I’ve noticed we’re citing our sources when we don’t need to sometimes. Other times we don’t attribute when we should. For example, in today’s anti-hazing story
, we cite the Daily-Herald for the details of Bogenberger’s death. But then we don’t attribute this: “On the night of Nov. 1, 2012, 19 pledges were questioned in the Phi Kappa Alpha fraternity house during a non-sanctioned initiation event. They were told to drink after each question, then brought to the basement where they vomited on themselves and each other and were later left unconscious on the floor throughout the house overnight.”
The fact that Bogenberger died on a certain day with a high blood-alcohol content is a widely reported fact, based on coroner reports and other records not in dispute. However, the events leading up to his death are in dispute; in fact they are the subject of ongoing litigation. This makes attributing where we got this from absolutely vital.
Attributing requires making judgment calls by the reporter and her editor. Here are some tips I culled from a piece written by famed journalism educator Steve Buttry:
WHEN SHOULD YOU ATTRIBUTE?
Attribute any time you are using someone else’s words.
Attribute when you are using quoted material.
Attribute when you are reporting information gathered by other journalists.
Attribute when you are not certain of facts.
Attribute statements of opinion. When you wonder whether you should attribute, you probably should attribute in some fashion.
WHEN SHOULD WE NOT ATTRIBUTE?
Don’t attribute facts that the reporter observed first-hand: It was a sunny day.
Don’t worry about attributing facts where the source is obvious and not particularly important and the fact is not in dispute.
Example: If you are writing about a town and you write that its population is 5,500, the Census Bureau is the implied source. However, if you are writing about the Census Bureau’s latest estimates of your community’s population, you cite the bureau because it is central to the story. Or if the town is challenging the census figure, you need to attribute the dueling estimates.
Example: If you say that an athlete is 6-foot-3, the reader understands that this comes from a team roster and that you probably didn’t actually measure the athlete’s height. If multiple sources tell you something and it is not in dispute, you can state it as a fact. However, if you are using a source’s choice of words to state an undisputed fact, you should credit that source.