Sourcing stories – how it’s evolving

Journalism gets a lousy press sometimes. Given that we are the press this is ironic, but it’s the case. Even before it was uncovered that several of us were tapping into people’s mobile phone messages illegally, people assumed that we made stories up, intruded into people’s lives, named suspects of crimes before they were convicted and soforth.

So I thought it was worth laying out some of the rules we’re supposed to follow. If you or a client feel you’ve been treated other than properly according to any of this, you have a cause for complaint.

First, not every story comes from a press release or official announcement. What, you really thought President Nixon had officially released Watergate, or that the Enron directors had made a formal declaration about their crooked activities? No, the rule is that we’re supposed to find at least two substantive sources for every story. Unfortunately social media is diluting that. Only today I saw a report about an MP’s estranged wife accusing him of being an alcoholic. I make no comment on the truth or otherwise of the claim but it was taken from one of her Tweets. In other words, no second source – so he could sue if he wanted (mind you, he’d then be seen as the big bad MP suing his former wife – that would never play well).

Second, while we’re on the subject, an insult is not the same as a libel. Libels are specifically damaging allegations which are factually wrong. So if you wanted to call me a useless git whose work was unreadable I couldn’t touch you – it’s called vulgar abuse and the law doesn’t care. If you add that I’m habitually late with deadlines and I plagiarise, I can claim you’re damaging me because these are specific and untrue. This protects reviewers; I can say your play was rubbish; if I say it lost money when it didn’t, I’m acting unlawfully.

In terms of accusations, there are clear laws about what you may and may not report and that includes names. If you feel you’ve been named unjustifiably in a criminal case, you need to speak to a lawyer rather than read a blog.


The really interesting thing for me as a practitioner is how this stuff is evolving. OK, I’ve been a journalist for a quarter of a century and had some training so yes, I know about the two-source rule (and I’ve had a few of those which have proven, nonetheless, to be wrong after I published them – I don’t miss that sort of journalism, invaluable training ground though it was).

The emergence of the blogger, however, has diluted a lot of those standards. Don’t misunderstand me; there are some utterly superb bloggers out there whose work is as good as any professionally trained hack. There are others, though, who think they’re in the Wild West, who won’t acknowledge your right to reply and who don’t believe they need more than one source.

This is now spilling into the mainstream press, which is why we’re seeing MPs falling out with their wives and exchanging allegation of affairs and alcoholism without any real thought as to how legal these statements are. The journalists at least should be considering the legality; I suspect they’re actually weighing up whether these people are actually likely to sue and publishing regardless.

Obviously the best way to avoid this sort of coverage is to make the best of any press opportunity in the first place. I can help with interview skills and media preparation – click here to book some time on the phone and we’ll talk. Or fill in the form below and let me know how I can help.

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