2.2.2 “Attribution,” he said.

You write for an arts and entertainment magazine. Your editor assigns you to  cover the premier of the new movie “Deathsquat Five”. You are not writing a review (an opinion piece); you are writing a report of the event. Problem: You absolutely detest everything about the Deathsquat franchise. It pains your conscience to think your report might in any way promote the film. What to do? Resign? Ask for a different assignment? Or compromise your integrity as a journalist and skew your report with your own opinions?

But how can you incorporate your opinions into a piece of factual reporting?

Easy: Find someone who shares your opinion and attribute it to them. Attribution instantly converts a statement of opinion into a statement of fact! It’s almost magic! Consider the following paragraph, which your editor would never accept:

The pathetic losers were lined up around the block on a dreary night. They stood like the condemned before the gallows, waiting to be disappointed by the latest, lousiest entry into the worst film franchise ever: “Deathsquat Five.”

There are very few facts tucked away among this pile of spite and personal venom. Obviously unfit to print. Now consider this:

“This is pathetic,” the little boy said, his hair matted by the persistent drizzle. “I feel like I’m being punished or something. I’m only here because my mom couldn’t find a sitter.” The boy and his mother stood near the end of a blocks-long line for the premier of “Deathsquat Five.” “What a bunch of losers. That’s easily the worst movie franchise ever,” said a cab driver as he waited across the street from the theater.

It is strictly factual. The paragraph does not express opinion; it reports what the people said. The reports and descriptions are truthful and accurate. You can publish as news the craziest ideas, as long as you can attribute them to a source other than yourself.

Not sure what’s going on at a crime scene? Find some passer-by willing to express his opinion, then report it as fact. (Our alderman has done this to spectacular effect.) As long as your report includes an attribution, you can report practically anything as news. Go look at a news site, right now. See how far you have to look to find an attributed fact. I looked at ChicagoTribune.com and the second sentence I read was this:

At least nine people have been shot in Chicago since midmorning Tuesday, including five people shot in three attacks over a 75-minute period Tuesday morning, according to police.

 

The reporter does not know anything personally about the shooting situation, but did faithfully report what she heard from the police. Is this a nefarious ploy? Not always, of course not.  But until you notice this and pay attention, you can read a ton of media and come away with a whole new set of beliefs about what is actually happening, when in fact all you read were a bunch of attributed rumors. When you repeat the information, you are likely to omit the attribution. The persons to whom you speak will hear the report as fact.

“So watch those assertions carefully,” I said with a smirk. “To whom is the assertion attributed? Is the source known to you? Is it as reputable as the reporter who is quoting it?

“Be careful, my friends!” the blogger wrote.

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