Wednesday, 22 October 2008

#46 – When sources should be credited

Or covering your own back.

Cluttered-up copy
In tip #44, I suggested that cluttering up copy with attributions is unnecessary. Explaining the source of every bit of information makes for an ugly read. But for some information, it’s entirely necessary.

Attribute arguments
As a general rule, whenever a point, a statistic or an argument is debatable, it is advisable to attribute it. This obviously doesn’t apply when it’s your own opinion – you don’t need to explain if you think a building is ugly or meal is virtually inedible – but in other cases, it’s important.

Differing estimates
For some stats, like dates and prices, there will be near universal (if not fully universal agreement). No need to attribute there – it’s accurate. But other things are not so clear cut. For example, when dating the foundation of an ancient city (such as Damascus, or the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala), there are often many wildly differing estimates.

Back-covering disclaimer
In these instances, I’d argue that you need to say where you got the date from. To state a selected date as fact is wrong – you don’t know it is accurate, and neither does anyone else. This sort of situation calls for a little back-covering disclaimer, such as “according to our guide” or “one scientific school of thought believes”. If you can pin it to a person or reputable organisation, then even better.

Controversial statements
Some statements are even more controversial. For example, if you’re doing a story on a jungle island, and the jungle on that island is being depleted, then you need to be very careful about stating a cause of that depletion. Saying that the jungle is being depleted because of tourism development could, firstly, be untrue, and secondly, leave you open to a libel suit.

Interview, quote and attribute
For something like that, the best course to take is to interview someone who does believe that tourism development is the cause, quote them and attribute that argument to them. After that, give the accused (ie. One or more of the developers or the authorities that have allowed the development) to have their say.

Delineate between argument and fact
Treat both arguments fairly, and you shouldn’t have a problem. But whatever you do, be careful to delineate between argument and fact by attributing the opinions and any information that could be considered debatable.

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