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Allvoices Writers' Resources: When citing information from TV, specificity and accuracy are crucial

April 24, 2012

In a previous Writers’ Resources report, I emphasized the importance of linking to sources to improve the reliability of your reports. But what if you get your information from a source that is not found online, such as some televised reports?

You may be watching CNN or Fox or your local news, surfing through the channels while things are a bit slow on your network of choice, when all of a sudden you hear a discussion that catches your ear.

There was a time when newspaper readers, radio listeners and TV viewers could be pretty sure that news reports were based on reporters actually being in close proximity to what they covered. Not anymore. Major newspapers sometimes publish columns – and in some cases actual news stories – based on what their reporters or columnists saw on television. Things like political debates, sporting events and camera coverage of breaking news all fall into this category.

But the columnist or reporter almost always makes it clear he or she did not actually attend the event. Allvoices writers should strive for that same clarity.

Let’s say, for example, you’re watching CNN, and the station airs a segment about heavy rains in Ohio. You live in Indiana, but you hear a reporter say that Cleveland has received upward of eight inches of rain in 24 hours and that flash flooding is widespread. Perhaps you are keenly interested in weather and want to write about the heavy rains that have been battering the upper Midwest. You might write something like this:

As heavy rains continue to slam Ohio, residents of Cleveland are battling flash flooding. According to a CNN report that aired Monday around 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, more than eight inches of rain fell in Cleveland during the 24-hour period that began Sunday morning.

In addition to providing specific source information as clearly as possible, another advantage to mentioning the source and when you saw it is that it may increase your page views. Suppose other people who were watching that CNN report wanted to learn more about the heavy rain. They may well search for “eight inches rain Cleveland,” and if your report contains that specific figure, it should do better in search results.

Another example would be watching footage of a trial. Let's say the defendant was dressed a little "differently" than you might expect. Rather than writing, "Alleged extortionist Bill Paymesumdoe actually wore polka-dot pajamas to court," you could write it this way: "As seen on Fox News Thursday evening, alleged extortionist Billy Paymesumdoe wore purple pajamas with orange polka-dots during his court appearance."

If you use TV news reports as a basis for some of your own writing, it’s a good idea to keep a pen or pencil and notebook handy for jotting down notes. Here are some key elements to remember when attributing material to a televised source:

  • The network or channel that aired the report, plus the time and date.
  • The particular show, reporter or guest and what makes it newsworthy (for example, “Ima Canine, author of 'Dogs Can Drive, Too,' appeared on Anderson Cooper’s 'AC360' Tuesday, telling the stunned journalist that she often lets her per Labrador drive her VW Jetta ‘on short trips to the supermarket’”).
  • If quoting, use the exact words of the person being quoted. If you aren't sure that the quote is 100 percent accurate, parahrase instead, but do not change the meaning of what was said.

As more and more people turn to the Web and citizen journalists to get their information, it’s crucial that they know where it comes from. When you see something on television that you want to include in your report, stating the specifics of what you saw and when you saw it can go a long way toward making sure your readers know they can trust what you have to say, even if they can’t easily confirm it through a simple Internet search.

Sources and resources:

"Associated Press Stylebook"

"How important are meta tags now?" SEO Logic, www.seologic.com

"Tagging blog posts and photos," about.com

Additional Allvoices Writers' Resources reports:

"Write better headlines, get more readers for your reports," Nov. 22, 2011

"Linking to sources improves reliability of your reports," Nov. 30, 2011

"Commenting on other reports builds community, leads to additional interest in your work," Dec. 31, 2011

"5 tips for American Pundit writers," Jan. 20, 2012