Why You Must Always Vet Your Sources
I must be big on “vetting,” because over the past year I’ve blogged about how to vet a publishing opportunity and how to vet writing courses and programs. I think this indicates I believe in healthy skepticism as a freelance writer – and that’s not a bad trait for you to cultivate, either.
When I was working with a private coaching client recently, she asked me if she should vet a source who responded to her call for experts to be interviewed for an article. She had glanced at the person’s LinkedIn profile but wondered if she should go further than that. “On the other hand, why would a person lie about being a nurse practitioner?” she mused.
As a reporter (when you’re working on the journalism side – though I’ll have more to say about the content marketing writing side in a moment, too), you have an obligation to ensure that the people you’re interviewing for an article not only ARE who they say they are but that they possess the background they claim to have. For instance, if a person claims to have been the medical chief of staff at an academic medical center, you’d damn well better take a moment to make sure that’s the truth. If a person claims they were “the first researcher” to make some discovery, you’d better dive into PubMed to see if that’s true before you repeat it in your story. That’s just good, basic reporting.
Now, in my experience, most people are, indeed, truthful. Some people do exaggerate a bit (especially when it comes to their background), and it’s simply wise to find that out before your editor (or readers) do.
Beyond verifying simply that a person is who they say they are, though, you also want to take a moment to make sure there’s nothing unsavory in their background that could make them unsuitable as a source. This is true whether you’re plying the journalism side or the content writing side. Let me illustrate this with an anecdote.
A couple of years ago I was working on a story about innovation/disruption trends in healthcare. I ran across a 2016 special report on this topic produced by the Healthcare Financial Management Association. The report was great and included some in-depth interviews with experts.
One of the experts cited was the chief innovation officer at a very large health system. A couple of their quotes in the HFMA report really resonated with me and would have made excellent excerpts for the story I was writing.
Key words: “would have.”
You see, before I reached out about getting permission to use those quotes (attributed in full, of course) in my story, I thought to myself, “This report was published in 2016, so I should Google this person to make sure they’re still in this position and that nothing untoward comes up.”
One of the first Google results I got when searching that person’s name plus their place of employment was an unflattering March, 2019, story on a notable technology site about how this individual allowed an alleged “culture of sexism and bullying” to exist that made their department toxic for women.
Under some circumstances, that information would not bid me pause, in terms of whether or not to include this individual in my story. If I were writing some sort of straight journalistic piece, for example, this unflattering story might actually add valuable context.
But I was writing a content marketing piece on trends in healthcare innovation for a client. I personally would not want to associate my client – even remotely – with someone who recently came under attack for allegedly allowing a toxic work culture to foment - even though those claims have not been proven and may well be untrue. In this digital era, dirt can easily rub off. I wouldn’t want that to happen to my client.
So I eliminated that individual as a prospective source for my piece.
And this is why I recommend you take the time to vet your sources to some degree. Looking the individual up gives you the opportunity to verify their facts (employer, title, etc.) and also sniff out any whiff of scandal or controversy that may be surrounding them. Then you can make an informed decision about whether to use them as a source or not.