Media Moves

Tips on how to vet potential biz news sources

July 12, 2018

Posted by Bill C. Smith

Reporters in the financial media world will inevitably need to source their articles with experts who are new to them, and perhaps not well known in the finance community.

So how do reporters audit their potential sources? Does an official bio on the company site do the trick? How about a well-written LinkedIn profile? Do they scour for sources at the Financial Follies?

And what are red flags for folks you won’t end up using as a source?

Joe Adinolfi, a financial journalist, indicated that he likes to check a number of online sources and try to verify their identities with reliable third parties if there’s any doubt – or at the very least somebody from their company’s communications department.

You just need make sure they are who they say they are and that they’re doing what they say they’re doing…you shouldn’t rely on Linkedin.

When vetting new sources, Adinolfi said it’s important to arrange an introductory in-person meeting.

Reporters should never rely solely on email to communicate with sources. If there are any doubts about a source’s integrity, it could be helpful to follow up with their online connections in person – or even ask for references.

Kelsey Butler, a financial news reporter, emphasized that she’s especially diligent given recent news that a prominent personal finance “expert” was actually a pseudonym that a diverse group of authors used to share “expert advice”:

I try to be really really careful about sources, and the whole Drew Cloud scandal shows why it’s so important. If I’m interviewing someone for the first time, I like it to be a phone call – that way you can a) make sure the person actually exists, and b) get to know the person’s voice so in the future when you are emailing, you can kind of get a sense of how genuine the comments are or if they’ve been massaged. No matter what, before including someone in my story, I do a fair amount of digging. Why is this person qualified to speak on this particular topic? Are they just calling themselves an “expert” or do they hold some type of degree in the field I’m writing about or a position where it makes sense for them to talk about the situation?

Devin Banerjee, a financial news editor, shared that there’s no set formula, but he relies on some helpful tactics:

  • Spending time with them! It’s easy for reporters to forget this in a digital world, but the most effective way to gauge what potential sources know and how they know it is to get to know them over meals or on the phone, even repeatedly. This may be frustrating for PRs if they’re involved, but it results in more productive and enduring relationships for both source and reporter.
  • References: Once we’ve vetted a source and relied on him or her repeatedly, we typically welcome references to others in that person’s network. A reference can provide an initial stamp of approval of another source’s trustworthiness.

What do reporters look out for to avoid bad or non credible sources? Butler warned of specific items that can invite skepticism:

Things I’m immediately wary of: ill-designed websites with little information or LinkedIn profile pages with vague or outdated information. Those aren’t the only things I check, but if those look questionable, then I move on to trying to connect with someone else.

Once the initial vetting is completed, Banerjee noted red flags that can occur during the interview process:

  • Stretching the truth: Truth is paramount to a journalist, so any hint that a potential source treats it loosely is a warning sign. Does the person exaggerate in interviews? Does he or she cite rumors or unsubstantiated claims? Are descriptions of his or her role or career inflated? Red flags.
  • Agenda-driven: Does the person appear to be driven by an agenda to the point where he or she may bend the truth to further the cause? Red flag.
  • Promotional: Time is money, and a source’s time isn’t free. It’s usually in his or her interest to develop a relationship with a reporter — most journalists aren’t blind to that. But if we sense that we’re being taken advantage of solely as a platform to promote a source’s personal or business brand, the relationship typically ends there.

To sum up how the vetting process works, reporters take a variety of measures to ensure credibility. They may touch base with an internal communications team to start the process, engage in some googling and research a digital presence, and/or rely on their existing connections to recommend additional sources. They’re also going to check tangible items like education degrees and previous public statements.

Fake and duplicitous “sources” beware, reporters can (usually) spot the John Millers and Drew Cloud’s of the business and finance world. In an environment where the media is facing increasing public scrutiny, reporters are working diligently and taking various and many steps to ensure that they are citing credible experts.

As Banerjee summarized:

Vetting sources is arguably our most important responsibility as journalists, as our role at the end of the day is to transfer knowledge from the right sources to the public in a compelling manner.

Bill C. Smith (@BillCSmith87) is a vice president at Makovsky in New York.

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