If Your Mother Says She Loves You… by Russ
March 4, 2009, 9:48 pm
Filed under: Russ

Anna brought up the issue of one-source stories and she’s right: things would’ve been a lot easier if we had laid the rules out before hand. We should’ve been more alert about the source issue.

Letting any story run on it’s own, without more than one source is dangerous. Even if it’s an ostensibly open-and-shut profile of a subject you have no reason to think would be problematic. Ask the New York Times. They got burned running a one-source profile of later discredited author Margaret Seltzer, apparently, on the belief that if a major publishing house vetted her background and published a heavily-pushed memoir based on that, there wasn’t enough reason to doubt the story when she repeated it to the paper. Turns out there was.

The Times standards editor summed it up (at least according to Gawker, my only source…) succinctly and correctly:

“Single-source profiles of people who are not already well known quantities are traps we have fallen into twice in the past year or two, and that’s too often. Until publishers start fact-checking their own nonfiction books, and that’ll be the day, we should remember that profiles of unknown authors should always include reporting from other sources — not just surrogates of the profilee like agents, publishers, lawyers, etc. — to verifiy the most important facts. But even when there’s no book involved, the same rule applies. If we can’t find ways to check key facts, names, graduation claims, etc., we should hold the story until we can verify them, and if we can’t, we should be suspicious. Live and learn….”

If the Times can’t trust a pre-vetted author, who can we trust? Some of the profiles we recieved from Jane Hall’s class were well-written and well-reported – as far as they went – but we made the right decision… didn’t we?

Tell us what you think.

Cross-posted at Blog/19 and AmericanObserved.

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[…] future collaborations with outside classes hoping to contribute to the Observer. I responded with some more discussion of the problem with one-source stories and some thoughts on when we might actually want to use a one-source item […]

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