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Reporting Best Practice: facts, sources and comment

March 9, 2018

We hear so much about fake news, media bias and suspect journalistic standards nowadays that people might think that journalists rarely, if ever, stop to think about what they do or how they go about their daily task of reporting. My experience is that professional journalists care deeply about about the quality and accuracy of what they write and the way they go about gathering information.

A few years ago, I wrote a booklet for Incisive Media journalists on editorial standards which contains plenty of valuable advice and guidance for journalists. Much of it remains highly relevant and is worth sharing. This is the second in a series of blogs doing just that with a few minor up-dates.


Sources: All of your conversations with sources are presumptively on the record, provided that you clearly identify yourself at the start of the interview as a reporter for your publication. Many of the people you interview will want to go ‘off the record’. Resist this: encourage sources to be on the record. Remind them that readers place more stock by an attributed quote. If you must, allow them to go ‘not for attribution’ or ‘off the record’ (see below). Make sure that you and the source have the same understanding of the terms used below. Avoid conversations that wander from one status to another: it is generally best to take them off the record and then go through with the source to get his or her agreement as to what can be used on the record at the end.

You should aim to get as much as possible on the record. Do not let sources think they can easily gain anonymity in order to criticise other people or damage competitors; encourage them to go on the record. Never forget that some sources want to remain anonymous because they want to advance an agenda or hurt someone. Do not let yourself be used.

Everything given to you by one source as that you wish to present as fact should always be checked, no matter who they are. You must always be on your guard against being used or too easily accepting something as fact just because it sounds true or is headline grabbing. Unfortunately, journalism is littered with examples of people who have deviated from this simple rule.

Sourcing and status: There are three levels of conversation between source and reporter: on the record, not for attribution and off the record.

• On the record is exactly what it says: sources, by name, being quoted or paraphrased in print.

• Not for attribution is when you quote or paraphrase someone without identifying them by name. “A source in the Justice Department…” “A leading fund manager…”. Two important points to bear in mind when using not-for-attribution sources are: work out in detail how you will describe an anonymous source – the source should not be surprised to see how you have described them – and give the reader some help on how to judge the value of information from the anonymous source by being as detailed as possible in the identification while preserving the source’s anonymity.

• Off the record means you cannot attribute the information to the person you are interviewing and you cannot use it based on that source at all. It does not mean that the information goes into a black box, protected from ever being made public. You can take what you learn in an off-the-record interview and use it to try to ferret out other information, or the same piece of information, on the record or not for attribution using other sources.

• At some events people may refer to the Chatham House Rules. These are frequently misunderstood. Firstly, there is only one Chatham House Rule. Secondly, it does not mean off the record. It is a non-attributable status that means it can be reported: “At an dinner in the City last night top compliance directors slammed the regulator…”. You cannot identify the participants but do not be surprised if some people at the event think they were talking off the record.

Getting comment: No one should be surprised to see their name in one of our publications. No one should be surprised to read an allegation or accusation about them. You should get comment from, or at least attempt to get comment from, people whose names will appear in and are the subject of a story. Be persistent: one phone call is not nearly enough; you should try hard, often leaving multiple messages, to reach key players in a story and tell them when your deadline is.

In most instances, organisations should also not be surprised. For example, if you are mentioning a firm, even if you are not quoting anyone from that firm, you should call a manager or PR representative of that firm to confirm facts or to get comment. You should give people a real chance to respond to an article by contacting them ahead of deadlines when circumstances permit. As with all of these guidelines, there are obvious common-sense exceptions. For example, it is not necessary to get comment when a person’s name appears as part of a contemporaneous court report.

People and companies cannot suppress a story about themselves that they do not want published merely by refusing to comment. In order to protect yourself and your publication you should put allegations to someone and invite them to comment but if they do not respond within a reasonable time or refuse to comment then you can publish. It is best to make your readers aware that you invited comment but did not receive it.

There is plenty of law covering this, much of it now enshrined in the 2013 Defamation Act.

ipso-green-320Representing yourself as a reporter: Do not tell people you are someone you are not. That means, in virtually all cases, you should introduce yourself to potential sources and subjects as a reporter and name your publication. Deception should only be used in exceptional circumstances where there is a clear public interest to be served and these should be discussed with senior editorial staff. The Editors’ Code of the Independent Press Standards Organisation has some sensible advice on this.

Quotes: Do not use quotes out of context. Use an ellipsis (…) when you omit long stretches of quoted material. You do not need to use an ellipsis when you omit odd words from an interview: just be careful not to distort the meaning or take a quote out of context.

Facts: You are responsible for not making mistakes. The best practice is to fact check everything you write formally. That means going through a copy of the final, edited version of your story and questioning every fact: the spelling of names, the names of companies, job titles and so on. Just getting the spelling of someone’s name wrong undermines the authority of a story. A good practical tip is to fact check from the bottom of the story up, one sentence at a time. This will force you to isolate facts and minimise the likelihood of quickly reading past checkable material that you’ve stopped ‘seeing’ because you have read the story so many times.

Online resources: Take care when using online sources. It is the journalist’s job to check sources. Do not take all websites at face value, especially if they contain controversial information. There are many bogus and hoax websites that contain malicious false information about individuals or business rivals that look like the real thing. You should look for an ‘about us’ section and check the contact details if you have any reason to be suspicious about the provenance of a site.

Wikis and collaborative sites: Wikipediea and similar collaborative sites are a very good starting point for research but they should never be treated as a definitive source. There are many examples of inaccuracies, some deliberate and malicious, on these sites. Every fact should be checked.

Beware of social media: The vast array of social media also presents a significant challenge. Social media can be a great source of stories but it is also the means by which most fake news is generated and recirculated. Everything needs careful checking. Remember that the laws of defamation and libel apply to social media in the same way as they apply to everything else that is published.


The next post in this series will cover some broader topics such as financial interests, hospitality and balancing commercial interests. Later posts will deal with complaints and quote checks.



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