Citation Journalism and the Blurring Lines in Reporting

A report that was disappointing in more ways than one.
A report that was disappointing in more ways than one.

Last Saturday, I saw a front-page tease on The Seattle Times that stirred my heart: The newspaper was reporting that one of my childhood idols, Spencer Haywood, had been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But by the time I went to read the story on the newspaper’s website later that day, things had changed.

“Spencer Haywood not selected for basketball Hall of Fame,” was the only headline I could find.


Turns out, Haywood’s agent, Al Ross, told FOX Sports Florida that the former Seattle SuperSonic had been elected to the Hall. It also turns out that Ross was misinformed, and thereby so was FOX Sports Florida. The problem is that The Seattle Times participated in the chain of misinformation, reporting Haywood’s selection by citing the erroneous FOX report.

No harm, no foul? Everyone in the chain had his butt covered. The Times cited FOX Sports Florida, which cited Haywood’s agent, who later cited Haywood, who later cited “someone in the NBA.” And, by the way, the Times was not alone in citing the erroneous report.

This is the way Citation Journalism works, and the form clearly is on the rise. Used to be, one of the bedrocks of journalism was the proper sourcing of information. Used to be, that meant getting it “from the horse’s mouth,” or somewhere thereabouts. But the rules seem to have changed – an acceptable “source” these days simply is someone else reporting news.

And just as the degrees of sourcing have changed, so have the degrees of believability. The reaction of readers to something published in, say, a newspaper has morphed from, “It must be true,” to, “It should be true,” and these days to, “It might be true.”

Is this any way to run a democratic society? Exchange “Haywood selected” for “FDA approves” and you get a stark example of how stakes get heightened in the information game. Lazy or incomplete sourcing ensures that we all lose.

The erstwhile mainstream media lean on the crutch of “dwindling resources” for buying more and more into Citation Journalism. It’s ironic how a media outlet will, because of dwindling resources, so quickly cite the work of another media outlet, which conceivably also suffering from the same rampant, “dwindling resources” virus.

This insidious cycle is exacerbated by one of the reasons for the dwindling of the mainstream media’s resources – the Internet or, more specifically, the media’s inability to effectively adapt to it. The Web has all but eliminated the barrier to entering the information superhighway. Whereas the media once modeled and set standards for the citizenry, it now plays down and mimics it. Trouble is, the citizen or hobbyist reporter does not have the same – I dare add, “suitable” – training, background or sensibility to properly source a piece of information. And so the standards and intentions of propagating news and information have devolved thusly:

  • Use of social media is simply “putting it out there.”
  • Blogging it infers some “pre-reporting” stage.
  • Posting it on the official website usually suggests some vetting and means the media outlet is standing behind the information.
  • Publishing it in print form is like etching it in stone.

Since I’ve been in sports journalism for several decades, I can provide a more granular blueprint of the above – and it can be dismaying. College wannabe journalist talks to an assistant coach. Assistant coach has an agenda, feeds college wannabe a line. College wannabe “puts it out” on Twitter. Another assistant coach sees the Twitter post, gets a call from mainstream journalist, and says, “I heard …” Mainstream journalists Tweets, “We’re hearing …” Another mainstream journalist sees the Twitter post, cites it in his/her blog. Mainstream media reporter No. 3 reads blog, writes story, citing blog.

Know what? Those six people have just played the “Telephone game,” the pre-school mainstay in which a story is whispered in the ear of a child, who does the same to the next child, and so on. Everyone then laughs when the last child presents a version of the story often so botched it no longer is recognizable. This is happening in real life, facilitated by mainstream media, many of whom, like The Seattle Times, are starting to charge fees for access to their websites.

Call me old-fashioned, but when I was running my old website, HoopGurlz, for ESPN, I had a rule that we reported news only when we could attribute it by name to a primary source. Since girl’s basketball players were our subjects, a primary source was the player herself, her parent or her coach. We wouldn’t even mention the story on social media until we had it completely confirmed. Once in a while, someone would beat us to the punch, but in those occasions consumers would write, “It’s still not true until HoopGurlz posts it.” That kind of trust is a more lasting relationship that a media business can forge with its users. It’s based not on being first to report, but being first to report it accurately. The media don’t give people enough credit for understanding the difference, but they sure do.

The perception that social media has put the race to report into hyperdrive can be a dangerous trap. Social media has created such a cacophony that no one can truly keep score. Some media outlets have exploited the resulting information fog, tossing out reports like rice at a wedding. This creates the impression they always are on top of stories and “reporting” is turned into a branding campaign. People may not remember who is first most often, but they remember errors, massive and small (try misspelling a name, for example), and I hold to the belief that people also develop a feel for who is always, or almost always, right.

Credibility, in other words, is the lifeblood of any media business. And credibility can quickly plunge into incredulity. Appearing later in the Times’ corrected story about Haywood, for example, is the sentence, “NBA sources told The Seattle Times on Thursday former Sonics star Gary Payton is a unanimous Hall of Fame choice.” My immediate response was, “Hey, wait a minute. How good could your sources be? You just admitted you were led astray.” (Not to mention, isn’t there a missing “that” in that sentence?).

Time was, when another media outlet reported something, a reporter would verify that information through his/her own sources. Absent that, you probably wouldn’t run the story. Even if you were convinced, via clues or circumstances, of the story’s veracity, you’d still leave an out – “Haywood believed to be selected,” and not as the Times initially pronounced, “Haywood to be inducted.” The Times also did not indicate an attempt to verify the information. Usually, its story would have included a stock sentence such as, “Attempts to reach Haywood or his agent were unsuccessful.”

And in this case, just trying Haywood or his agent would not have been enough. Turns out, both were misinformed. The best source would have been someone on a committee at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame that actually makes the selections.

If the Naismith committee misleads, which isn’t very likely, there’s really no blaming the messenger. At least the media outlet tried. Not even trying, which seems to be the bedrock of Citation Journalism, is not an acceptable alternative.

NOTE: The Seattle Times is my local newspaper and a former employer. Those facts, plus the recent report about a subject of interest to me, provided a familiar and convenient example of a general industry practice.

3 thoughts on “Citation Journalism and the Blurring Lines in Reporting

  1. Amen! As a journalist I really hate how journalism integrity has gone out the window. I never would have allowed my staff to write a story that was attributed by a competitor. In fact, this reminds me when the Penn State news website Onward State reported that Joe Paterno died much earlier then he did, major news stations and newspapers reported the same thing based off of the Onward State’s reporting without checking out the source or facts. This sloppiness is not only embarrassing, but it does hurt your credibility.

  2. Terry Benish

    Nice piece Glen. The Times are not what they used to be, bad pun intended.

    The paper’s board room seems to have leaked over into the editorial and news room with the silly effort against Chris Hansen’s group. Called them outsiders, joined with Howard Lincoln in his idiotic fight against the arena.

    It might be that Seattle is without a newspaper sooner than later.

  3. Pingback: Effective and complete use of sources |

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