Citing sources, especially online

December 10, 2019

Including sources in stories was a priority teaching tenet when I was teaching community college students to be journalists. I made it part of the grading process for the student newspaper and hammered attribution in my news writing instruction –after focusing on leads, of course.

To earn full credit for an article written for the student newspaper there had to be a MINIMUM of two sources. When I marked issues of the paper for critiques I marked the first use of a source in a story with a special colored marking pen to make it easier to count sources. (When I switched to PDF-marked critiques and had fewer color options I started including a “stamp” option of a person’s head to make them stand out.)

Along with the PDF critiques I included a “By the Numbers” page associated with each issue; acclimating students to numbers and news was another priority. A major part of the effort was not only to count up numbers of sources used each week, but overall average sources used per story. Opinion stories, for instance, often did not contain sources, so non-opinion stories needed to make up the difference if we were to meet the goal of an average of MINIMUM of two sources per story for the issue.

In short, forcing students out of their comfort shells and out talking to people was important in their development as journalists. But some students tried to skate anyway by quoting not from sources they talked to, but written sources from other publications, such as The New York Times and the Centers for Disease Control website.

For a while I referred to these as bogus sources, an inaccurate moniker, for sure, as these secondary sources often added credibility to the story. A student got me to change my terminology to indirect sources. I also made a distinction in critiques between direct sources and indirect sources with an aim to limiting the latter to more than 10 percent of all sources per publication.

As I monitor student publications around the state for my Online Elsewhere initiative I continue to look for sources. Are students being taught to emerge from the comfort zone of aggregating indirect sources? Mostly yes, but often no; to be blunt, some of the publications are terrible at it. Most work direct sources well into their news stories, sports stories and personality profiles. In some features and in most opinion stories, though, they don’t.

I understand it for opinion stories, though if students focused more on campus/community issues and less on national and cultural issues, they could definitely turn some opinion columns into nice reader-related features. For instance, I recently saw a Saddleback Lariat feature on vaping that included student sources commenting on vaping. Most other publications talking about vaping only quoted statistics using indirect sources.

And when indirect sources are used in stories citations are vague: The New York Times or the Centers for Disease Control. Such vagueness would never be allowed in the academic writing talk in college composition courses. Papers written for those courses would require much more bibliographic detail in footnotes/endnotes or with in-text citations. Writing for journalistic publications are not as academic in presentation than papers for composition, though, and rightly so. There are space and readability considerations. Long URLs –and usually we are talking about web sources– would interfere with the readability of text in narrow columns and short paragraphs. Footnotes/endnotes also are not the norm for newspaper publications, though they COULD be included.

Student reporters need to understand the purpose of bibliographic detail –not the least of which is that online sources can change, so dating the access point is important. They need to understand that “The New York Times” is a big complication of material. In fact, it is likely that somewhere else in the archives of the New York Times might be an article that includes conflicting information. To be fair to the reader you need to be more precise. Even “according to a Dec. 10 article in the New York Times” or “according to a Dec. 10 article by Rich Cameron in the New York Times” is doable an much closer to linking the reader to the source, should the reader need to confirm the quote or want to know more. Speaking of links, a shortened weblink from a site like bit.ly could even be used as an in-text citation without creating problems.

But what I find truly a failure in teaching students journalists is when I see stories added to the publication’s website. Almost universally it is clear that students are merely archiving their stories onto the website without paying attention to the unique properties of web pages over print pages. On websites you have another option for citations: You can link your “The New York Times” to the specific article. A recent good example is a story I noticed on the CSU Long Beach Daily 49er website. If you look at this story you will find the kinds of links I am talking about.

I don’t know if the Santa Barbara City College Channels has or enforces the same policy it had several years ago when it transitioned to online only, but the policy required each story to contain a minimum of two live links. That meant that reporters often had to go an extra mile in citing sources. Not only were links added, but sometimes those links led to campus documents the students also had to digitize and/or store online. Keeping the reader in mind and offering more than vague summaries is such a wonderful next step for student journalists to learn!

Make the publication website a learning tool rather than just an archive. You will be preparing students better for the journalism world they are about to enter.

The unique properties of an online site extend to use of use of unordered lists for bullet lists, perhaps reformatting stories to use numbered lists instead of first, second, etc., and more. How about recording interviews and extracting/attaching relevant audio snippets linked to quotations to allow the interested reader to assess context? (See the NPR websites to see the value of that.) And most, if not all, online versions of articles will attract more readers if images are attached; there are not the space limitations faced with print.

First teach students to be better journalists by talking to people rather than hiding behind indirect sources, then teach them to respect their readers with more thoughtful online presentation.

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