Nothing Beats an Original Source – From TSOD R&D

Nothing Beats an Original Source – From TSOD R&D

Nothing Beats an Original Source

It's becoming common practice for reporters to use "facts" from other reporters when writing their stories

It’s becoming common practice for reporters to use unverified “facts” from other reporters when writing their stories


In this day of minute-by-minute journalistic scoops the good journalist knows that nothing beats an original source.

Non-journalists likely wonder why such a statement is required. After all how could a story be written or a picture used without contacting the person or organization at the center of the piece?

Thank you for that.

But the pressure to meet or beat deadlines and to scoop the competition in a news cycle just seconds in duration often lures journalists to use second-hand information. That’s only a problem for the journalist being ripped off – unless the purloined publication is in error. The misinformation is often repeated in subsequent publications, postings and broadcasts giving the error a life larger and more believable than the mistake itself.

If the reputation of your business has been suddenly sullied and you’re wondering why, it could be the result of this “copy of a bad copy of a bad copy” generational loss.

One news maker told me he counted more than 1,400 stories about him but had talked directly with just three reporters. Three!

Nothing beats an original source

The same is true for photographs. If it’s easy to lift a fact from an internet posting it’s even easier to lift a photograph. Google Images is a candy store for others’ work. Now to be fair news organizations can sometimes use such material through “Fair Use,” which allows republication under certain conditions but even there the potential exists for error if the original source isn’t contacted.

In’s posting about Mohammed Emwazi’s – AKA Jihadi John’s – Pittsburgh Pirates’ hat we were tempted to use that image without permission. We could have made the case under Fair Use but opted to contact The University of Westminster instead. The University had been cited as the source for the picture by ESPN – and the wording: “The photo, taken from University of Westminster student records …” suggests that may have been the case.

But Westminster University offered this explanation to via email:

“The University of Westminster has not made the picture of Mohammed Emwazi available to the media. It has not consented to its publication and should not be credited as the copyright owner.”

We’ll assume for now that the University of Westminster was the source as ESPN reported but that the institution did not make the picture of Emwazi available to the media as it stated. There are any number of ways both could be true: It could have been removed from the database without the university’s permission or knowledge; it could have been turned over to police or an attorney who leaked it to the media.

But why the fuss over what seems to be a minor point?

If Emwazi is who we think he is, he is apt to seek revenge against anyone who helped unmask him. While the person or organization doing so is to be congratulated for releasing the picture The University of Westminster is not that organization according to our information.

It is possible ESPN “wrote around” the sourcing problem. That’s a journalism term for covering your tail by writing in a deliberately ambiguous way. If you’re a businessperson who’s suffered from the tactic of “writing around,” you have our sympathies. Little can be done about it legally but we can encourage journalists to slow down, get it right and remember that nothing beats an original source.

Tim Sharp is a principal in, LLC, a corporate and government training company offering media management, team building, leadership and management programs. He is also lecturer in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.




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