This is the third of a series of articles ACME is publishing based on its book, Write Right Tight – Navigating Common Mistakes in News Reporting & Writing. The book, authored by award-winning journalist Richard M. Kavuma, goes to great lengths to point out common mistakes in our journalism (especially in reporting and writing) and, above all, provides practical tips on how to navigate these enduring challenges. This third article offers insights and tips on sourcing your story.
In August 2016, former Lubaga South MP Ken Lukyamuzi published a book in which he attacked his political rival Kato Lubwama and CBS radio. In one newsroom, an editor on duty got the story but noticed rather late that the writer had not bothered to speak to Kato Lubwama and CBS for their response. The story was published anyway, but it left the editor unhappy.
Poorly sourced stories were among the most common problems raised during interviews with editors. Many editors want a story to have at least three sources from different sides. Unfortunately, offending stories are often published – for instance because the flaw is spotted too late.
Multiple and varied voices should help to ensure that anyone accused of wrongdoing gets a chance to give his or her side of the story. This can help a media house seeking mitigation if the accused person sues for defamation. According to New Vision’s Robert Mudhasi, “if you insist on having at least three sources, you are more likely to be fair in all your stories.”
Talking to an accused person is not just a formality – as some journalists seem to think. Rather, it gives us a chance to crosscheck the information we already have. Crosschecking or verification is a cardinal duty in journalism, but many of us forget or detest it. The Macmillan dictionary defines crosscheck as “to check that information is correct by checking it again using a different method”. For journalism, it means that we should only write what we “know” or have “verified” to be correct.
For example, let’s assume that one source tells you that the security minister said certain newsworthy things at a party at Hotel Africana yesterday. You do not simply write the story just because you “trust” your source. You crosscheck the information. Can you find another person unrelated to your source who attended the party and ask him/ her which prominent people were present. If the security minister is not mentioned, you may ask if your second source saw the security minister. If yes, does your source remember what the security minister said? If the accounts of two other sources tally with the first’s, you can be more confident that your information is correct. If they contradict, question the contentious claims. There is always the possibility that your source’s information is inaccurate. What if your half-drunk source mistook the defence permanent secretary for the security minister? What if the security minister was in Nairobi yesterday?
Both The Observer news editor Robert Mukasa and Charles Odoobo Bichachi of Monitor Publications lament that journalists tend to overly trust the initial source or documents; they want the story published even if the other side has not been heard. When a journalist talks to another source, they often do it just because the editor demands it.
Media trainer and former editor Bernard Tabaire suspects that some journalists think it is too much (unnecessary) work to talk to many sources, yet the rule of thumb is that you collect a lot more information than you will need for any particular story.
“That way, you have a large pool from which to pick the best quotes, the most concrete info for the specific story,” he says. “Besides, any “leftover’ information can always be used in future stories, or to inform future stories.”
Without the essential journalistic scepticism, distrust, or critical thinking, such reporters miss an opportunity to learn more about the issue under investigation, debunk lies or exaggerations told by one side, and write with more authority.
This point was echoed by Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, who called for a return to the good old journalism skill of true listening:
“Too often now, stories are written based on hypothesis no matter what. The only reason journalists are calling people – or most of the time, emailing people – is to plug in a comment, to show that they did their job and to get another point of view. That’s not journalism; it’s check-box journalism. It’s terrible.”
Makerere University journalism lecturer Charlotte Kawesa Ntulume is also appalled by “sloppy journalism and armchair editing” when we fail to source stories properly. A former sub-editor at Daily Monitor and news editor at The Observer, Ntulume distrusts sentences like “Mr XZ was not available to [or even for] comment.”
“Editors should also ask questions. I believe it might not be possible to give everyone equal space, but at least equal opportunity. You get the feeling that a certain source provided this information, or a journalist is privy to this information and then they go in detail in trying to nail down this person. I get this feeling that the story had been typed and it’s neat, and then they get the phone and try to call this other person. And when the person can’t comment because he is in a meeting or says he is not ready to comment, the story goes because it’s the last thing the reporter had to do. The editor should tell the reporter this is not satisfactory. I know it’s sometimes difficult to sleep on the story because competitors might get it, but it’s unfair [to the person who could not comment immediately or who the reporter did not do enough to get].”
We need, from the outset, to step back and ask ourselves certain questions: beyond the obvious, who else might be affected by this story or would have some useful information or perspective on this? One trick is to politely ask the people we interview: who else knows something about this story? Often, people share names and contacts, and we quickly find new potential sources – from whom we can choose. The bottom line is that the more sources we seek out, the higher the chances for a richer, more accurate story.