Attribution, the soul of journalism

By Jim Low

In an age where upper-case letters and punctuation are regarded as superfluous by many and the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann are considered “journalists,” it should come as no surprise that attribution is going the way of the California job case. Nevertheless, it is lamentable, so here is a paean to attribution.
When I went to J-school we learned that attribution is the soul of journalism. Without it, nothing we write is worth the paper it is printed on, nor is it worth the plasma screen it appears on.attribution
The only things a legitimate reporter may leave unattributed are those she or he knows to be true. Given the fact that reporters generally are not experts in anything, it makes sense to find experts and attribute matters of opinion and fact to them. This not only gets the reporter off the hook for being wrong, it gives readers a justified sense of confidence in the factuality of your writing. A second and perhaps more important benefit of attributing things to expert sources is that it allows readers to check on the reporter’s honesty by checking with the source themselves. If they don’t believe John Doe said that, or if they think you just made up John Doe to cover your own laziness, they can contact him themselves and check.
This points up the difference between real attribution and pro forma (aka half-assed) attribution. Simply attributing a statement or fact to John Doe does readers little good, because they don’t know where to find him. Real attribution must include enough information to allow readers to find the source and verify facts. So you need to say, “University of Missouri Journalism Professor John Doe,” or “John Doe, 2419 Primrose Lane, Columbia, Mo.,” or “John Doe, author of ‘The death of attribution: The death of reason,’ Random House, 2009.”
Introducing every statement with “John Doe said” is the only certain way to avoid fact errors. As long as you say that Doe said the sun would set in the east tomorrow, you are not wrong – he is. A reporter is wise to attribute everything in a news story, down to the most insignificant details and most obvious facts. If this seems silly, consider the slippery nature of reality. Eyewitnesses routinely are completely wrong, so even seeing a man jump off a fourth-floor ledge with your own eyes (who else’s eyes would you see it with?) is no guarantee that he did it. Maybe someone pushed him. Let a cop or a coroner say he jumped, and you are off the hook.
Aside from not using it at all, perhaps the most common mistake in attribution is saying “John Doe believes/thinks/feels/suspects/anything else reflecting the state of the source’s mind.” Since no one can know the mind of another, you do not know what your source thinks. You only know what he said he thinks.
I could go on, but neither space nor my limited erudition permit. Google “attribution in journalism” and you doubtless will find a wealth of fact and opinion on the subject. For now, it is enough to say that if you aren’t attributing most of what you write to more knowledgeable sources, you probably think you know more than you really do, and your audience is paying for your conceit. ◊
jimlowJim Low, of Jefferson City, Mo., is print news services coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation and a former president of OWAA. E-mail him at


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