Weird Ways of News.

Chapter Four: Playing Catch with News Hounds

Reporters use sources to establish credibility, because traditionally trained journalists nearly always avoid stating their own opinions in a hard news story. Playing catch.Sources, however, can state opinions in print. Sometimes they can even state the opinions of journalists or editors—without realizing it. How? Let's review the three categories of statements news people commonly deal with:

1. Facts.

2. Interpretations.

3. Judgments.

Let's finally leave our tired college vice president from chapter three and call the National Weather Service for tomorrow's forecast. You hail meteorologist Cy K. Lone for a breezy report, and he thunders out his response. (Okay, I'll stop.) He replies, "It'll be sunny and warm, a mighty fine day tomorrow."

How do you report this?

1. Fact: It will be sunny and warm tomorrow, according to the National Weather Service.

Reporters try to deal in facts, so this is a common way to report a comment made in an interview. He said that. He sure did.

2. Interpretation: It will be sunny and warm tomorrow, giving farmers a chance to finally get into the fields after several days of rain.

Your source didn't say that—you assumed it, based on your own interpretation of Cy's comments. You may think this is a pretty safe and non-controversial interpretation, but someone may nevertheless disagree. Maybe some early-bird agribusiness folks already seeded, and could use more subsoil moisture. Maybe someone else wants still wetter potholes for ducks. Nevertheless, journalists often hazard interpretations.

3. It will be a nice day tomorrow, offering sunny weather for skateboarders and farmers alike.

Whenever you say something is good or bad, you make a judgment. But news reporters do not make judgments on hard news stories. Not that it's illegal or anything, it's just against contemporary American news standards. Does this mean they can't include their opinions, good or bad, about something? Heh, heh. They merely let a source say it for them.

"It will be 'a mighty fine day tomorrow,' according to National Weather Service director Cy K. Lone."

Sounds like a nice day coming up. "Nice" being a judgment. Hey, the reporter didn't say it—Cy did, didn't he?

Okay, so maybe you think this reasonably innocent. In more complex stories, however, sources can be used to support a point the reporter wants to make. Let's suppose a seasoned reporter is gathering interviews for a story on local crime. Is crime in South Snowshoe City getting worse or better? To find out, the reporter interviews a number of people—city opinion leaders and other authoritative voices—on this topic.

In ten interviews with politicians, law enforcement personnel, judges, attorneys, counselors, and social workers, she does not gather a clear cut response. Some important sources say crime is getting more serious and widespread. Other equally well-informed sources believe crime is about the same, perhaps a bit less. What to do? Reporters writing stories from multiple interviews sift through the material to find the gist of the story and base a hook on that perception, while noting the controversy concerning the issue. How this is handled, however, can reflect the reporter's own opinion of the situation, because the sources who best reflect that opinion may be perceived as more credible.

If, for instance, a reporter already has decided that "crime is getting worse in East Snowshoe," she will favor the sources who agree with this assessment, writing,

"Crime is on the upswing, according to the mayor and two prominent court officials. 'In my 20 years as mayor, I've never seen this kind of vandalism,' noted Mayor Chuck Hole. His comment was echoed by Judge Gill T. Charge, who noted, 'these young offenders nowadays scare me.'"

What about those sources who disagree? No decent reporter will leave them out, of course. But if their comments don't fit her hook, they may be downplayed: "One source interviewed for this story, Police Chief Tuff Lawman, contended area crime is no worse. But the balance of opinion favors more vigilance and tougher penalties for an increasing problem in South Snowshoe City."

This is not to say reporters are out to mislead you. In fact, most reporters believe this sifting process gets closest to the truth of a complex story. Nevertheless, reporters who would not dream of putting their own judgments into a hard news story will commonly—probably subconsciously—employ sources to do it for them.

Most of us have seen hundreds of interviews on television, whether it be local reporters questioning a school superintendent, national reporters grilling a politician, or talk-show hosts exposing the newest starlet. We ought to know how to handle ourselves in a news interview, given all that experience.

Television, however, is not real life, despite what some people would like you to believe. Most of us have also seen hundreds of murders on television, but few of us will find ourselves skillful enough to wield a gun like a militiaman, or a knife like some former athletes. Interviewing, too, takes practice.

Unfortunately, you won't get that unless you happen to play a role in society of interest to newspeople. Generally that means you're fair game:

• If you supervise people paid by the government ("spending taxpayer dollars" is the media's justification).

• If you do the government's business as an elected representative ("spending taxpayer dollars, and acting as taxpayer's representative").

• If you are well-known ("a public figure deserves public scrutiny").

• If you're big in business ("society's powerful must be monitored").

These people or their media-ready assistants (public relations officers) face interviews over and over, just as reporters conduct interviews over and over. Both sides are experienced negotiators, and usually can't easily be taken advantage of.
However, the people who are used to being interviewed do not comprise a reporter's entire well of sources. A reporter will interview anyone who can provide material he or she needs for the story. People who are not used to being interviewed may unexpectedly find themselves facing cameras or notebooks as accident witnesses, teachers on strike, middle managers, Rotary Club volunteers, or even hapless students inadvertently passing a desperate microphone-wielding TV reporter bent on a ratings boost.

In these situations, the experienced news gatherer has the advantage. The most scrupulously ethical ones will not exploit that. Lesser reporters (often from out of town so that there'll be no consequences) can be caught manipulating even children in an attempt to set a hook.

How to Handle an Interview

Everyone needs to understand a few common tricks interviewers play, and common responses experienced interviewees use. How experienced a source are you? Take this quick quiz:

The Rambler.

An engaging reporter from your local KRUD-All News Radio and Streaming Website stops by for "a little chat" about your dog kennel. Placing a tiny microphone unobtrusively on the desk, she shares her experiences with golden retrievers and love of dog shows, and admires the canine pictures in your office. Occasionally she brings up a few friendly questions about your operation, which you answer with enthusiasm because she's so nice. In fact, you let her in on a few local secrets about dirty kennels and diseased dogs because you know, as a new friend, she'll keep your confidence.

Next week on the reporter's special "Listen Up NOW!" news show you listen up for the story, and hear:

a. A warm, flattering picture of the local dog kennel business.
b. No information at all from your interview.
c. Allegations of dirty kennels and diseased dogs that you thought would remain confidential.

Everyone knows the most likely answer here is c. Nevertheless, as inexperienced sources we are often easily won over by reporters hired for their engaging demeanor and well-developed interview skills. Many people who are not familiar with news-gatherers believe most are nasty muckrakers hurling mean questions at sweating sources. That's what we see on "60 Minutes," or at televised press conferences. Most local reporters aren't like that, at least most of the time.

Spilling emotion attracts ratings on national TV (conflict, you know), but it doesn't usually elicit helpful answers. (See below for an exception.) Reporters use the chatty, rambling style to encourage you to think of them as ol' buddies, the kind of pals you'd like to share a latté and muffin with if you had time. In fact, sometimes they'll actually suggest repairing to the coffee bar for a drink and snack, and a longer chat.

There's nothing ethically wrong with this rambling style—why not be nice?—but it's important that the target knows what's up and responds accordingly. The general rule: Say nothing to an interviewer that you wouldn't be comfortable saying at a podium in the school auditorium in front of the principal, the teachers, your friends and your relatives. When you talk to a reporter, that is what you're doing.

The Repeater

A reporter appears at your office, wondering if you have a quick few minutes for a little chat about your city sewer contracts. (I'm asking you to so use your imagination here.) In the course of the interview, he repeatedly comes back to the same question, tediously plowing the same ground in different ways. What do you do?

a. Get angry and throw him out of your office.
b. Try to accommodate him, scouring your brain for answers.
c. Repeat your selected answer as many times as necessary.
d. Go off the record and share industry gossip.

Most people know instinctively that getting angry seldom helps your case with the the news media, but sometimes it takes an iron patina of patience to stay calm. This does not mean, however, that it has become your martyr's responsibility to feed an apparently desperate reporter, blathering on until he or she is satisfied. It's usually best to try to accommodate a journalist. But when you've answered the question once, simply repeat that answer.

Reporters traditionally call this the redundant-question approach. I call it the WalMart® approach: offer the appearance of variety, but actually have a large stock of similar wares. Redundant interviewers are trolling, looking for a particular answer or hook and relying on you to provide it. If you don't provide it the first time, they'll approach the topic from a new angle, hoping for a more "interesting" response. Experienced interviewees have on hand a dozen colorful turns of expression to delight the devotees of the sound bite (why do you think some people are interviewed over and over?), but less experienced sources should stick to one answer, repeatedly. Of course, you can say the same thing several different ways, just as the reporter asks the question several different ways. Fair is fair.

The Yes-Man (Yes-Person?)

At a press conference to announce an expansion of your business, reporter Wendy Winsome from the "News at Nine and Blab Online" shoots up her hand:
"Would you say, Mr. Smith, that your organization is planning this expansion in response to a city tax initiative and a new influx of migrant workers into the area, giving you both a tax advantage and an excellent supply of labor to allow you to double your output?"

You respond:
a. "Well, um, I guess that's about right."
b. "No comment."
c. "This press conference is over, you jackal!"
d. "Well, what I would say is that this city offers a tremendous opportunity for business, and we're delighted to be part of this growing community."

The reporter is hoping you'll agree with this long but carefully worded question. She plans to use it as a paraphrase, a quote-like statement of what you said, but not using your words. If you agree, next day you'll likely read, "Smith said he's planning the expansion in response to a city tax initiative and new influx of migrant workers into the area, giving him both a tax advantage and an excellent labor supply." Did you want a reporter to put words in your mouth? I didn't think so. However, "stonewalling" (answers b and c) nearly always is a bad idea (as explained below), which leaves d. Memorize this phrase, and repeat after me: "Well, what I would say is…." Begin your comments with this phrase after any complex question that invites a simple yes or no answer.

Writers for the supermarket tabloids, by the way, love this approach to add zing to a blah interview. Scene: a hospital bed. Trudy Noodle has a serious leg burn after a meteor, possibly flung by space aliens, crashed through the roof of her rural West Horse Shoe, Alabama, home.

"Mrs. Noodle," says the highly paid reporter from the Weekly Screechum, "would you say that a white-hot devil-stone from an alien's hell snarled through your peaceful rural dwelling, spitting fire and brimstone and terrifying your cat?"

"Um, I guess so."

And guess what you'll read in next week's Screechum? To attribute such hyperbole to a source, even as a paraphrase, skirts past the borders of ethical journalism, but readers expect sensationalist journalists to be, well, sensational, and sometimes sources don't cooperate without a little coaching.

The Denial Dancer

A reporter from KRUD-News, Your Ever-Wakeful West Town News Cat, is on the prowl. "Mr. Jones," he purrs through your cell, "is your company poisoning the local water supply?"

To this preposterous charge you respond:
a. "Of course not."
b. "No comment."
c. "This comment is strictly off the record, but no, we are not."
d. Click.

The obvious choice is a. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Why? Because while what you say is true, by responding to this absurd question you offer the reporter a hook for his story. Likely you'll hear on that night's news show: "Jim Jones today denied allegations that his Acme Company is poisoning the water supply."

What's worse, even though you denied an allegation, the mere suggestion will taint your company. People won't remember the denial. They'll recall: "Jim Jones. Acme. Hmm. Something about poisoning the water supply."

B and d are no better. You'll probably hear, "Jones would not comment on the allegation that...." Or worse: "When asked if his company poisoned the water supply, Jones hung up the phone on this reporter."

This is one time when an off-the-record denial is effective. Any reporter with even a vague sense of ethics (or fear of alienating sources he'll need again) will honor a comment made emphatically off the record. When you deny an allegation off the record, however, the reporter is caught in a binder clip: on the one hand, he can't use the denial as a hook, but on the other hand, he can't say you're poisoning wells. Ha! He's stuck with finding material elsewhere, and your company won't be tainted by an irresponsible allegation.

The Stress Tester

You're beginning to wonder if the reporter visiting your corporate sporting goods office learned his trade at the Mike Tyson School of Journalism. Accusations, lies, leading questions, swipes at your integrity—what kind of interview is this? How do you react?

a. Demand that he leave the building immediately.
b. Angrily spout off to pull him into line.
c. Patiently answer his questions as best you can.
d. Ask him to please be more polite.

Your growing savviness as a news source by now has kept you from performing a, even if you'd dearly love to. So is c the best answer? Maybe. But how long can you tolerate verbal calumny from some ink-stained wretch (as we used to call journalists before it became politically incorrect)?

To know how to respond, you need to know why a reporter resorts to the stress interview. In television, a confrontational style makes good film footage—who among us has not snickered in satisfaction at seeing some slimy child molester or neo-Nazi skewered under the klieg lights? Who among us has not felt his or her pulse quicken the sight of a Mike Wallace tearing into a corporate polluter?

On the other hand, assuming you're not among the nefarious, it's unfair to treat you like dog doo-doo. A few tough questions, sure. Good reporters believe that, as stand-ins for the public, they need to ask hard questions now and then. But really abusive reporters not operating under the television lens play a different game: they hope you'll crack. If you blow your stack, you might say things you'll regret later, comments that make good copy: "I don't give a darned about your First Amendment rights, you imbecile. How about if I mistake your butt for a clay pigeon?!"

Of course, as a supercool interviewee, you wouldn't snap, but a lot of inexperienced sources do—giving reporters great copy, never mind their risk of a sore butt.

A reporter has no right to abuse you in an interview, making d the best answer: "Bob, I'm really feeling uncomfortable and under siege in this interview. Is there anything we can do to make it more pleasant?" Say something like this early, before you get really steamed. The a reporter might feel ashamed or, more likely, might see that this tactic isn't working, and take a more civil approach.

And if he doesn't? No need to get testy: the smooth source is ever polite. Merely gasp as you glance at your watch: "OMG, look at the time! I'm late for a critical meeting! Sorry, gotta go. Thanks for coming." You dash out—to the restroom, or where ever—leaving the feckless reporter with no one to grill but your stuffed duck collection.

Make sure your files are locked before you try this. Few reporters will resort to rooting about your office, since that's illegal, but you do occasionally encounter the young and remarkably stupid opportunist who's seen one too many movies.

The "Some People" Player

As a public relations officer for your small local hospital, you seldom meet with reporters, so you're pleased when the health-care editor of a larger daily in a downstate metropolis pays you a call. Sitting in your fine vinyl desk chair—oh well, just this one time you'll take the intern's rickety stool—this big-time journalist proceeds to light up one of your best cigars. Wait, that was 1960. She proceeds to uncap one of your best bottles of mineral water, and intones, "John, some people say your doctors perform many unnecessary appendectomies."

You respond:
a. "I've not heard anyone say that."
b. "No, they don't."
c. "My stars, look at the time! Gotta go."
d. "Outta my office, you vile rapscallion!"

You may have noted this tactic is similar to that of the Denial Dancer. Your instinctive response is a denial, which gives the reporter a hook and leaves you looking bad. Responding by cutting the interview short is a last-resort tactic, and kicking the reporter out of your office is always counterproductive. It's best to lob the ball back into the interviewer's court by wondering who could have made such an accusation, choice a. (Likely no one did; it's the reporter's question phrased to look like it came from someone else.)

If this doesn't fluster the reporter into defending or explaining the question, try the tactic experienced politicians use to avoid uncomfortable topics or angles. Deflect into a new channel:

"That's a good question, Ed, but it's important to remember that we haven't had a case of peritonitis since…."

"Before I answer I need you to consider the fine work our neonatal clinic…."

"I see your point, but what we've forgotten is the ratio of surgical procedures to population...."

This lets you say whatever you want and sidestep the question entirely, in this case the frequency of surgeries.

Sound familiar? You've heard it enough on television news. Experienced interviewees can use this technique over and over, exasperating reporters who just can not pin this person down. (Thank you, presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama....)

Avoid rambling unless you're experienced in obfuscation. Otherwise, you'll find the reporter's question lurking at the back of your mind, and you'll end up saying things about it you'll regret later. (Have you ever focused on the one thing you definitely do not want to say to your boss at a holiday party...and end up saying it?)


In the course of a pleasant but businesslike interview at a trade show, a TV/web reporter asks, "So Jane, do you think advances in web technology will draw substantial business from store-front hardware operations like yours?"

You have no idea, but the video is rolling. Your response?
a. "I don't know."
b. "No comment."
c. "Industry analysts point to the appearance of mnemonic-divided regressive IP numbers as an indication of zero-count behavior involving planned acquisition of widgets."
d. "I haven't considered that yet, but I'll get back to you."

This question highlights the three things you never do during an interview:
1. Admit you don't know.
2. Refuse to comment.
3. Lie.

Admitting ignorance may be a respectable and honest thing to do in real life. An interview is not real life. You have been approached, remember, because a reporter deems you an "expert" on this tiny chip of the world's knowledge at this particular moment in time. The mere fact of being quoted in the media can give you credibility and, conversely, rob you of it, if you admit the emperor has no clothes, that you "don't know." Nope, just can't do it.

You might assume you can simply use that oft-heard phrase made popular by movie stars accused of adultery, politicians accused of taking bribes, and cigarette makers accused of just about everything: "no comment." Wrong. No matter how you say it, it makes you look bad:

• "Joseph Blow Jr. declined to comment."

• "Joseph Blow Jr. refused to comment."

• "Joseph Blow Jr. responded, 'No comment.'"

It invariably sounds hostile: what seamy underside of a snake, readers or viewers may ask, are you hiding from us? Even if you're hiding nothing, refusing to talk surely looks suspicious.

That doesn't mean you have to comment. If you do know the answer, but can't say anything for one reason or another, explain why:

"You know, Jane, I'd really like to help you on that, but our attorneys specifically told us to say nothing before the trial."

"It's a difficult situation, and I'm really not ready to say anything just yet. It could make matters worse."

Wise sources try to help the reporter by indicating when they will be able to comment:

"I really can't answer that right now, Jane, but I'll get back to you after my office compares the figures, probably late next week." And then do it. You'll endear yourself to a reporter forever, and it is not a bad thing in life to count journalists among your friends.

The worst response is a lie, either in the form of obfuscatory baloney such as answer c, or more dangerous, with a plain old bald-faced fib. As surely as the sun in Orlando, as road construction in the summer, as snow in Winnipeg, you will be found out. And worse than looking foolish, you will never be trusted again, by journalists or by news consumers. Ever read about President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky-Gate? He lied, and it nearly cost him the presidency. It certainly cost him his credibility. Ever hear of Oliver North? During the Reagan Administration in the '80s, he told the truth, slimy as it was, and became a hero—for a while anyway. (Okay, those of you under 30 probably never heard of him.)

In response to our question above, that leaves d, an excellent response. A simple, "I haven't considered that yet, but I'll check it out and get back to you," is really about the same as "I don't know." But it sounds better. It sounds like you're a smart source who has all the answers, once you've had an opportunity to think about them. That's the impression you want. And if you really do get back to the reporter with the answer…well, see what happens when you keep your promise. Credibility and fidelity to one's word really do work with reporters, perhaps mostly because they're so shocked to encounter such behavior.

The Forehead Slapper

The interview comes to an end, and you still haven't been asked the one question you think is most important, the one you're itching to answer. The reporter starts to make his good-byes, so you say
a. "Oh, there's one more thing you ought to know, Frank."
b. "Bye-bye."
c. "Stop by again sometime."
d. "I'll call you if I have something to add."

Reporters ought to give you a chance to add something they may have forgotten, but sometimes they forget to ask what you forgot. Don't just let it go; be pro-active. Say, "Before you leave, there's one more thing we ought to cover." You can call or email the reporter later, but that's a cop-out unless you're pressed for time. The chance of actually catching a roving "leg man," as reporters used to be called, is slim. Tell 'em now or never.

By now you should be at least lightly armed for negotiation between source and reporter that we call, formally, an interview, or familiarly, a little chat. Most of the time a reporter is not out to get you. It's considered ethical to use sources to help find the hook for a story. However, they also are seldom specifically trying to make you look good. That's your job, so you have to understand the negotiation process of an interview.

In the world of professionals skilled in such negotiation—journalists on one side, mostly politicians and PR officers on the other—someone usually gets manipulated. It may be blatant: your comments can be squeezed into supporting a hook already set by a reporter. Conversely, a skilled flack can set the storyline to reflect a friendly view, spinning up or spinning down particular facts as needed. Such PR skills work particularly well when reporters have few other sources for information or have little time to dig deeper. Governments can easily spin wars, for instance, because reporters are more often censored and shut out of the battlefields.

Other times, reporters just become too lazy to dig deeper, or too harried working in an understaffed office. In most cases, for instance, government public relations representatives are able to set the angle on an issue simply because they have most of the information, prestige, and skill to handle a reportorial staff harassed by competition, deadlines, and a public skeptical of the "liberal attack-dog media." Who's "getting" whom in the negotiation of interviews is not at all predictable. It's a jungle out there. But understanding the process at least leaves we general news consumers and occasional news sources ready to grasp the occasional swinging vine.

More to Read

How to interview

Shirley Biagi, Interviews that Work. A Practical Guide for Journalists. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1986.

Benton Rain Patterson, Writing to Be Read. A Practical Guide to Feature Writing. Ames, IA: the Iowa State University Press, 1986, 28-66.


Good interview skills take practice, and role-playing is one way to get it. One person acts as reporter, preparing a list of questions based on a chosen journalistic approach—a nice one or a mean one. The source, not knowing which approach is chosen, fields the questions based on practices presented in this chapter. Stay cool! Have fun!

By the way...

Courtesy Titles: Most news operations seldom use courtesy titles such as Mr. Mrs. Miss, or Ms. But that wasn't always the case. Prior to the last quarter century, courtesy titles were standard, especially for women, who were thus identified by marital status (and availability, perhaps?). If married couples were referred to, the woman's name was subsumed into the man's: "Mr. and Mrs. John Johnson." The 1970s move toward equal treatment for women eventually forced news operations to change this sexist policy.

To begin with, the gender-neutral "Ms." was promoted. Journalists found trouble using even that, however, as some women still preferred "Mrs."—or no courtesy title at all. Most news operations then decided they'd had enough of this fight and just dropped all courtesy titles: last names only, happy now? Still, it strikes some readers as peculiar to read of, say, a 5-year-old referred to by surname:

"Missy Johnson, 5, will try out for a role in 'The Nutcracker.' 'I want to be a mousey!' said Johnson."

(By the way, "Dr." is used only for medical doctors, much to the chagrin of Ph.D.ed college professors.)

Klieg lights: Big hot spotlights used in movies and television. Named after John H. and Anton T. Kliegl, lighting experts at the early twentieth century dawn of movie-making. "But the organizers make no secret of their hope to entice a few klieg lights from the main convention hall."—The Christian Science Monitor, writing about the George W. Bush inauguration, January 22, 2001.

"Leg man": Old nickname for a reporter who often left the office on assignment, as opposed to an editor who sat on his duff all day. No sexual connotation was intended, but don't try plugging the phrase into a web search engine nowadays. You won't get journalism sites.

Flacks and hacks: Flack is journalist's slang for a public relations representative, particularly a pesky one who calls, faxes, emails and visits repeatedly in an attempt to get his client "on the media's radar." Public relations representatives themselves generally have no sense of humor about the nickname, just as news reporters don't generally respond kindly to being called hacks.

Establishing credibility: Journalists try hard to establish credibility. Credibility is really all they have: what good is news if you don't believe it? So reporters build their stories not on their own observations, which may be tainted and uninformed, but on the observations of outside "experts," called sources. News stories are built on interviews with these sources. Interviews dissect into quotes. But the quote is only as believable as the source, and the story is only as believable as the quote. So reporters need to establish credibility of their sources.

How might they do this? In some cases, it's obvious: the president of a bank is likely a credible source for local financial information, although reporters must remind viewers and readers of this person's specific position. Hence the old j-professor rule of the "ident (identification)": any time a name is mentioned, that person must be identified in some way designed to establish his or her importance to the story. So you hear, "Irving Nern, president of Ourtown First National Bank, said yesterday." Journalists will make an exception to the "ident" rule if your resumé is familiar enough, such as, say, the president of the United States. Or you once dated Jennifer Lopez.

If the credibility of the source is not obvious, however, credibility can be established in other ways:

• Is she an "eyewitness?" Even the high school "Want fries with that?" minimum-wager becomes a credible source if she saw the robbery.

• Is he a foil for a source with more established credibility? In the earlier example of the college administrator versus the union negotiator, the negotiator normally enjoys less status and therefore less credibility. However, a reporter can select quotes from other sources to establish greater credibility for the weaker source. Being selected as a source at all to counter a more established source suggests equality. That enhances the weaker source's credibility, especially when paired with quotes that seem to put the two sides on equal terms, although the more complex reality isn't so equal. A reporter might interview the high school principal as a source on the school's budget, and counter with a quote from the student senate president. Though the former probably knows far more about school budgets than the latter, the choice of source and literary proximity enhances the student's credibility.

• Can you attach the name to a credible institution? This can skirt the unethical, but is surprisingly effective when presented to gullible or inattentive news consumers. For instance, if you hear, "Joseph Smythe of Harvard University said yesterday," it's a good possibility you'll be impressed. Until you stop to consider that the phrase means little: everyone from the president to the custodian there is still "of Harvard."

More insidious—and clearly unethical (though fairly common)—is the practice of trumping up qualifications that have nothing to do with the issue at hand: "Academy-award winning actress Julia Roberts said yesterday she'll oppose sending troops to Afghanistan." So? Even more slimy: "Ross F. Collins, Ph.D., said yesterday that research clearly shows the benefits of a low-fat diet and regular exercise." So? That Ph.D. is in—journalism history. People can sometimes get a nation-wide advice show based on only vaguely relevant qualifications. Or maybe none at all.

• Is "according to knowledgeable sources," really the reporter's own opinion? You might think unscrupulous journalists do this all the time, because you so often see some version of this phrase in the media. Not so; chances are too good that the journalist would be caught and probably ruin his or her career in journalism. If you're a known liar, you've lost the one thing news operations must have: credibility. "Knowledgeable sources" usually do exist, but don't want to be quoted by name. They piggyback on the credibility of the writer and prestige of the news organization. That's why the tactic doesn't often appear in the Red Dog Gulch Gleanings, but does pop up in the powerful national dailies or on network television.