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How To Use Attribution in a News Story

Telling Readers Where Information Comes From

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How Use Attribution in News Stories

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 (when relevant). Information from sources can be paraphrased or quoted directly. Here are some examples:

Source – Paraphrase

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

Source – 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.

Often, reporters will use both paraphrases and direct quotes from a source.

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 news writing style we use a source’s full name on first reference, then just the last name on all subsequent references. If your source has a specific title or rank, use their title before their full name on 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, it should be attributed. A good rule of thumb is to attribute once per paragraph. It may 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. 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:

On the record: All statements are directly quotable and attributable, by name and title, to the person making the statement.

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

Reporters should strive to have their sources speak on the record whenever possible. A named source gives a story greater credibility.

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.

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

Example: The U.S. has no plans to invade Iran.

Off the Record: Information is for the reporter's use only and is not to be printed or made public in anyway. The information also is not to be taken to another source in hopes of getting confirmation. (For more information on how to handle anonymous sources, read here.)

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.

And remember, on-the-record attribution should be used as often as possible.

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