Homeopathic journalism, or the rise of the single-source story

Homeopathic journalism, like homeopathic medicine, relies on faith more than fact.

Homeopathic journalism, like homeopathic medicine, relies on faith more than fact.

I’ve learned that one thing, at least, hasn’t changed in the nearly 40 years since I started journalism school: the reluctance of young students to interview strangers.

Some of my colleagues at Kent State, where I’m now teaching a Media Writing class, were talking about assigning interviews in a basic reporting class. Students almost invariably stick to those closest to them — their roommates, other students in the dorm. Usually, students very like themselves. They have to be pressed with specific requirements to move outside their comfort zone and interview people who aren’t like them — adults, people of the opposite sex, of a different ethnicity, etc.

It sounded familiar. I remember the same thing. Indeed, in my first reporting class, one student was so reluctant to interview anyone that he interviewed the campus mailbox. I don’t know what grade he got, but I presume any points for creativity were cancelled out by the fact that, well, the professor could be pretty sure he’d make up the quotes.

If you’re not a journalist — particularly if you’re not a newspaper journalist — it may seem odd that the occupation attracts people who are introverted, or at least not eager to interview. Kind of like a firefighter who doesn’t like the heat, isn’t it?

But there are many things about writing for a newspaper that make it an introvert’s dream job. You get to hide behind your byline (at least you did until websites started running profile photos with stories). You communicate with your audience through the written word.

So the initial reluctance to break out of that shell and actually confront strangers — even ask questions of them — isn’t a shock. Like a lot of other journalists, I only got over my shyness about that when I could approach them as “John Kroll of the Muskegon Chronicle” rather than just “John Kroll.” Even then, approaching people for man-in-the-street interviews was slightly traumatic. One more reason I soon became a copy editor, cut off from all human contact (unless you count irate reporters as humans).

What’s disturbing is when reporters fail to get over that reluctance to interview. I worry that various modern trends are pushing our profession in that direction.

Recently I wrote about a study of stories at nola.com. Among other things, the study measured the number of sources cited in each story. It found that the average had declined significantly in a couple of years. The site’s boss, Jim Amoss, said one reason could be the nature of online reporting. Instead of waiting for all the facts, reporters post early versions that may cite only a single source. In theory, later posts flesh out the story and add more sources. I understand his explanation; I trained reporters at The Plain Dealer in the same methods. But that does mean readers who see those early versions are seeing thinly sourced reporting.

Along the same lines, an emphasis on quantity will tend to encourage one-source stories. They’re obviously easier to produce, and the kind of basic items that fill up a reporter’s quota often don’t need more than one source. Don’t blame the internet for this. I once had a boss who had earned his bones as reporter by being ultraproductive. His method? Encountering a controversial topic on his beat, he’d interview one side and submit a story. The other side, outraged, would call in to protest. He’d write up those complaints. The initial source would call back. And so on. His output buried that of other reporters who limited themselves to balanced, complete stories, and he shot up through the editing ranks.

The rise of aggregation is an online phenomenon, though. Aggregation has its place as one tool, but it’s tempting to rely on it too much. It becomes a lazy way to report, borrowing facts from others. It’s not unusual nowadays for aggregators to aggregate other aggregators and so on ad infinitum, until the original reporting in an online story is diluted to the point of disappearance. You could call it homeopathic journalism.

The consequence of these trends, I fear, is the normalization of weak sourcing. Michael Minor of the Chicago Reader recently pointed out an example of what can happen under those circumstances. Chef Grant Achatz tweeted about a couple who brought a bawling infant to his upscale restaurant.

 

As Miner notes, the tweet went viral — exploding not only on social media, but in the news media. Yet many of those stories were based on little more than the original tweet. Even when there was more, Miner found, the reporters failed to ask many basic questions. Misconceptions multiplied. Which is what happens when actual reporting can only be measured in parts per billion at best.

One more contributing factor: The diminishing role of oversight. As the number of eyes on a story decline — proofreaders, poof!; copy editors, deleted; line editors, redlined — reporters are left to their own devices. The value of oversight goes beyond what the extra eyes will catch. Just like Santa’s list helps keep children in line, knowing that you’ll have to explain your failings to your editor or some grumpy copy editor helps keep reporters on their toes. Cut that out and it gets much too tempting to succumb to the lesser angels of our nature. One source? Sure, fine.

Not that oversight at newspapers ever was a guarantee. I alliteratively nicknamed a reporter “Single-Source” because that’s what I found when I had the misfortune of dealing with his output. His regular editors apparently were so happy to have interesting stories that they didn’t mind his habit of preserving that interest by not checking on its plausibility. However, I have to think situations like that get even more common when oversight disappears.

Like Canute, I cannot hold back the tide of change. Nor do I want to. This post is more in the way of a warning, especially for journalism educators: Your students will have to rely on their own will power to overcome the reluctance to find multiple sources. Pound that message into them.

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