A Guide to Using Attribution Correctly in Journalism

Find Out What Attribution Is and Why It's Important

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Attribution simply means telling your readers where the information in your story comes from, as well as who is being quoted. Generally, attribution means using a source’s full name and job title if that's relevant. Information from sources can be paraphrased or quoted directly, but in both cases, it should be attributed.

Attribution Style

Keep in mind that on-the-record attribution -- meaning a source's full name and job title are given -- should be used whenever possible.

On-the-record attribution is inherently more credible than any other type of attribution for the simple reason that the source has put their name on the line with the information they've provided.

But there are some cases where a source might not be willing to give full on-the-record attribution. Let's say you're an investigative reporter looking into allegations of corruption in city government. You have a source in the mayor's office who is willing to give you information, but he's worried about repercussions if his name is revealed. In that case, you as the reporter would talk to this source about what kind of attribution he is willing to commit to. You are compromising on full on-the-record attribution because the story is worth getting for the public good.

Here are some examples of different kinds of attribution.

Source – Paraphrase

Jeb Jones, a resident of the trailer park, said the sound of the tornado was terrifying.

Source – Direct Quote

“It sounded like a giant locomotive train coming through. I’ve never heard anything like it,” said Jeb Jones, who lives in the trailer park.

Reporters often use both paraphrases and direct quotes from a source. Direct quotes provide immediacy and a more connected, human element to the story.

They tend to draw the reader in.

Source – Paraphrase and Quote

Jeb Jones, a resident of the trailer park, said the sound of the tornado was terrifying.

“It sounded like a giant locomotive train coming through. I’ve never heard anything like it,” Jones said.

(Notice that in Associated Press style, a source’s full name is used on the first reference, then just the last name on all subsequent references. If your source has a specific title or rank, use the title before his full name on the first reference, then just the last name after that.)

When to Attribute

Any time the information in your story comes from a source and not from your own firsthand observations or knowledge, it must be attributed. A good rule of thumb is to attribute once per paragraph if you are telling the story mainly through comments from an interview or eyewitnesses to an event. It might seem repetitive, but it’s important for reporters to be clear about where their information originates.

Example: The suspect escaped from the police van on Broad Street, and officers captured him about a block away on Market Street, said Lt. Jim Calvin.

Different Types of Attribution

In his book "News Reporting and Writing,"  journalism professor Melvin Mencher outlines four distinct types of attribution:

1. On the record: All statements are directly quotable and attributable, by name and title, to the person making the statement. This is the most valuable type of attribution.

Example: "The U.S. has no plans to invade Iran," said White House press secretary Jim Smith.

2. On Background: All statements are directly quotable but can't be attributed by name or specific title to the person commenting.

Example: "The U.S. has no plans to invade Iran," a White House spokesman said.

3. On Deep Background: Anything that is said in the interview is usable but not in a direct quotation and not for attribution. The reporter writes it in his own words. 

Example: Invading Iran is not in the cards for the U.S. 

4. Off the Record: Information is for the reporter's use only and is not to be published. The information also is not to be taken to another source in hopes of getting confirmation.

 

You probably don’t need to get into all of Mencher’s categories when you’re interviewing a source. But you should clearly establish how the information your source gives you can be attributed.

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Rogers, Tony. "A Guide to Using Attribution Correctly in Journalism." ThoughtCo, Sep. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/attribution-when-writing-news-stories-2074313. Rogers, Tony. (2017, September 6). A Guide to Using Attribution Correctly in Journalism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/attribution-when-writing-news-stories-2074313 Rogers, Tony. "A Guide to Using Attribution Correctly in Journalism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/attribution-when-writing-news-stories-2074313 (accessed November 20, 2017).