B/R Writer's Tip: The Importance of Research and Referencing

MCM TraynorCorrespondent IMay 9, 2009

Among the cornerstones of strong journalistic practice are the disciplines of researching and referencing.

Whether writing an opinion piece or a straight-forward news reportage article, Bleacher Report writers should ensure that they have thoroughly researched their topic and, upon presenting their findings, provide sufficient references where necessary.

In recent years, the emergence of the Internet as a research tool has allowed writers to source large amounts of information in a relatively fast and easy way.

However, given that the World Wide Web remains largely uncensored, this places a greater onus on the author to ensure that all sources are authentic (i.e. they can be traced to a reliable primary source such as a newspaper article, academic essay, sound or video recording, etc.).

This is, of course, an easier rule to follow in principle than in practice, even for the weathered professional journalist.

A recent example: Following the death of Academy Award-winning French composer Maurice Jarre on March 28, The Guardian newspaper ran a March 31 obituary which used a quotation that the composer had never uttered.

The fake quote in question ("One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die, there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear.”) was placed on Jarre's Wikipedia page by an Irish sociology undergraduate, Shane Fitzgerald, on the eve of the composer's death.

The quote subsequently found its way into The Independent, The Canberra Times, and numerous online media outlets and blogs, despite the fact that it had remained on Wikipedia for a mere 24 hours before being removed.

Fitzgerald later stated that he had conducted the "experiment" as a means of showing "just how reliant reporters are on the World Wide Web."

Regardless of the ethical implications of his "experiment," the student successfully illustrated the importance of authenticating one's sources.

This is not to suggest that B/R writers should outright avoid Web sites such as Wikipedia. However, if you do rely on information provided by such sites, you should certify that it can be backed up with reliable primary sources.

If you find information which arouses your suspicion or does not provide sourcing, there are three simple steps you can take:

1. When in doubt, leave it out

If a secondary online source such as Wikipedia provides quotes, statistics or other information that does not make reference to a primary source, it simply should not be used.

Fortunately,Wikipedia will often remove or highlight questionable information; most quotes etc are referenced with links to their original sources.

2. Quote your source

If you do trust your source but a primary reference is not given, you can avoid complications by simply quoting the source, e.g. "Wikipedia reported that Maurice Jarre said..."

3. Conduct your own research

If you come across information which arouses your suspicion or does not provide a primary source, contact the author. The draw back with Wikipedia, of course, is that "authors" (or, more correctly, "contributors") are anonymous.

Although it can be time-consuming, there is much to be said for the third rule. Often, "doing your own research" requires little more than making a phone call or sending an email. And frequently it can lead to new or fresh information; this is certain to strengthen the quality of your piece.

For instance, this author recently published a B/R article based on comments made by boxing trainer John David Jackson. Jackson had accused Manny Pacquiao of avoiding black fighters.

The story was first broken by Brent Matteo Alderson at www.boxingscene.com, and while I felt the piece was topical (Pacquiao was fighting Ricky Hatton a week later), I did not want to run such strong statements without first authenticating them.

I emailed Alderson (contact information for authors or editors is always provided by reliable sources) and he confirmed that Jackson had made the comments to him during a telephone interview.

Being extra cautious because of the nature of the comments (and to give credit where it was due), I referenced Alderson as the source of the quotations at the beginning of my article.

As Bleacher Report grows, and as the demand for high quality fan journalism by large online media outlets increases, it is important that members strive to maintain the highest journalistic practices.

While it can appear easy to gather and rearticulate seemingly up-to-date information from the Internet, it is always worth taking the time to comprehensively research and reference your articles.

This can mean the difference between perpetuating falsities and contributing to productive online debate.


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