I wrote this for contributors to Connecticut Woodlands magazine. Its advice should help any writer getting started in journalism.
In this age of the internet, writers must be extremely careful not to inadvertently plagiarize by cutting (from web sources) ideas, quotations, background, or even most facts, and then pasting them into your article without proper attribution.
These guidelines would serve any writer for any outlet. They are simply good journalism.
Name your sources:
* When quoting directly: Place quotation marks around only those words the person actually said, or those words you are quoting exactly as they appeared in another published work. Then credit the source:
“He was real calm about it,” Jodie Burns told Hartford Courant reporter Hilda Munoz, recalling her husband’s behavior after a rattlesnake he found at home bit him. “He kept going after the snake. If you get bit by a rattlesnake you think he’d leave it alone. I keep saying he’s stuck on stupid.”
* When paraphrasing: You can express the other writer’s work in your own words, but you still must credit the source. This is only fair—giving credit where credit is due for information you never could have gotten on your own.
I.e., you might write:
A rattlesnake bit a man in South Glastonbury in 2009. Hartford Courant reporter Hilda Munoz reported that he was trying to put it in a barrel, but it twisted around and bit his hand. Even after that, he tried to grab the snake, his wife told Munoz.
* If sharing facts about obscure topics—like particular insects, the history of an unusual topic like grape tomato cultivation, or the amount of timber sold in Connecticut last quarter—your sources would be only one or a few. Credit those sources.
When you don’t have to name sources:
You don’t have to credit sources for:
* commonly known facts, like dates, the acreage of Connecticut, leader’s names and titles.
* background information that could be looked up in multiple places, such as that Colonial settlers deforested much of Connecticut.
* something you witnessed yourself while reporting for the story, or going about your life: Describe dying hemlock trees as they looked to you. Say that leatherback turtles look like small cars because you have seen them or a photograph of one.
Do not use unreliable sources:
* Do not use Wikipedia as a source in an article for Woodlands. It’s OK to start research with Wikipedia and follow through with a source listed there, but then you must either talk directly to that source or locate a published, bylined piece of research or writing by that source. Wikipedia is not a serious source for journalists because it’s written by anonymous people… you can’t corroborate what they say because they don’t reveal themselves. Wikipedia articles are sometimes unreliable because of deliberate insertions of falsities. To check that out, visit Wikipedia and look up something about which you know a great deal. It’s very likely you’ll catch errors.
For further reading:
My brief article about Wikipedia.
Excellent guide to crediting sources properly from Arizona State University’s journalism school.
Sobering editors’ note from Politico.com, after their reporter, Kendra Marr, was caught improperly attributing New York Times articles.