When can sources
legitimately be omitted
from news stories?
Here is the print version of Readers’ Editor Chris Elliott’s column on Monday. Image captured by Nikon Coolpix with macro-focus capability. © SGE, Inc.
THE PUBLIC EDITOR of The Guardian newspaper, by far the best daily in the UK, explored the important journalistic topic of when – or whether – facts can be reported without attribution in his column on June 3.
Describing a complaint from a member of Britain’s House of the Lords, Readers’ Chris Elliott (The New York Times uses “public editor”) weighs in on when certain facts are so widely established they need no sources.
This column, “The reader’s editor on … when unattributed facts need some backing up,” concerns a previous article on the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and when they would reach an irreversible tipping point leading to catastrophic climate change.
The online version contains a sub-headline that explains the topic more thoroughly: “How much is a journalist entitled to rely on information so widely accepted that no authority is cited when it is used?”
The Guardian’s head of environmental reporting Damian Carrington, had written the story.“SPECIALIST REPORTERS feel freer to use unattributed fact than general reporters because of reputations established over time and an understanding of what is acceptable to their audience,” Elliott wrote.
However, reputations built up over many years, can easily be quickly ruined by errors in reporting.
When I teach beginning journalism students, I demand that every single fact have a source. If not, to the reader it seems like the reporters opinion. Opinion is not acceptable in a news story.
In his own defense, Carrington explains three instances of unattributed facts in his story.
But Elliott elaborates: “At the heart of this complaint is the question of how much a journalist is entitled to rely on fact being so widely accepted that authority for the fact doesn’t need to be cited every time it is used.”
This is the online version of Readers’ Editor Chris Elliott’s column on Monday.
THE PROBLEM, however, is that some widely acceptable truths are also extremely controversial. A small segment of the population believes climate change to be a giant hoax.
Will they ever be satisfied?
Now the complainant in this case, The Hon. David Lipsey, could not be placed in this category. He holds the chairmanship of a parliamentary group on statistics, and is a member of the board of a nonprofit fact checking organization.
His credentials are impeccable.
Reporter Carrington raised an important issue: “…[W]ho are the people contesting the facts? Every government, every science Academy and 97 percent of research do not contest these facts.”
My counterargument is: do the average readers know this?
Perhaps the readers of The Guardian do. And, perhaps, those of The New York Times.
But the vast majority of readers do not know that these facts are so widely supported.
They need to be told.
I fully agree with Elliot’s summation: “…[C]are should be taken especially in this area to attribute more often in such contested areas.”