The Essentials of Reuters sourcing
Our reputation for accuracy and freedom from bias rests on the credibility of our sourcing. A Reuters journalist or camera is always the best source on a witnessed event. A named source is always preferable to an unnamed source. We should never deliberately mislead in our sourcing, quote a source saying one thing on the record and the opposite or something clearly contradictory on background, or cite sources in the plural when we have only one. Anonymous sources are the weakest sources. All journalists should be familiar with the following essentials.
Sources must be cultivated by being professionally polite and assuring them they will receive fair treatment. This is particularly the case in financial journalism, where the public usually does not have a right to know proprietary corporate information. But even in political journalism, the public in some countries may not have a right to know what government is doing.
The Reuters Code of Conduct applies when it comes to relationships with sources that involve gifts, travel, and opportunities that result from inside information. The basic rule is that we pay our own way. We encourage staff to cultivate sources but also expect them to maintain a detachment from them. We should not cultivate or associate with sources on one side of an issue to a point where there are grounds to question whether the relationship has exceeded the bounds of proper, professional contact. While it is appropriate to entertain sources, including outside working hours, regularly spending substantial leisure time with them may raise a potential conflict or a perception of bias. A good measure of the propriety of the relationship is to ask whether you would be comfortable spending as much time with another source on a different side of the issue or your beat. If in doubt, seek guidance from your manager.
A romantic or family attachment with a news source or with a person or persons who might be the subject of a staff member’s coverage should be disclosed to the appropriate manager. Journalists may also not report on or quote family members in order to avoid a perception of favoritism or bias.
Dealing with sources
When dealing with sources, either in person, by phone, by fax or by e-mail, identify yourself as a Reuters journalist and establish on what basis you are talking. Everyone understands on-the-record, but terms such as off-the-record or on background mean different things in different countries and you must familiarise yourself with the ‘ground rules’ on the beat or in the country where you work. It is your responsibility to establish what kind of attribution you may use. Be sure your source is also clear and comfortable about the basis on which the information is given. Negotiate the clearest possible form of attribution and always stick to the agreed sourcing. We must also make clear the circumstances in which the source is speaking e.g. “said in a statement”, “told reporters in answer to questions”, “told Reuters in a telephone interview” or “told a briefing for journalists” (including if the source is anonymous). Do not use passive sourcing as in “it was announced” or “it was learned”.
During interviews, open-ended questions tend to start sources talking (who did what to whom and how and why?) and glean the best quotes. Closed questions that only allow for a yes or no answer can be useful to get a source to confirm or deny a fact (if you aren’t happy with the answer to the first “why” – ask again).
Try to avoid asking multiple part questions that basically allow sources to choose which part of a question they will answer. If several questions are related, use quick follow-up questions, but ask one at a time. Remember to check telephone numbers and the spelling of names with sources. If you doubt or need to double-check the identity of a source you have spoken with by telephone, do not take it for granted that the number the source gives you is genuine. Call back through a company, government agency or organisation switchboard to confirm the source’s name, title and authority to speak.
Interviewees or their organisations/companies sometimes ask to see the quotes we plan to publish. We should resist such requests wherever possible. If we do have to submit quotes for approval, we should not agree to a quote being materially changed and we should try to give a deadline. We should never submit our story for approval.
Record the information a source gives you, either by taking notes or by printing out a hard copy of notes made on a computer, or by tape recording conversations. Reporters are encouraged to learn shorthand.
If using a tape recorder, obtain the source’s permission; undisclosed taping can be illegal in some jurisdictions. If conducting an interview by phone with a broker or analyst, remember that most banks, funds, or brokerage houses routinely record incoming phone calls. Sources can check the accuracy of their quotes by replaying in-house tapes.
If you interview a source over the telephone and are writing the quotes directly onto a screen, save the results and make a printout. You should not write the story directly from the screen onto which you wrote the quotes but instead work from a copy. Otherwise you destroy evidence that could be crucial to you in a lawsuit.
When to source
You must source every statement in every story unless it is an established fact or is information clearly in the public domain, such as court documents or in instances when the reporter, photographer or camera operator was on the scene. Good sources and well-defined sourcing help to protect the integrity of the file from overt outside pressures and manipulation and such hazards as hoaxes.
When using quotes, make sure the source of the quote is identified as quickly as possible, usually after the first sentence. The reader should not have to plough through a long quote of 2-3 sentences before discovering who is speaking. Do not run quotes from different speakers together. Use a transition sentence (e.g. “It is a really good result,” said Jane Evans of Brokers ABC. John Jones of XYZ Brokers disagreed. “That’s bad news for the company,” Jones said.)
If an event is not contentious it may be legitimate to begin a story with a paragraph that does not contain a source, as long as the sourcing is clearly given high in the story.
Location of sourcing within a story
Aim to source every story within the first two paragraphs. The more important a story is the less flexibility you have with placement of sourcing. Stories of great import should be sourced in the first paragraph. If the first paragraph is contentious, it must be sourced. You must source a contentious statement each time it appears.
Alerts require sourcing unless they deal with scheduled economic indicators and company earnings and their official origin is clear or when a scheduled event, such as a presidential inauguration, has taken place in public. Aim to source alerts in one or two words, for example:
CAESAR CROSSES RUBICON – LIVE TELEVISION
POMPEY DEAD – SENATE SPOKESMAN
CAESAR STABBED – REUTERS WITNESS
Newsbreaks should be sourced within the first two paragraphs. You should generally lead your story on the news, not the source, except in the following cases:
- If a story is inflammatory or is an allegation, give the source first.
- If the source of a story is a major figure you would also usually put the source at the start of the sentence.
- If there is an element of doubt in a pick-up, you would normally put the source first.
Gradation of sources
A Reuters journalist or camera is the best source.
Such first-hand reports deal with facts not opinions. Being there enables us to “show” the news, not just tell it – the most accurate sourcing possible.
When Reuters is the witness, source the first alert and newsbreak this way:
EGYPT’S SADAT SHOT DEAD BY SOLDIER – REUTERS WITNESS
CAIRO, Oct 6 (Reuters) – President Anwar Sadat of Egypt was shot dead by one of his own soldiers while watching a military parade on Tuesday, a Reuters correspondent on the scene reported.
If you witness a scheduled event that has taken place in full public view and is not contentious, such as a state funeral, you need not source the report in general. But if such a story contains unexpected or contentious elements, source it this way:“Reuters photographer John Smith saw police drag a student into a doorway and beat him unconscious with truncheons.”
Next best is a named source
Just because you have a named source does not mean you are free from responsibility for what you quote the source as saying. Whenever possible, sources should be identified by name and position. Such specific sourcing enables readers to gauge the accuracy of a story by telling them how close sources are to the information. Even information from a named source should normally be checked and balanced, especially in a situation of conflict or a negotiation.
While a named source may not be more reliable than an unnamed one, it gives more protection if your story is challenged. It also helps to avoid situations that may lead to journalists having to protect the identity of sources and, along with tapes and meticulous notes, helps to prevent sources from denying that they contributed information to a story. Negotiate hard to identify sources who do not want to be named in copy; with a bit of coaxing, they can quite often change their mind.
The weakest sources are those whose names we cannot publish.
Reuters uses anonymous sources when we believe they are providing accurate, reliable and newsworthy information that we could not obtain any other way. We should not use anonymous sources when sources we can name are readily available for the same information.
Unnamed sources must have direct knowledge of the information they are giving us, or must represent an authority with direct knowledge. Remember that reliability declines the further away the source is from the event, and tougher questions must asked by reporters and supervisors on the validity of such information.
Responsibility for reporting what an anonymous source says resides solely with Reuters and the reporter. There is no liability or potential reputational damage to the source, making this the least watertight form of sourcing. We should convey to readers as clearly as possible why we believe the source is reliable, and what steps we have taken to ensure we are not being manipulated. This is done most effectively by the way we describe the source. The more removed the source is from a subject, the less reliable the source is likely to be. Reporters and editors should question the validity of information from a source remote from the action.
Be as specific as possible. Negotiate hard with your source to agree a description that is sufficiently precise to enable readers to trust the reliability of our anonymous sourcing.
“A source” or “sources”, “observers” or “quarters” with no further description is vague and unacceptable. So is the use of “informed sources” or “reliable sources”. Would we quote an uninformed or unreliable source?
When reporting a corporate deal, describe the source as specifically as possible. Use “a company executive/banker/lawyer close to the transaction” to convey the fact that your source is directly involved in the deal, but “a source close to the transaction” is also acceptable if the source is unwilling to be identified more specifically. “Banking sources”, “industry sources” and “financial sources” can imply that the source may not have first-hand information and is therefore less authoritative. Always be as specific as possible.
Stories based on anonymous sources require particularly rigorous cross-checking. We should normally have two or three sources for such information.
Unnamed sources rank as follows, in order of strength:
- An authoritative source exercises real authority on an issue in question. A foreign minister, for example, is an authoritative source on foreign policy but not necessarily on finance.
- An official source, such as a company spokesman or spokeswoman, has access to information in an official capacity. This person’s competence as a source is limited to their field of activity.
- Designated sources are, for instance, diplomatic sources, conference sources and intelligence sources. As with an official source, they must have access to reliable information on the subject in question.
Single source stories
Stories based on a single, anonymous source should be the exception and require approval by an immediate supervisor, such as a bureau chief or editor in charge. The supervisor must be satisfied that the source is authoritative. (Supervisors may give approval in advance to experienced senior correspondents working with authoritative sources to ensure we remain competitive on timings.) If there are any questions about a single-source story, the supervisor should escalate the matter to Top News or regional editors, or Alix Freedman.
Factors to be taken into account include the source’s track record and the reporter’s track record. The supervisor may decide to hold the story for further checks if the sourcing is unsatisfactory. For a single source story, the informant must be an actual policymaker or participant involved in the action or negotiation with first-hand knowledge, or an official representative or spokesperson speaking on background. Such information should be subject to particular scrutiny to ensure we are not being manipulated.
The supervisor’s approval should be noted on the outgoing copy (in the “edited by” sign-off) so that editing desks and editors in charge have confidence that a senior journalist in a position of authority has authorised the story. If desks still have doubts, they should contact the supervisor concerned.
While skilled reporters may have great sources, ultimately the source is talking to Reuters on the understanding that Reuters may choose to publish the information. Thus the source’s compact of anonymity is with Reuters.
Reporters are expected to disclose their sources, when asked, to their immediate supervisor, whether bureau chief or reporting unit head. Refusal to do so may result in the story being held for further reporting or spiked.
It is the supervisor’s duty to ensure sourcing is appropriate and information is obtained properly, particularly for sensitive stories. Reporters should approach their manager if they have doubts about sourcing. The supervisor should enquire only for legitimate editorial reasons, not out of personal curiosity, and should take into account the reporter’s experience and track record before doing so.
Protection of the confidentiality of sources by both reporter and supervisor is paramount. In many cases, questions about the nature or position of the source rather than the name should suffice. Names of sources should never be put in writing, whether in internal e-mails, service messages, Reuters Messaging or other documents that could be subject to disclosure.
Bureau chiefs/reporting unit heads should escalate the issue if they feel uncertain about whether sourcing is appropriate. Usually that will mean involving a specialist editor in charge. If that happens, the reporter should be told. The supervisor should not disclose the name of the source but may discuss the nature, position, access and track record of the source.
Desk editors may not ask a reporter to identify a source by name but may speak to the reporter or the supervisor if they have concerns about the strength of the sourcing.
Reuters will stand by a reporter who has followed the sourcing guidelines and the proper approval procedures.
Honesty in sourcing
Be honest in sourcing and never deliberately mislead the reader. Never use pseudonyms which by definition are misleading. Never cite sources in the plural when you have only one source. In a conflict, dispute or negotiation, always try to speak to all sides, and make clear which side your source is on, or whether the source is a third party.
There are occasions when a news maker may tell us more on an unnamed basis than he or she is willing or allowed to say on the record. The off-the-record information is often the real story, or the strongest part of the story, yet the temptation is often to cite the same source twice – both on the record and off the record. This is not permissible. Nor should we quote a source as saying one thing on the record and the opposite, or something that is clearly contradictory, on background. It is permissible to leave out the on-the-record comment on the grounds that Reuters must not mislead readers. For example, we cannot quote a company spokesman as declining comment if he or she provides off-the-record information. But if on-the-record comment is needed, it should be sought from another individual with knowledge of the matter.
Honesty in datelines
Datelines tell the reader the place where the correspondent is writing the story, or is based. We can use a dateline if we have staff (text, pictures or TV) on the spot and we are getting information from staff, or stringers, on the ground. For news stories, we can use a dateline for up to 24 hours after the correspondent left the scene, unless to do so would suggest we witnessed something that happened after we left. We can never use a dateline before we have a Reuters staff member or stringer on the spot. For features, a reporter can retain an off-base dateline for up to a month after leaving the dateline. After that, the dateline must revert to the reporter’s base.
There are rare occasions when disclosing the dateline could endanger the safety of staff or the source, or deny Reuters access to information of sufficient public or market interest to justify the story. In such exceptional instances, Reuters may chose to run the story without a dateline. This must be authorised by a specialist editor in charge in consultation with the bureau chief where relevant. The story should provide as much detail as possible on the sourcing to offset the absence of a dateline, without compromising the source e.g. “A monetary policy source familiar with European Central Bank deliberations”.
Manchukistan bank to cut rates on Thursday
Nov 21 (Reuters) – Manchukistan’s central bank will cut its key interest rate by 0.5 percentage point to 2.75 percent on Thursday in an attempt to rekindle flagging economic growth, a source familiar with Manchuk monetary policy said.
The source, speaking on condition that his identity and location were not disclosed, said regional central bank governors from around Manchukistan, who sit on the republic’s monetary policy council, were convinced that inflation risks were low, partly due to the Manchuk thaler’s strength against the dollar.
“The consensus is that they can afford a bold rate cut to try to kick-start growth,” said the source, who is familiar with the council’s deliberations.
Items that are tabular, numerical or compilations of established background facts do not take datelines. See Datelines
Items based on information received entirely by electronic means at a global centre need not carry a dateline if the dateline risks confusing the reader. This must have the approval of the relevant regional or global editor. If the story is about a company, it should identify where the company is based in the text. The signoff should identify where the story was written to ensure transparency.
Every source who talks to a Reuters reporter has a motive. Try to identify that motive and the “spin” that comes with the information, and weigh it against other information you have obtained, generally known background and your own common sense to work out the real story. Your own suspicious mind is one of the best defences against being manipulated. Talk to sources on all sides of an issue, business deal, political dispute, military conflict or diplomatic negotiation. Two sources are always better than one. Seek at least one source from each side.
Give greatest weight to sources that have provided accurate and balanced information before and not misled you previously. Permanent civil servants or diplomats are often more reliable than political employees with an agenda. But be wary even of trusted sources. Remember, a banker’s bonus may depend on how favourable a deal he or she can negotiate.
Listen for what is NOT said as hard as you listen to what is said. Sometimes newsmakers disclose a key change in position when they stop saying something they had talked about openly before. Do your homework and know the subject. A reporter who understands the topic and is up-to-date on the news is less vulnerable to manipulation. Check the background of the source as well, particularly if it is a new or unfamiliar source.
Play devil’s advocate when interviewing. When doing initiative reporting, try to disprove as well as prove your story. Look for knowledgeable, independent third parties to help gauge the reliability of information. In mergers and acquisitions, that could be a banker who knows the sector but is not involved in the deal. In politics and diplomacy, it could be a think-tank analyst or a third-country diplomat.
Always give people, companies or organisations the chance to answer in your story any charges levelled against them and be familiar with the guidelines on Legal dangers and Attention Editor items and Hoaxes
Checking back with sources
Reuters never submits stories, scripts or images to sources to vet before publication. This breaches our independence. We may, of our own volition, check back with a source to verify a quote or to satisfy ourselves about the reliability of factual information but we also need to ensure that in doing so we do not give sources an opportunity to retract or materially alter a quote or information to their advantage.
Interview subjects or their organisations or companies sometimes ask to see the quotes we plan to publish or broadcast before they are issued. We should resist such requests and explain why this is not our policy. If there is no option but to submit quotes for approval, this decision must be taken in consultation with your manager. We should never agree to a quote being materially changed. It is often effective to give the source a tight deadline for approval.
We may agree to “clean up” a quote linguistically, especially when the speaker is not using his or her own language. We do not, however, massage quotes to change meaning. If a source asks you to change substantial information, either drop the quote or do not run the story at all, again in consultation with your manager.
Allegations and contentious or vituperative attacks
We can never allow our sources to make allegations, contentious statements or vituperative attacks behind a cloak of anonymity. It weakens our credibility and gives the sources an opportunity to benefit at our expense. It is fundamentally unfair to the other party and thus biased.
If quoting unnamed sources on one side of a conflict about what is happening on the other side, use them only for facts, not opinions. If a source wants to make a vituperative attack on an individual, organisation, company or country he or she must speak on the record. We may waive this rule only if the source is a senior official making a considered policy statement which is obviously newsworthy. A story must make clear both that the informant has volunteered the information and that he or she is an official.
If the person will not speak on that basis we should not use the story. Such a story might begin: “Gaul accused Rome on Wednesday of practicing genocide against its ethnic minorities.” The second paragraph would then read something like this: “In news briefing a government official, who declined to be identified, said...”.
Reuters aims to report the facts, not rumors. Clients rely on us to differentiate between fact and rumor.
There are, however, times when rumors affect markets and we have a duty to tell readers quickly the fact that a market is moving and explain that it is moving because of the rumor, while adding that Reuters has not been able to verify the rumor as yet.
In these circumstances our normal procedure is to:
- Make sure from at least two sources that we are clear what the rumor is without spreading it ourselves, by asking sources open questions like "Why is XXX stock price up ?", rather than closed questions like "Did you hear the rumor about XXXX ?"
- Write a short story noting the market movement, and noting that the market is moving because of the rumor, and noting our sources for the explanation of the market move, as well noting that Reuters has not yet been able to verify the rumor.
- Follow up with reporting to try and verify or knock down the rumor.
- If we can verify or knock down the rumor, write a separate short story on the news.
- Update the original market report with the news verifying or knocking down the rumor.
- Do not write of "unconfirmed rumors"; a rumor by definition is unconfirmed.
- Remember: In trying to check unofficial reports of the death or serious illness of major figures, we must not lay ourselves open to a charge of spreading rumors ourselves.
Pickups from competitors
Our job is to alert clients to information affecting their business, whether this information comes from Reuters or is reported by other media. If Reuters has not published a breaking news story, especially a market moving story, reporters or desks should feel free to do a pick up from authoritative media, before trying to match the story.
Pickups must name the source, whether a newspaper, web site, broadcaster or news agency, even when it is a Reuters competitor. Make it clear to the Reuters reader that Reuters has not yet been able to confirm the story.
The fact that we are quoting someone else’s report does not exonerate Reuters from responsibility for providing a file that is accurate, balanced, legally sound and not defamatory. Make every effort to follow up and check a pickup.
When a report by another credible news organisation is significantly moving a market, Reuters should immediately publish a story saying that the market is moving and why, if it is clear from our sources that the market move is caused by another media outlet's story which Reuters has picked up. This market story must only be written when we have seen, heard or read the report ourselves. We cannot rely on a trader, for example, to be right on the source of the report and its content. Reuters story must make clear that the report has not been confirmed and state that Reuters is checking it.
The fact that the market is moving IS the story and we must tell our customers why, fast. At the same time, reporters must make every effort to verify or knock down the report as fast as possible. The initial market report should then be updated with Reuters own story and the latest market move.
A quick way to start a pick up is to use the media link format:
Headline tag: MEDIA- Xxxxxxx
Source: URL ( use the bit.ly URL shortener if possible )
Usual Sign Off and Contact fields.
Media Links should only be published to Reuters desktop products, not media product codes, so use the product code PRL and topic code XRNP to exclude it from the media pool.
Do not use “reports” or “unconfirmed reports” as the basis for a story. You can quote an acceptable source commenting on them, e.g. “the minister said he could not confirm reports that 100 people had died” as long as the report is clearly newsworthy. Avoid using the word “reported” as a source in a headline. If forced to do so for space considerations, specify the source in the lead paragraph. Avoid writing...”it was not known...” In many cases what is meant by this phrase is that the reporter does not know. It is ridiculous to say, for instance, “It was not known who committed the robbery, the murder, planted the bomb”. Use a source in such cases, e.g. “Police said they did not know…”
Usually, there is no need to specify that the report we are quoting is the “latest” report. We normally would not quote anything but the latest.
When quoting figures from Reuters products, clearly source the information (such as market capitalisation, return on equity, price/book ratio) to “Reuters data”. This is not necessary for real-time prices.
Do not quote “analysts”. Specify their area of expertise e.g. “a strategic affairs analyst with the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations in New York” or “a media company analyst at Bear Stearns in London”.
Statements of the obvious
There is no need to source statements of the obvious, e.g. “Destruction of half its army is a serious blow to Rome, military analysts said.”
Picking up from Twitter and social media
Posts on social networking sites like Twitter make news and our reporting must adapt.
Exercise caution when publishing information from social media platforms. Posters can fake an identity, make up information, doctor images and engage in a wide range of deception. You should have reason to trust the poster.
When using Twitter as a source, Reuters-trusted media accounts and Twitter-verified accounts are preferred. For all social media platforms, if the poster is an individual, (a) confirm that the poster is who he/she says and is in a position to know the information and (b) consult with a senior editor before publishing. Acknowledge that the information came from a source via Twitter or other social media platform. If we haven’t verified the information, say so.
We should treat social media rumors the same as other rumors, above. Do not publish as if the information is true, but only to note that the information is circulating. State if we haven’t verified. Take steps to do so.
Images on social media are protected by copyright. We must get permission from the owner of the picture or video before putting it on the wire. For consumer platforms, we may republish images from Twitter as long as we reproduce together with the entire Tweet. For republication of images from other social media platforms on Reuters.com or RTV, if you believe permission is not required, consult a senior editor and editorial counsel for Reuters.
Category: Specialised Guidance