Sources say that sources say stuff

Sources

I grabbed the following screen caption from the top headlines of ESPN.com a few days back. The use of “Source” or “Report” was present in five of the six headlines. The stories to which these heads linked used similar attributions, such as “sources said” or “according to sources.”

The whole point of sources and attributing information to those sources is to help your readers understand who is telling the reporters this information. This allows the reporter to showcase the value of the source in the story and allows the readers to determine how much credence they want to lend to this source. When all you get is “according to a source…,” you lose both aspects of that. Consider this quote:

“ObamaCare is imploding. It is a disaster and 2017 will be the worst year yet, by far.”

If you don’t have an attribution on this, or if you have “a political source said,” you have no way of knowing how big of a deal this is. An attribution makes all the difference. If this were attributed to House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican who has often attacked the plan, people can think about this one way. However, if it turned out that these words were spoken last week by Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president and a Democrat, this quote takes on an entirely different meaning. (It’s actually a tweet from Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.)

In the case of sports journalism, reporters often have to trade in anonymity to get sources to provide them with inside information. However, the degree to which readers can trust the statements those sources make is limited by this Faustian bargain. It is also unclear from a reader’s perspective if the reporter made strides to get the information from a named source or if going unnamed was the easiest option.

Consider how much value information has and how it might be compromised without a named source before you allow “sources” to “say” things in your work.

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