If you want people to trust your reporting, attribute your sources

Why attribution matters so much became clear to me on one of my first assignments. I was a cub reporter in the Netherlands for an international news agency when, on May 27, 1990, word came of an attack by the Irish Republican Army. It was late at night, and local media said two men had been shot dead in what appeared to be a terrorist attack in Roermond, a town on the West German border.  

As I left the Amsterdam bureau, a colleague was on the phone with a source who said the victims were most likely off-duty British soldiers and we reported that. It seemed plausible, because the IRA had targeted British servicemen stationed in West Germany in recent killings.

But by the time I got to the scene in the wee hours of the morning, witnesses were telling a different story. The two men were actually Australian tourists, on a European trip with their girlfriends. The IRA would later admit it made a mistake thinking they were British. While their citizenship didn’t make the killings any less tragic, it had huge implications for how big a story it was for British newspapers, which had to revamp their front pages just as they were going to press. 

“Always make sure your attribution is solid,” I remember the bureau chief telling me after fielding angry calls from those newspapers’ editors. It’s advice that couldn’t be more relevant today. Home pages may be easier to update than front pages, but sloppy attribution increases the likelihood of errors that live forever on the web and risk damaging the credibility of any respectable news organization.  

That’s why I put together this guide to the what, why and how of attribution for audio scripts and digital stories, with help from NPR’s managing editor for standards and practices, Tony Cavin. 

What is attribution?  

Attribution simply means revealing where you got the facts in your story. It could be a person you interviewed, a public institution or commercial enterprise putting out a statement, a published report or study, or another news outlet with an exclusive report.  

Why do it?  

There are a number of reasons: 

  • Accountability: Journalists should show where our information comes from. Otherwise, it can seem like we are making things up, or don’t care about the truth.  
  • Transparency: Reporting is as much about telling how you come by a fact as it is giving the fact itself, because the reliability of information often depends on who or what the source is. Attribution gives insight into the reporting process.  
  • Reproducibility: Attributing information is a service to readers and listeners, giving them the option of seeking out the source independently to find out more.  
  • Credit: Attributing signals your appreciation of the source. It demonstrates respect and helps build relationships that may yield leads on future stories.  
  • Self-Protection: If questions about a reported fact are raised after publication, they will be directed to the source, rather than to the journalist. That doesn’t absolve you from doing the best you can to make sure the source is credible. 

What do you need to attribute? 

Everything in your story should be verifiable, but not everything needs to be attributed. For example, the U.S. Mexico border is 1,952 miles long. If you have the figure in your story, it can stand by itself, even if you got it from the U.S. Geological Survey website, because it’s an incontrovertible fact. But if you give this year’s immigration figures, then you need to give your source because that’s new information you are reporting. 

Here are categories of information that generally require attribution: 

  • Quotes  
  • New facts 
  • Accusations/allegations  
  • Disputed or controversial information 
  • Anything that’s not common knowledge 
  • Anything sweeping in nature 

How do I make sure my attribution is solid? 

Attribution alone is not enough. As my IRA story showed, a source can be misinformed without knowing. You, the reporter, are responsible for making sure the source knows what they are talking about. Be a detective. If it’s a figure, do the math. Consider the implications. If someone tells you 500,000 people are waiting to cross the border, where are they sleeping, eating, showering, etc.? Ask questions that remove your doubts. Sometimes it’s as simple as, “How do you know that?”  

How do you write attributions? 

Most attributions contain a verb like “said” or preposition like “according to,” paired with a source identification, as in these examples: 

“British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement …” 

“One new study in the American Journal of Public Health found …”  

“… according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.” 

Note that in the first example, the source is technically not the prime minister, but rather his statement: That’s what the reporter had access to. 

Where does the attribution go?  

Mostly, at the beginning or end of a sentence or part of one. Consider how the attributions above appeared in some recent NPR stories: 

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement that the princess had shown “tremendous bravery,” amid weeks of intense scrutiny and media coverage. 

Roughly half of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands, is under a warning or advisory for risks of landslides and heavy rain, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. 

One new study in the American Journal of Public Health found big drug seizures, big roundups of drug dealers actually cause spikes in overdose deaths. 

In digital, the attribution usually goes after the fact because the fact is more important. Audio stories, on the other hand, tend to be personality driven, so it’s often better to start with the attribution since — in terms of storytelling, at least — the speaker is more important than the fact. However, these are not hard and fast rules and you may want to vary placement for the sake of variety or clarity. 

Does it matter what verb I use?  

Yes! The verbs used in attribution have shades of meaning: Some cast doubt, others suggest certitude. Let’s look at some cases, starting with the most common verb, “says.” 

The CDC says there isn’t enough of a supply of vaccines in case another pandemic happens this year. 

“Says” or “said” is especially useful because it’s non-judgmental. It merely connects the fact or quote to the source. It is also conversational and doesn’t distract from the story, which makes it particularly good for audio scripts. That’s less the case with a word like “maintain.” 

Police maintain the car chase was necessary because the suspects were firing their guns and endangering civilians.  

“Maintain” and others like “argue” signal a certain distancing from what the speaker is saying. One of the stronger words in this category is “claim,” which you should only use when you are downright suspicious. 

The bank robbers claimed they were treating the hostages well. 

Be careful with “claim.” Use it when you are skeptical of the source, but not because you may have a negative opinion of them. If you don’t have a demonstrable reason to doubt their credibility, use “say.” For example, if you write “authorities claim the suspect is at large,” there should be indications he is not.  

If you have reason to believe something is true but can’t prove it, you may want to use “suggests” or “indicates.”    

A new study suggests many parents are sleep deprived. 

The spokesperson indicated the summit would conclude without an agreement.  

What else do I need to know about attribution?  

A few more things. 

Avoid “experts”: When attributing to people, avoid using amorphous groups like “experts” or “analysts.” Sometimes journalists employ it after speaking to just two or three experts, but it can be understood to suggest a broader group and a consensus that probably doesn’t exist. Better to attribute individually to the people you spoke to, or at least refer to narrower group, such as “economists who’ve studied universal basic income say …”   

Name your sources: NPR prefers to name the people we get our information from. We have strict rules about anonymous sourcing, which you can read in the NPR Ethics Handbook’s section on anonymous sourcing.   

Cite other media sparingly: At NPR, we always try to do our own reporting. We will, however, quote news outlets we consider reliable when they have a scoop, and when we are confident that their sourcing is solid. We avoid writing “reportedly” and instead give them explicit credit for breaking the story.   

Text vs audio: Detailed attribution used to matter more in print than radio because words on a page live forever, whereas on the air they disappear into the ether after being spoken. But on the internet, audio also lives forever, and scripts are searchable.  

At the same time, adding too many attributions can make broadcast scripts clunky, so you may need to focus on the newest or most controversial facts. Still, all the facts in your story should be checked with the same rigor as the attributed facts in your digital piece. Don’t rely on secondhand information.

Jerome Socolovsky is the NPR Training team's Audio Journalism Trainer and the author of "Sound Reporting (2nd edition): The NPR Guide to Broadcast, Podcast and Digital Journalism."