Dear Dr Deadline,
Is it possible to have too many sources for a story? The reason I ask is that I sometimes find that I have way too much information to cram in to the space available for the piece, and it feels that I’m not doing proper justice to the argument. It’s the same with quotes. If I’ve begged someone to give up their valuable time to talk to me, and then end up not using their quotes, I feel I’ve let them down in a way. But if you suggest I speak to fewer people, surely that’s compromising good journalism?
Isn’t it amazing, as the old adage goes, how all the news going on in any given day is just exactly the right amount to fill the number of pages in the following day’s newspaper? It doesn’t, of course. It’s because journalism is always a compromise of one sort or another.
Particularly with features and analysis pieces, there is always a danger of feeling you need to make that “one more phone call” to get the definitive picture of what’s going on. For some journalists, it stems from a genuine desire to ensure they’re totally on top of the issue; for others, it’s a subliminal delaying tactic that puts off the moment they have to actually start writing.
Any subject you write about will be a mish-mash of viewpoints. Your job is to help interpret all those viewpoints in a clear way for your readers.
You should never feel you’re “letting down” sources if you don’t quote them. You have a duty not to misrepresent them, and to protect their identity if necessary, but you don’t have a duty to repeat every line of what they say. Your only duty on that score is to your readers by making sure you produce as complete a picture of the subject as you can in the word count you’ve been given.
Quoting six different people in a 300-word news story does neither your readers nor your sources any good. The former will be confused by so many names being thrown at them; the latter will feel their arguments can’t be summed up in a single sentence.
Far better, then, to make a judicious selection of sources as early as you can – the most authoritative you can find – that represent the essential facets of the argument.
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