What’ the Big Deal About Attribution?

(Note to Advisers: consider reviewing this article with students. Also included is a printable crossword, an activity sheet and a Kahoot! to use with students.) 

As a journalism student, learning the critical role attribution plays within the craft is one of the true building blocks necessary to become a strong, ethical reporter. Without proper attribution, reporters can be deemed untrustworthy and lacking credibility. 

Proper attribution lets the audience know exactly where information came from, and who is being quoted and why they are uniquely qualified to do so. This is critical, not just in print journalism, but also in broadcast. Those lower thirds aren’t just there to give graphics gurus a project! They exist to explain exactly who contributes information to the package and with what authority. Readers and viewers alike deserve to know both where and who reporters are getting information from, so they can determine if the sources are valid. 

Attribution includes the source’s full name, as well as information about them that is relevant and appropriate to the story. The additional information included with their name explains why the source is being used for the topic at hand. It answers the question, “Why is this source credible?” 

Example:  When interviewing the local pastor who doubles as a part-time mechanic about an upcoming lecture series his church plans to host about the lack of affordable housing in the community, you would add on the information concerning their role with the church. The mechanic job title may not be relevant or appropriate to the story so it can be left out. 

According to the AP Stylebook, reporters should remember, “When it is appropriate, include a source’s age; title; name of company, organization or government department; and hometown.” 

It’s also important to remember courtesy titles such as Mr., Mrs., Miss or Ms. are not used in attributions. This feels really weird at first for many student journalists, but remember you are learning a professional skill and the pros don’t say “Mrs. Smyth, my math teacher.” Instead AP Stylebook says to use, “calculus teacher Angela Smyth…”

However, not all information within an article or broadcast piece comes directly from one-on-one interviews. That doesn’t mean a reporter can bypass attributions. Ethical reporters always cite where their information originated. 

When a reporter quotes someone from a written document, that should be made clear. One rule many print journalists follow to help differentiate between spoken and written sources is this: Always use said when it is spoken. Use stated or written if it was not.

Print Example: 

“When I see more and more of my congregation members having to leave their rental homes because their rent has skyrocketed higher than my house payment, it’s alarming. We have to find a way to keep housing affordable for families in our community,” David Jones, LifeStream Church pastor, said. 

Jones is not the only individual who notices the issue of affordable housing in Allentown. The Mayor’s seasonal newsletter highlighted the growing problem rental property residents are facing. 

“Currently there are no regulatory measures on rental property prices in Allentown, and the number of rentals that fit within the HUD umbrella are limited,” Joshua Jackson, Allentown Mayor, stated in the Allentown Spring 2022 Newsletter. 

Remember attribution isn’t just important in print journalism. Broadcasters need to attribute their sources, too! 

Broadcast Example: 

Reporter VoiceOver with appropriate B-roll: 

Allentown Mayor Joshua Jackson puts out a quarterly newsletter. In the most-recent edition he stated, “Currently there are no regulatory measures on rental property prices in Allentown, and the number of rentals that fit within the HUD umbrella are limited.” 

Reporter stand up in front of Allentown’s Life Stream Church:

Mayor Jackson isn’t the only one concerned about the rising costs of rent in Allentown. I spoke with LifeStream Church pastor David Jones.

David Jones’ interview with a lower third graphic with his name and title: 

“When I see more and more of my congregation members having to leave their rental homes because their rent has skyrocketed higher than my house payment, it’s alarming. We have to find a way to keep housing affordable for families in our community.” 

Beyond interviews, it’s critical journalists living in the digital age not only attribute any information taken from the internet, but that they make sure the information is accurate and credible. This is yet another reason media literacy and journalism go hand-in-hand. There are several tricks of the trade when it comes to determining if an online source is reliable. Georgetown University’s Library compiled an excellent resource for people of all ages to access, “Evaluating Internet Resources.” 

Returning to our Allentown example, some potentially reliable internet sources could include the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Not only are they a .gov source, but the Mayor himself mentioned HUD rentals being limited in the Allentown area. That’s a good lead to follow! 

Print Example:

While some Allentown landlords claim they are unable to navigate the paperwork involved with becoming a HUD landlord, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website states the contrary. 

According to the HUD.gov, “becoming a HUD landlord is simple. If a tenant has a HUD-voucher and a landlord wants to rent to them, they can submit notice to their PHA (Public Housing Authority) that they want to house at your property. Then, a PHA official will come to approve your property.”

Broadcast Example:

Reporter Stand Up in front of Welcome to Allentown sign: 

“While some Allentown landlords claim they are unable to navigate the paperwork involved with becoming a HUD landlord, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website states the contrary. 

Reporter Voice Over with a graphic illustrating the HUD information: 

“According to the HUD.gov, ‘becoming a HUD landlord is simple. If a tenant has a HUD-voucher and a landlord wants to rent to them, they can submit notice to their PHA (Public Housing Authority) that they want to house at your property. Then, a PHA official will come to approve your property.’”

Is it enough to make your head spin yet? Learning about attribution can be a little confusing at times. Even though it seems like an “easy enough” topic, it can be challenging. Yet, to be an ethical journalist, it’s critical to use attribution so your audience sees you as credible, reliable, and trustworthy!

Kahoot! activity for this article: https://create.kahoot.it/share/what-s-the-big-deal-about-attribution/06b15ee8-9e9a-453b-bdbf-2daf67d6e7e9

Downloadable and printable crossword activity for this article: What’s the Big Deal about Attribution Printable CrossWord

Exercise/activity for this article. NOTE: Users will need to “make a copy” of the Google Doc in order to customize and use it. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yCjH-bSFmODwKoLpuh51RgxJAnbEWyfeSrPJUtn68ak/edit?usp=sharing

For more information, consider the following resources:

ThoughtCo’s How to Use Attribution Correctly in Journalism And Why It’s Important

Oxford University Press – Writing & Reporting for the Media: Levels of Attribution

University of Richmond Writing Center – Writing in the Disciplines: Journalism Quotes and Attribution

ONAethics Sources: Reliability and Attribution

Purdue Online Writing Lab: Associated Press Style