July 9, 2003

On June 8, the Providence Journal published “Rape in a small town,” by reporter Kate Bramson, which recounted the story of a sexual assault in the town of Burrillville, R.I., the resulting prosecution and the emotional impact of the case on the 15-year old girl who was the victim, and her family. 

Accompanying the story was a 1,000 word
sidebar entitled “To our readers.” It explained why the story identified the victim only by her first name and did not use her parents’ names (“The Journal’s policy is to not identify victims of first-degree sexual assault.”), and reported that the defendant, a 17-year-old fellow high school student who was convicted of rape in the case, had declined to be interviewed. The bulk of the note — 824 words — was devoted to a detailed summary of Bramson’s reporting, organized by subject. 

Poynter’s Chip Scanlan interviews Kate Bramson, Mimi Burkhardt (story editor for “Rape in a small town”), and Joel Rawson, executive editor of the Providence Journal, about the note to readers and the role, implications, and future of footnoting the news.

Scanlan: Why did the story “Rape in a small town” include a note “To Our Readers” summarizing your reporting, organized by subject?

Bramson: The easy answer is that (executive editor) Joel Rawson wanted it to, but it goes deeper than that. Since we weren’t using Laura’s last name and we weren’t naming her parents at all, so as not to identify her by inference, I know that Joel believed we owed an explanation to our readers about how we reached that decision. The note to readers explained our decision-making process about how to identify Laura, as well as outlining the sources and material that led to this story. 

Also, there were places in the story where (story editor) Mimi Burkhardt and I had earlier discussed exactly how much attribution we should use and when, i.e., the rape scene. We talked a lot about how to word attribution such as “she later told a grand jury.” I began this story at a certain point in time that provided readers with a lot of information -– the sentencing (they immediately knew there had been court action, guilt was involved and the teenager was heading to prison) –- and then I stepped back in time by more than a year. In the chronological retelling that flowed next, we wanted to keep the sense of time easy for readers to follow, but we wanted to be clear that information we were sharing early in the story came from grand jury testimony and other things that happened later. 

Joel showed us the L.A. Times‘ sourcing notes that ran along with their story, “Enrique’s Journey,” and he asked us to consider that for this story. In the end, I believe the thoughtful conversations that Mimi and I had had about how often we should attribute information to the grand jury testimony, and how we should deal with other attribution issues in the story, made us both eager to use the attribution model from the L.A. Times that Joel showed us when he suggested this method.

Rawson: The idea was an extension of the need to run an “Editor’s Note” to explain why we did not fully identify the rape victim and her family. I was aware of the Los Angeles Times’ use of source notes on “Enrique’s Journey” and was prompted to ask our librarian to research a copy. The parallel was the use of unnamed subjects.

Scanlan: How was the decision reached to provide the note?

Bramson: Joel Rawson showed us that L.A. Times sourcing method on Thursday before the story ran and asked us to think about it. I began pulling together notes on who I had interviewed and when.  My first response was to write down the names and dates of who I interviewed in chronological order and what general types of information those interviews provided me. 

I was debating in my own mind Thursday night about how much detail to provide, i.e., should I say exactly who told me some very minor details about Plante’s artwork and who bought cars at his grandfather’s auto dealership in town? So I asked Joel if we could discuss this a bit before I went further. He and I talked for maybe an hour about the methodology, and he wanted me to continue writing down my sources in that chronological manner, but he said what he wanted to print was going to be the reverse of what I was doing:  i.e., scene by scene in the story, we’d say where the information came from. He agreed that I didn’t need to lay out exactly where every detail came from, and we agreed together that I wouldn’t name the sources for those two details that got me wondering about this whole process. As for the rest of what I did outline in the sourcing notes, Joel really left it up to me to identify which scenes needed the source attribution. 

In my mind, it was during that late Thursday night discussion that the decision to include the note with the story was actually reached. That’s when I felt completely on board with the decision and as if I had a clear idea of what Joel wanted. But in his mind, the decision to run it certainly could have come much sooner, and I’m sure it probably did. 

Burkhardt: See Joel’s answers, but here’s my perspective: Three days before the story ran, he handed me a printout of the L.A. Times’ sourcing piece on “Enrique’s Journey” and said, “I’d like you to think about this.” Which sounded to me like, “We should do this.”

I think his approach left the door open for discussion if anyone disagreed. As far as I know, nobody did.

Rawson: We came to it as a consensus between the writer, the story editor and me. They prepared the notes and I thought they worked.

Scanlan: What were the marching orders to the reporter and editor?

The initial “marching orders,” although they weren’t communicated to me in such a dictatorial-sounding manner, were to look over the L.A. Times’ sourcing method for the story on “Enrique’s Journey” and to consider that for this story. I believe the initial request also was to describe at the beginning of the note why we weren’t identifying Laura by her full name and why we weren’t using her parents’ names at all.

Burkhardt: Pretty informal. Joel gave us the L.A. Times piece and indicated we should do something similar. I wasn’t sure he had made up his mind to publish it at that point, but he clearly wanted to see for himself where everything had come from.

Kate prepared two lengthy memos, one listing sources and what she got from each; the other going point-by-point through the story, which ended up being the one we published in a boiled-down version. We had already planned an editor’s note on how we were identifying Laura, (the rape victim) which became the top of the source note.
I think it’s important to emphasize that the story was reported, written, and edited before the idea of the sourcing note came up, so it was not a factor in our thinking as the story developed. 

However, Kate and I were talking all along about these underlying issues: how we were (or were not) identifying Laura and her family; the need for clarity as to where thoughts and observations came from, especially when not directly attributed; corroboration of recollections and confirmation of details; and the sensitive nature of the story on many levels.

We checked in periodically with (deputy executive editor) Carol Young and at one point I talked with her specifically about attribution in the account of the rape. (We wanted to be clear where the account was coming from without jolting the reader through three or four time frames, and we all thought it worked pretty well.) In the end, after the decision to use the source note, I think we removed just one piece of attribution.

Rawson: To review what the L.A. Times did and try it out.

Scanlan: When did you first hear about the idea of printing a note on sources and what was your reaction?

It was Thursday, three days before the story ran in the newspaper, that Joel suggested it. I
had not been aware of other newspapers using this method before this, but I did spend quite some time reading up on the idea online (on the Poynter Institute website, actually), after we agreed to do this. I can no longer find all of the columns that I read that Friday night (if memory serves me well), but there was one about a newspaper (possibly the St. Petersburg Times) that ran such sourcing notes for quite some time a number of years ago. They have since stopped doing so, but I was intrigued to read more about why they had done this. 

Burkhardt: I think it was “Enrique’s Journey,” back when it was a topic on the Poynter site. I remember thinking that this kind of documentation should be standard practice for reporters and editors on any complex project, but that whether or when to publish it would be a separate issue. I also remember being turned off to read that it was motivated by contest ambitions.

When Joel proposed doing it with Kate’s story, my reaction was mostly positive because it was aimed at readers, not judges. I think in general we should be more open to opportunities to help readers understand why we are doing something, or doing it in a certain way. Usually whatever questions we anticipate can be answered within the story, but sometimes an editor’s note or other device is more effective. I saw this as Joel taking an extraordinary step to connect with readers on an extraordinary story. 

Rawson: I think at ASNE this spring. When I heard about it I was curious.

Scanlan: Who wrote the note? Who edited it?

I wrote the entire sourcing part of the note. Mimi wrote the first draft of the intro, labeled “To our readers.” She and I looked over the intro together and worked on certain phrases together. I wrote the part about Laura’s family reaching the decision about how to identify them. I believe Mimi did the first edit of the sourcing note. I also believe that Joel edited it. I know he read over my long version in chronological order of my interviews, as well as the sourcing note that ran in the paper. I know that Sunday Editor Peter Phipps also read the sourcing note before it ran in the paper, although I don’t know whether he did any editing of it. Mimi and I were making final editing changes to it on Saturday, in the early afternoon. 

Burkhardt: Kate wrote. I edited, minimally.

Rawson: Kate Bramson, the reporter, wrote it and Mimi Burkhardt edited it.

Scanlan: Were there any newsroom discussions about the note before publication? Were there differing opinions about printing it?

Bramson: Yes, as I mentioned above, Joel and I had quite an in-depth discussion about this. Mimi, (Sunday editor) Peter Phipps and I also discussed it, and they talked about it with Joel, too. But if by “newsroom discussions” you mean did the whole newsroom debate the issue, no. I don’t believe any of the four of us I’ve mentioned disagreed about the merits of running this, but I can’t really speak for Peter. I know Mimi wondered a bit about it beforehand, but I believe she and I talked early Friday morning about the conversation I had with Joel the night before, and I think Mimi was fully on board then, as was I. 

Burkhardt: Not that I know of, except for the conversations among a few individuals — Joel, Carol, Kate, Peter Phipps (the Sunday editor) and me, with Peter usually in the middle. My only direct conversation with Joel was at the beginning. Kate had a long talk with him that night, which she recounted to me and which reassured me.

Rawson: Just among the people  who were actually putting it in the paper. The discussion centered on where it should appear. Should it start on Page One? Be run on the first jump page? Its length was a minor issue.

Scanlan: How was the note reported, written, and edited?

Bramson: As I see it, the note wasn’t reported. The story was. It took no additional reporting for me to write this note, because as I wrote the story, I knew for certain where every single piece of information and every word had come from. I wrote the note by referring back to my foot-thick pile of court documents, printed notes, letters to the court, 25 notebooks, etc. As I mentioned above, I began with my chronological list of interviews, and that was easy. It has been standard practice for me throughout my career to write down the date and time of each interview I’ve ever done. Any time I make a phone call, I fall into my automatic mode and type in the date and time of the call. Whenever I do an in-person interview, I write my name, the interview subject, and the date on the front of my notebook. So it was easy to say when each interview took place and what information I gathered from each source.

As for the note that went into the paper, I started at the beginning of the story and named the scenes in order and wrote where that information had come from. When Joel and I had talked, he had stressed that information shouldn’t be listed as having come from “the clips” because we can never be 100 percent certain that a past reporter hasn’t made an error. I knew that none of my information except the line about “at least two of Nick’s great-grandparents were born here and died here when Nick was a child” had come from clips. I had multiple obituaries from the last two decades that helped me identify those relationships and write that line. Because I had done considerable double-checking and cross-referencing to write that line, I looked again at those obituaries and determined how to word the piece about where that information came from. I weighed whether or not to cut that line because that info had come from clips, but I decided I had enough cross-references for it to be valid, the decision I had already made months ago when I wrote that line. I figured if Joel disagreed with that info coming from clips, he would come back to me and ask me to cut that line. He never did.

Bramson: I have no illusions about how the media is viewed in our society, and I know that the Jayson Blair scandal has tarnished our image even moreI also decided to pull out one other specific sentence from the story and identify its sources: “Many residents say you’re considered a newcomer unless you were born here.” I had been gathering string that helped me write that line since I began covering Burrillville in August 2002. I wanted people to know how well-reported that line was because I’m not from Burrillville, and I didn’t want anyone questioning the validity of that line. I had heard that line many times before I even began writing this story, and I wanted people to know the context behind that line didn’t just revolve around Nick Plante. 

Mimi edited the notes, and then I believe Joel did as well. Peter went over them, also. Some words were changed, for clarity, along the way, but it remains mostly as I had written it from the very start.  I believe Mimi had pared down a few descriptions I had given, just to make it a bit more streamlined.  She reviewed all of those cuts with me and had me look at what she had placed in notes mode before actually cutting it from the text.

I think it helped that I was the kid in middle and high school English classes who loved writing footnotes and was very good at it. One of my strengths is possessing the organizational skills needed to know where every detail came from. My friends always turned to me for help in figuring out how to document their sources for high school research papers. I was often left telling them I couldn’t help them because they didn’t know where they had gotten their information. I told them to go back to their original sources, figure out where info had come from and then I could help them with the footnote format. 

Burkhardt: Kate just sat down with her notebooks and documents and wrote it. Her reporting for the story was that comprehensive and meticulous. As for editing, I just gave it a little trim, thinking Joel would use it as a starting point for whatever he had in mind. Apparently that was it.

Rawson: I’ll leave this question to Kate.

Scanlan: What was the note intended to do and how did that affect what was included or omitted from the note?

Bramson: The note was intended to show how the story was reported and where information that wasn’t directly attributed in the story had come from. Keeping that in mind throughout the writing helped me decide what to include and what not to. A few sentences sounded like sweeping generalizations, and I wanted people to know they were based on multiple interviews and sources and weren’t sweeping generalizations, so I showed where I gathered that info: “Everybody knows Nick” came from the many interviews listed under “Descriptions of how well Plante was known in the school community.” The newcomer line I’ve mentioned above was well-sourced, and so I showed that.

Burkhardt: See below.

Rawson: The note was intended to tell our readers how we knew what we printed so they could have confidence the story was thoroughly and fairly reported.

Scanlan: Did the paper consult with lawyers about the note before it was published?

Bramson: No, as far as I know, based on discussions with Joel.

Burkhardt: No 

Rawson: No. The principals had been subject to grand jury testimony and open trial so the story did not require the level of legal scrutiny that an investigative piece does. The note itself was not reviewed.

Scanlan: Did the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal at the New York Times influence the decision to provide the reader’s note on sources? If so, how?

Bramson: I don’t know if it influenced Joel, but it certainly influenced me in deciding whether or not to accept this method and do it willingly. I have no illusions about how the media is viewed in our society, and I know that the Jayson Blair scandal has tarnished our image even more. I knew I had done my homework with this story, and I had no qualms about telling readers that it was extremely thoroughly researched and documented. Any time we can tell our readers that we take our job seriously and do it well and pay close attention to fact, I think we should. 

Burkhardt: Joel will probably say it did, in the sense that the whole NYT fiasco seems to be on everybody’s mind and inspiring a fair amount of paranoia, along with some productive examination of our expectations and practices.

But personally, I would really like to think Blair had nothing to do with this.  The message to readers shouldn’t be, “See, she didn’t make it up and here’s the proof.”

Rawson: I think we always have to answer the question “How do you know this?”This story involved reconstructing an event experienced by only two people -– and an aftermath that affected many, in ways open to interpretation and judgment. It described intensely private emotions, subjective recollections and some details for which we have no documentation. The central figure is identified by only her first name, and two other key sources –- her parents –- aren’t identified at all. 

Here’s the message I hope we conveyed to readers: This story is different in many ways from what you are used to seeing in the newspaper. We understand that you might wonder about some things — why we are not fully identifying Laura, or perhaps why we are identifying her at all. How we can describe a rape we didn’t witness, quote from a private conversation in a hospital examining room, say where generations of locals bought their cars. Because of the unusual nature of the story, we’re taking the unusual step of sharing some of the process behind it. 

Rawson: Yes. The Jayson Blair affair shook my confidence as an editor. It must have had an impact on our readers. The source notes are an attempt to maintain readers’ confidence in the narrative form of newspaper writing by demonstrating that the reporting was done and making the facts in the story verifiable.

Scanlan: How have readers reacted?

Bramson: Extremely well. I’ve had 140 e-mails from perfect strangers about the story, and while most of them focus on Laura and what she has gone through, some have mentioned how thorough the story was, how well-documented it was, and how much they believe it. From what people have said, the sourcing notes have helped readers believe this all really happened. Friends of mine in the journalism field have e-mailed me also, asking why we included it and whether it had to do with Jayson Blair.

Rawson: The Jayson Blair affair shook my confidence as an editor.More than the stranger e-mails, though, it is people in town –- some newcomers and some whose families have lived in Burrillville for generations -– who have said the well-documented story was extremely balanced, fair, and unbiased. Would they have said that if the story hadn’t included the footnotes that showed how much reporting went into the story? That, I’ll never know. I do know that some people in town who don’t know me but have been identified as a possible source for stories I’ve written in the past month have returned my call and have told me they did so because I did such a good, thorough, and fair job on Laura’s story.

Burkhardt: Only a couple of the 140 or so people who wrote to Kate specifically mentioned the footnotes. But many commented on how fair it was, how well-researched, how she had done her homework etc., which might have been indirect references.

Also, as she will tell you, it may have positively influenced readers in the community she covers, where the story is set. A lot of people in Burrillville were affected by the case or know someone who was, and many local readers have told her they found the story fair and well-documented.

Rawson: I have received little reaction directly to the source notes. However the readers’ reaction to the story has been among the largest and most positive we have ever received — about 150 e-mails and letters of which about eight were negative. Normally we would get about a dozen e-mails or letters on a Sunday A-1 story. A good deal of the reaction was to the subject of the story, but I can’t help thinking some of it had to do with readers trusting the story.

Scanlan: How has the newsroom reacted?

With interest, I think I would say. One of my colleagues in the bureau where I work has asked for tips on doing this with a long-time story that reporter is working on. Other reporters with the paper have asked me about it and have said it showed how much work I had done on the story.  Some people have pointed out specifics, like the mention about how I had interviewed Nick Plante’s parents and sister for two hours and they declined to comment on Laura, her family, or Nick’s trial.  People have said they liked knowing that.

Bramson: I was the kid in middle and high school English classes who loved writing footnotes and was very good at it.In a discussion the paper’s Writing Committee held with Joel Rawson to discuss our policies and practices in light of the NY Times scandal, this sourcing note was one topic of discussion. I think many of the approximately 40 reporters and editors who attended were interested in the sourcing material and whether we would do this again. However, one longtime reporter expressed concern that we’re setting a precedent that we shouldn’t. Another reporter said the non-journalists she was with the day the story ran wondered why we had done this and whether other future stories would have such notes. 

In a long conversation I had with a colleague after the session, we discussed the longtime reporter’s concerns. One topic that didn’t come up during the discussion with Joel was whether or not we as reporters might end up burning sources if we lay it all out there about how we got each story. Or, might people be reluctant to speak with us if they know how detailed notes will accompany our stories? Also, might we be revealing too much about how we came across certain types of documents and might it lead to such documents no longer being available in the places we have come to find them throughout our reporting?

Burkhardt: People have mainly seemed curious about how it came about, and what it might mean for the future. I know of one reporter, and there are probably others, who thinks detailed source notes are insulting.

Rawson: Curiosity. A generally favorable reaction.

Scanlan: What kinds of questions are staffers asking about newsroom practices in light of the note’s appearance?

Bramson: Will I need to provide this for my in-depth stories for this paper? Did it take a lot of work and time to produce the note? Do you think you would have written the story differently if you had known early on that you’d be providing this note?

On a broader level, in light of The New York Times scandal, we’ve been talking a lot about how we use datelines, what they mean internally, and what they signal to our readers. We’ve talked quite a bit about attributing information in a more detailed fashion, i.e., when do we say “during a phone interview,” “via e-mail,” or “during a short break in the council meeting”?

Burkhardt: Not sure about newsroom practices, but questions about the note included: Why this story? Will we do it again? If so, what are the criteria? Was it because of Jayson Blair?

We’ve had some discussions about bylines and datelines, but I think that was prompted more by Blair/Bragg than our source note.

One thing I wonder about is whether/how reporting practices might be affected if source notes become more common.

Rawson: Are source notes going to be the norm? Don’t you trust the reporters? What will this mean to revealing sources?

Scanlan: Has the Journal ever included a note on sources at the end of a story before?

Bramson: I don’t know. I’ve only been here since August 2002. I haven’t heard that we have ever included such a note before, but I can’t say for certain.

Burkhardt: Not that I’m aware of –- nothing like this.

Rawson: No, not that I can recall. We have used blanket attribution for sections of stories such as: The following description comes from grand jury testimony, interviews with the police chief and detectives, etc.

Scanlan: Do you anticipate notes detailing sources will be a regular feature in the paper?

Bramson: For longer in-depth stories, yes, at least for a while. I think many of us are also changing how we attribute information in shorter, daily stories as well. I’ve seen things like, “he said during an interview in his living room,” etc. recently. 

Burkhardt: I assume we’ll do it again. It will be interesting to see how often, and whether we develop criteria or decide case-by-case.

Rawson: We are working on the reconstruction of a murder case that resulted in the conviction of an innocent man. Ged Carbone and Cathleen Crowley are writing a six-part series and we plan to use source notes on each day.

Scanlan: What conditions — types of stories, sensitivity of issues — do you think will or might demand it?

Bramson: I think stories told in a more narrative format than a hard-news format may demand such sourcing. I think in cases where we don’t fully identify someone, as we did with Laura, we may want to do such sourcing. I don’t think merely the length of a story should be a factor; however, often our longer stories are written in a different way than our shorter stories, so it may end up that our longer stories get source notes. 

Burkhardt: I can’t imagine it would be considered for anything but a narrative reconstruction. Other kinds of stories usually involve more clear-cut sourcing to begin with (the reporter was there) and/or demand immediate, specific attribution for fairness or clarity. 

Narrative reconstruction and attribution aren’t necessarily incompatible, either. 

Source notes might be appropriate when the story is highly sensitive –- legally and/or emotionally; when there are few direct sources, particularly when they conflict; (conversely) when there are multiple sources that should be acknowledged but not necessarily in the narrative; when much of the content is subjective; when there are many viewpoints and/or interpretations.

Rawson: I think we always have to answer the question “How do you know this?” Often it can be easily attributed within the text. However, as we move into more complex stories and use the techniques of storytelling, such as reconstructing scenes and reporting dialogue and thoughts, we begin to overlap the territory of historians. Good history demands that information be presented in an  interesting and logical manner — storytelling — and be verifiable  with all sources of information identified and attributed. The historians use footnotes and chapter notes. In journalism, we are  developing our techniques, direct attribution within text and source notes following text being the ones we have today. In the future we may develop more.

Scanlan: Did the reporter have to do anything extra or unusual to be able to provide material for the note?

Bramson: No. Good solid reporting prepared me to write this note easily. I could have practically done it in my sleep. I knew this story and my sources that well.  

Burkhardt: No.

Rawson: I’ll leave this to Kate.

Scanlan: Editors, including some who judge the Pulitzers and ASNE Prizes, have criticized reconstructions, arguing that they give no sign how the writer knows these things that are presented as fact, and this concern may have influenced the selection of prize winners in the last couple of years. Do you have any sense of that?

Bramson: I really don’t. I’ve never been on a committee to select these prizes, and prizes were not on my radar screen in terms of deciding whether or not I could support the idea of writing this source note. 

Burkhardt: No. But I have an opinion anyway. As an editor and a reader who loves reconstructions, I understand the concern. But a good reporter, with a solid command of her material, can find ways to indicate the scope of her reporting in the story without clunking it up. Taking Kate’s story as an example, it’s clear she has looked at court documents. She quotes a juror. She has spoken with prosecutors. Knowing this, I don’t need to see “according to” on every legal reference to trust the story.

As naive as it sounds, I think contest judges should assume the newspapers that submit the stories are responsible for them. 

Rawson: Several years ago I chaired the Pulitzer jury that nominated Tom French’s narrative reconstruction of a Florida murder that the Board selected for the prize. I do not remember there being a discussion on reconstructions on the jury. French wrote with great detail and authority and I remember being impressed with the level of detail he brought to the story. I believe he used normal attribution, in the text.

A lot of this criticism I chalk up to the continuing debate within the trade on “Does good writing signal bad reporting?” To which one could reply “What does bad writing signal?” The answer from my perspective has always been “Good writing requires good reporting.” If we can demonstrate to the readers, as did Kate Bramson, the extent and quality of the reporting, it will strengthen our credibility with everybody.

Scanlan: Do you think notes on sources are being used to bulletproof stories with contest judges? If so, is that a good or bad thing?

Bramson: I can’t speak for why editors may or may not be including, or asking us reporters to include, these source notes. I know I didn’t include these to bulletproof the story with contest judges. If anything, I was eager to include this note to bulletproof the story for my readers. I knew that the story was well-documented, and I thought it was a good idea to let readers know that. In the end, the people I want to believe and trust in my work are the readers, ultimately. I suppose it’s a bonus if contest judges believe my work, but they’re not my first audience. 

Burkhardt: Again, I don’t have a sense of it. Tacky, if true.

Rawson: The odds are against most newspapers winning Pulitzer Prizes. So do it because you think it’s the right thing.

Scanlan: Now that it’s in print, do you think it was a good idea? Why or why not?

Bramson: Yes, it absolutely was a good idea. I believe the sourcing provided such validity for readers, validity I knew existed from the very beginning. But any time we can let the public know that what we’re doing is above-board, honest and balanced, it helps our profession in the long run. If people trust my work and then run across another reporter who seems to be diligently working away to show all aspects of a story, hopefully sources and readers will slowly build up to the idea that there are many of us in the business who pay close attention to detail and want to report the facts and want to do so accurately. 

We help and hurt each other in this business, by our actions and our work. If we do a good job, it reflects well on our profession. And when a Jayson Blair comes along, it reflects poorly on all of us.  We’re then scrambling to regain our credibility. In the end, I think this sourcing note helped the Providence Journal maintain its credibility in the weeks after the New York Times scandal.

Burkhardt: I do, for the reasons above. I would have been just as comfortable publishing the story without it. The most important point for me is that we –- the reporter and the editors -– had confidence in the reporting, and knew that everything in the story could be backed up.

Rawson: Yes. Because it gives the reader confidence in the reporting and the story.

Scanlan: Do you think other newspapers should adopt the approach?

Bramson: I do. As I believe I’ve said thus far, it can’t hurt to let people know a bit more about the inner workings of our profession. 

Rawson: No opinion.

Scanlan: What’s the value of printing a note on sources?

Bramson: Credibility. Balance. Fairness. It tells our readers what we do and how we did it, and it lets them weigh whether or not we explored the topic as much as we should have.

Scanlan: Are there any disadvantages to doing so?

Yes, as I alluded to above in the question about how our newsroom has reacted to this. Are we going to burn some sources by laying it all out there? Are we going to find the paper trails we follow drying up if people begin to see how we got access to certain documents? They’re definitely questions to ponder. 

Rawson: Yes. The concern about revealing confidential or sensitive sources is a real one and should be weighed as the notes are developed. The policies about identifying such sources to the editors and flagging them for the readers should apply.

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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