The importance of attribution (or why 'says who?' matters)

Talk is cheap, and especially so these days with rise of the Internet. Do we really know who said what, and if what we read is true?

Talk is cheap, and especially so these days with rise of the Internet. Do we really know who said what, and if what we read is true?

This topic is important for PR pros because in many cases we are the first link in the chain of truth. It often serves us well to have information sourced anonymously – and sometimes that's the right thing to do – but we need to be sure that we are not needlessly contributing to an overall cheapening of the news.

Vetting information, getting a second source, and asking the source to be identified by name – all these disciplines are taught in journalism school. But, from the mouth of a journalist friend, there has been an “erosion of rigor” in checking sources. With staff reductions at major newspapers, editors between the ages of 50 and 60 are taking buyouts. That means the grizzled veteran who asks the cub reporter where he got his information isn't in the newsroom anymore.

Contributing to the problem is the easy availability of Internet hyperlinks, which enable reporters to “lazy link” readers to sometimes dubiously sourced information. While rampant on the Internet, the use of unverified information is now “creeping into the profession.” And part of that, my friend says, has to do with deadline pressure – the need to get a story on the Web with no time to ferret out the original source.

So is it wrong to use anonymous sources? It depends. When a source is trying to “take down” a person, it is malicious. And journalists rarely quote anonymous sources who make pejorative comments about an individual – the dirty game of political coverage notwithstanding.

Anonymous sources bring to light stories we would otherwise never read about. In the corporate world, think Enron. Among world events, consider the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Sources that risk their job – or more – in uncovering injustice need anonymity and are owed our gratitude.

But despite how we might feel at the end of the day, being a professional communicator is rarely life threatening. We provide information to the media that is available instantly, 24/7, and then archived for the ages. This means the decisions we make on allowing attribution will help the news stand as credible or not. If everything we read becomes just digital hearsay, then the value of all news – for our clients, companies, and causes – will be diminished. (At least that's what someone who requested anonymity told me).

David Allan, is SVP of the corporate practice at Ketchum in New York.

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