Vetting sources is key to your writing credibility
ONLINE COLUMN: Web Savvy
Published: October 20, 2009
It's always exciting when you land a big interview. In these tech-dominated times, we often land that interview by e-mail rather than by the traditional methods of a personal introduction or a phone call. But there's still a need to check and double-check, not only to make sure you're talking to the person you believe you're talking to. You also want to be certain the person's expertise is on the level and also that your subject isn't influenced unduly by a special interest. Kay B. Day
Most of us have seen experienced journalists, and even celebrity pundits, caught up in a conflict when a source provides information that proves to be inaccurate. So how exactly do we go about taking pains to vet our sources?
For starters, unless you already know the subject of your interview, go beyond the initial contact. Ask for verification by phone and ask for a mailing address. Even if the address you get is for a publicist, you are covering yourself somewhat by making a solid attempt to verify identity. That's the easy part.
If you're not familiar with an expert, and this is common because these days, experts are a dime a half-dozen, do at least some cursory digging. It's rare to meet a professional whose credentials and background aren't accessible either through an official Web site or social media. It does happen, however. I once did an interview with a renowned poet who had no official Web site. He also refused to do interviews by phone. I ended up clearing the interview with his publisher and we did the Q&A and follow-up via fax. That is the first and only fax-to-fax interview I've ever done, and it wasn't entirely without glitches. For one thing, the poet's phone number and fax number were the same, so he had to turn the fax on in order to receive my messages. It was tricky and time consuming but the result was a rare interview with an amazing author.
When you do call on an expert, check out his or her affiliations. I frequently see quotes from representatives of various nonprofit organizations. I rarely see a tag identifying that source as an ally or associate of a corporate or political interest despite the fact not-for-profits almost always disclose the sources of their funding on their Web sites. This is especially a problem on healthcare advice articles. Now that the FTC has revamped their guidelines on blogger disclosure for testimonials and endorsements, it's important to be sure you know who paid your expert. If someone claims he has a magic pill that will cure whatever ails you, be sure to determine who paid for the research. Check clinical studies as well.
Because I frequently do news articles and a syndicated column, my inbox fills on a regular basis. Pitches from publicists, researchers and whistle blowers are common. Most of those pitches get deleted fairly quickly, especially run-of-the-mill releases that begin, "Nancy Q. Writer has a new book out…" But buried within the information overload are nuggets; small gems that lead to articles that create traffic spikes at my Web site and/or freelance placement elsewhere. I insist on verification by phone and corroborating information such as a Web site or other established publications who've written about the subject.
I believe when we put words to paper and offer our writing to the public we hold a special trust. At times I've sacrificed an exposé because I simply had no way of verifying whether the whistle blower was being truthful or vengeful. Because technology enables immediate publication and a very long shelf life for what we write, there's an unspoken charge to take every care possible so the reader is getting the truth documented by facts. In this business, credibility is everything, especially if you're an independent as opposed to an employee of a branded media outlet where forgiveness is inherent in the established brand.
Vetting your sources is not only important for your credibility, it's vital for your 'authorly' conscience too.
Ethics in online journalism (Web Savvy)
Update to our columns 'Blogger's Rights,' Part I and Part II
As we predicted, the Federal Trade Commission has announced final guidelines for bloggers regarding testimonials and endorsements. The new guidelines are posted on the FTC Web site.
--Published Oct. 20, 2009
In our next Web Savvy, we take a look at polls. Surveys are definitely influential in today's media marketplace, but it's important to disclose more to your readers than those sensational results we see teased in headlines. Join us for a look at why it's important to dig beneath the surface of polls.
|Kay B. Day|
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.