As a PR/comms guy, radio host, and podcaster, I’ve been asked one question a lot as of late: Why don’t journalists cite sources? Given our bizarre state of news isn’t unexpected. There are a few simple reasons — some are innocent, some are nefarious.
Reason 1: They want to “break” it themself
One reason a journalist may not cite a particular source is because that source was another newspaper or journalist and they don’t want to give credit where credit is due. During the era of my radio talk show, I’d often break stories or find fascinating angles that weren’t on most journalist’s radar, but they’d suddenly “discover” the same story on their own.
One particular news source that will go unnamed would regularly rip off my content, write their own story, and not once did they source my show. They wanted the credit for finding the angle. It’s dirty, but it happens often.
So, why don’t journalists cite sources in this case? Because of their ego, and because they don’t want their competition getting credit.
Reason 2: They are protecting someone or something
The tragedy of journalism is writing a piece that has unintended or severe consequences. For example, revealing a witness to a murder trial, therefore putting them at risk.
A journalist may decide to not cite a personal source to protect them. Ideally, this is a rarity and the journalist’s editor should be able to independently verify the source exists.
Obviously, this can be abused and has in the past. Journalists who do this lose their credibility, for good reason.
Why don’t journalists cite sources in this case? To protect a source and maintain their anonymity.
Reason 3: They’re Lazy
Just like any other vertical, there are great journalists and there are terrible ones. Great journalists meticulously source their data and cite their sources. They care about journalism, they care about their own credibility, they care about their publication and they care about the truth.
Sadly, some journalists just rely on their memory as good enough. It’s not. I fell victim to laziness a few times and my Washington Post editor, Matt McFarland called me on it for this very piece. (No Pay Wall Link). Here’s how I made this mistake.
As a rookie target shooter, I made the idiotic mistake of assuming barrel length increased the accuracy of a round (or bullet). I was 100% convinced, and Matt called me on it, asking me to verify this belief. Begrudgingly, I asked Season 1 winner of History Channel’s Top Shot competition and editor of Recoil Magazine to give me a quote. “With a longer barrel, the propellant has more time to burn, pushing the bullet faster and delivering more power…” explained Iain Harrison. Oops. I was wrong.
Why don’t journalists cite sources in this case? Because they’re lazy and think they know better.
Reason 4: They cheat and care more about their own bias.
Some journalists don’t care about truth or honesty. They don’t care about future credibility and have no problem crying wolf. The reason these journalists don’t cite a source is because their agenda and bias matter more to them than the truth.
Simply put, the answer to “why don’t journalists cite sources” in this case is because they’d rather convince you to believe a lie than confront the truth themself.
Journalists like this used to be extremely rare, but within the last several years, I’ve seen many push false stories because they believe the ends justify the means. This is wrong, and the consequences are severe. People feel justified writing off stories that may actually be true.
Conclusion: why don’t journalists cite sources?
The next time you ask yourself why don’t journalists cite sources, it’s because truth is hard work. Really hard work.