Why Don’t Journalists Cite Sources?

As an emerging tech PR and communications guy, radio host, and podcaster, I’ve been asked one question a lot as of late: Why don’t journalists cite sources? There’s a lot of confusion here, and it’s worth exploring. There are a few simple reasons — some are innocent, some are nefarious. 

Reason 1: They are protecting someone or something

For journalists, some of the best pieces or news can hurt the source. That can have unintended or severe consequences. For example, revealing a witness to a murder trial, therefore putting them at risk. A journalist may also want to protect a whistleblower at a large corporation, keeping them from being fired or threatened by management. A journalist may decide to not cite a personal source to protect them.

Ideally, not citing a source should be rare. And in these cases, the journalist’s editor should be able to independently verify the source exists to maintain the integrity of the reporting. Obviously, this can be and has been abused in the past. Although a journalist may get away with this initially, it’s risky. In many cases, subscribers find out, and when trust is lost it’s hard to gain back. Journalists who do this lose their credibility, for good reason.

Why don’t honest journalists cite sources in this case? To protect a source and maintain their anonymity, and present honest, stories.

Reason 2: They want to “break” it themself

Another reason a journalist may not cite a particular source is because the 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. A few days later, they’d suddenly “discover” the same story on their own. They’d use the same language I did, with slight tweaks to wording.

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 constantly.

So, why don’t journalists cite sources in this case? Because of their ego, their desire to impress their editor, and because they don’t want their competition getting credit.

Reason 3: They’re Lazy

Just like any other industry, there are great journalists and there are terrible ones. Great journalists meticulously document 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, or “common sense.” That’s stupid. To be forthright, I fell victim to laziness a few times, and my edit at The Washington Post called me on it for this very piece. (No paywall 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 bullet. I was 100% convinced, and my editor called me on it. He asked me to verify this belief. Begrudgingly, I asked the Season 1 winner of History Channel’s Top Shot competition and the 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. I was wrong.

Why don’t journalists cite sources in this case? Because they’re lazy and think they know better.

Reason 4: They cheated to prove their hypothesis

Some journalists don’t care about truth or honesty—it’s important to note they are the minority. 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. Even though their facts are incorrect, they believe the overall scenario is accurate. In this way they justify not citing their sources.

Bad journalists push false stories because they believe the ends justify the means. This is wrong, and the consequences are severe. When they do right something accurate and important, people feel justified ignoring stories that may actually be true.

Conclusion: why don’t journalists cite sources?

10 Day Press Guide

The next time you ask yourself why don’t journalists cite sources, it’s because the truth is hard work. This is why it’s important to starve bad journalists of the clicks they want and reward good journalists by subscribing and spending money with their advertisers.

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