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Why journalists should provide attribution
It's essential that journalists attribute all quotes to the people who gave them, and credit all sources of other information.
The audience needs to know who said what and where information and opinions originate from. This is to try to make clear what is fact, comment and opinion. And a journalist must never pollute news with their own point of view.
What is attribution?
Attribution is stating who said something.
It is essential in all the media, including radio and television.
Journalists do it so that readers or listeners can know who is speaking or where the information in the story comes from.
You can use attribution for both spoken and written information.
Attribution can be used to make clear whether information has been gathered from interviews, speeches, reports, books, films or other newspapers, radio or television stations.
Attribution is essential in all the media, including radio and television
How often should you use attribution?
Attribution should be used whenever you want your readers or listeners to know where your information comes from.
For example, in reported speech the attribution is still part of the sentence, although it is not as distinct as when you use a direct quote.
The good journalist has to strike a balance between the need to make clear attribution of statements and the risk of boring the reader with too many phrases such as "he said".
It helps to change the word "said" occasionally, in attributing both quotes and reported speech.
Some useful alternatives are "warned", "suggested", "urged", "asked" and "disclosed".
But beware: each of these has a specific meaning.
Check that it is the correct one for what your speaker said and the way they said it.
The phrase "according to" can be used in attributing reported speech, but do not use it more than once with any single speaker.
Although it is usually a neutral term, not suggesting either belief or disbelief, if you use it too often it can give the impression that you doubt the information the speaker has given.
There are other, more obvious danger words to avoid.
Words such as "stated" and "pointed out" both imply that what the speaker said is an undisputed fact.
Also avoid the word "claimed", which suggests that you do not believe what is being said.
The wrong attribution verb could change the meaning
Attributing facts and opinions
One of the greatest dangers facing young journalist is accepting what people say as the truth.
Just because someone tells you that something is a fact does not make it so.
If you attribute the words to the person who said them, you do not have to prove or disprove the truth of their words; you simply report them.
Also, people judge what is said by the person who says it.
Statements made by people in authority carry more weight than statements made by other people.
Just because someone tells you that something is a fact does not make it so
There is no alternative to attribution when statements made are opinions.
If you do not attribute an opinion to an individual, your audience will assume that it is your own opinion - and there is no excuse for that kind of confusion in a news story.
Your problem may come in deciding what is a verifiable fact and what is only opinion.
In cases where fact and opinion are not easily separated, play safe and attribute the story.
Attributing a statement to someone is no defence in a claim for defamation.
If you wrongly accuse a person of being a thief, it is no excuse to say that you were just quoting someone else.
Attributing a statement to someone is no defence in a claim for defamation
In some cases, your sources of information may not want to be named, for fear of reprisal.
Journalists who are sure of their facts often attribute such information to "usually reliable sources", "informed sources" or "sources within the department/company".
In some cases, they use phrases like "it is widely believed that" or "it is understood that".
Be warned - if your information is wrong, the blame will rest at your door.
The greatest danger comes in "off the record" interviews.
You must always consult your news editor or chief of staff about what you can and cannot say in such cases.
If your information is wrong, the blame will rest at your door
1: Quotes are an important tool for print journalists, but they should never be used on radio, and only as text on television.
2: Always attribute quotes to the speaker or source of information.
3: You can use alternative words to "said", but beware that they may have distinct meanings and may imply support or disbelief.
4: Attribute all opinions and information which is not a clear and undisputed fact.
This module is a one of six from The News Manual reproduced here with permission. Unlike other modules on this site, The News Manual modules are not covered by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA. If you want to reproduce any you will need to contact the editor.
Image by Alexandre Dulaunoy and released under Creative Commons