Ask the Coach

Just another Freedom Forum Diversity Institute weblog

Whose Authority?


Dear Coach,

I have always been taught that a reporter should attribute not only quotes, but also every piece of information in a story – that that’s what makes a story credible. Lately, my editor has been telling me to attribute less and to “try writing with more authority.” Can you explain? – Want to Stay Credible

Dear Credible,

It’s simply impossible to attribute every piece of information. A good sentence could contain five facts. If you stopped to say “according to” after every fact, the sentence would become unreadable. Experienced reporters verify facts; they double- and triple-check them, using alternative sources. Then they can write the facts without attribution because they aren’t controversial. The facts are the things everyone agrees on.

Another way an authoritative writing voice emerges is through witnessing events. Sitting at a desk, interviewing people on the phone, is no substitute for being there.

Here is an example from The New York Times on the uprising in Egypt:

“After first trying to respond peacefully, the protesters fought back with rocks and Molotov cocktails as battles broke out around the square. A makeshift medical clinic staffed by dozens of doctors tended to a steady stream of anti-government protesters, many bleeding from head wounds.

“As the two sides exchanged volleys, the military restricted itself mostly to guarding the Egyptian Museum and using water cannons to extinguish flames stoked by the firebombs. And on Wednesday night, state media broadcast an order from the government for all protesters to leave the square.”

If reporters had not actually been at the scene, they would have had to call the protesters, the doctors, the government, and then report who said what. But if you’re there, you can report what you saw.

Your editor is telling you as much about your reporting as she is about your writing. If your reporting is solid, if you have nailed the facts, then you don’t need to attribute each one. If you witness the event, then you don’t need to quote another witness saying what you yourself saw. A confident, authoritative writing voice comes from competent fieldwork.

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