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Backgrounding the News

Newsgathering Techniques

Interview Techniques

The Open-ended Question

Other Types of Questions

When To Use Quotes

Key Quotation and Attribution Rules


Journalists do not write stories based on information they already know. Nor do they write articles based solely on library or Internet research. In fact, the bulk of the information contained in any news story is collected through interviews with people who have some knowledge of the subject. We call this “backgrounding the news.”

If the story is about a house fire, the journalist will interview the fire chief, the person who owns the house and neighbors who saw the fire. If the story is about tuition increases at the University of Maryland, the reporter will interview the campus president or bursar, a member of the state legislative committee that oversees the university, students who will be affected by the increase and maybe a parent who pays for a student to attend the college.

Nowhere in the article will the journalist offer an opinion or perspective, or write information that he or she believes to be “general knowledge.” Instead, the reporter does just what the name suggests: reports.

While reporters familiarize themselves with the topic of their articles by reading other stories on the same topic and books or company-generated press information that might give them a good grounding in the subject, none of that is what’s considered “original research.”

Original research is what the reporter learns that nobody else has written yet–inside information that only a source close to the subject can offer; the perspective of an expert source who has studied the topic for a long time; the educated predictions of an industry observer. This kind of information is available only “from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak. That is, the reporter must ask questions of people with knowledge of the subject and then interject the answers into the story.

It’s rare when a journalist quotes another article or book in a newspaper article. To do so is to admit to the reader that the reporter couldn’t dig up the information firsthand. That’s embarrassing. Always do your own research–and that means doing lots of interviews.

This is where some would-be journalists hop off the train. Lots of people are too timid to call strangers on the phone, walk up to them in the hallway outside of a courtroom or approach them on the street. But that’s what journalists have to do–all day long. They approach strangers and ask them to share lots of information. They ask the strangers to spend time explaining things. They elicit opinions–some of which might be very personal–that will later appear in print for the world to see. For some writers, that’s too invasive. Those writers do not become journalists.

Journalists need guts. They need to develop a thick skin because sometimes those strangers tell the reporters to get lost (or worse!). Some sources do not want to be interviewed. Some don’t want to talk to certain reporters but will grant interviews to others. Some have things to hide and don’t want a reporter on their tails. The journalist, however, cannot take no for an answer. If the source is the only person who can provide a definitive viewpoint or answer, then the journalist must persist in getting that source to talk.

Sounds like journalists are pests. Well … sometimes they have to be. That doesn’t make them very popular with some of their sources. But remember this: The journalist’s job is to inform the public about things that the public has a right to know. That’s a weighty responsibility, and not one that the reporter can shrug off just because a source is trying to dodge him.


News sources typically include:

  • Stored
    • traditional, text-based research
  • Observational
    • gathered personal experience
  • Personal
    • from talking to people

Three factors will affect how many sources you need for a story:

  • Expertise
    • The individual’s breadth of knowledge.
    • The more individual sources know about the subject, the fewer you will need to talk to. 
  • Controversy
    • The degree of controversy or room for bias.
    • When a topic is controversial or driven by ideology, talk to more sources to make sure you have all points of view.
  • Complexity
    • The more complex or ambitious the story, the more interviews, kinds of information and points of view will be needed.


To better understand how journalists gather facts, please review this five-minute video on basic reporting tactics from The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward:

 The facts of a news story should not be based on information from one source. Every claim of fact should be verified several times and attributed. This helps ensure the information is accurate, one of the ABCs of news writing.

To help you get your facts straight, try this portal to some key fact-checking Web sites that professional journalists use:

Remember, credibility is our currency.



Interviews are the backbone to this newsgathering. The prerequisite to a good interview is good listening skills. You cannot be thinking about your next question when your source is speaking! To control the interview, you must concentrate on your source:

  • listening for meaning so that you can evaluate and sort what is being said on three levels even as it’s being said, and
  • listening for what isn’t said, so that you can follow-up. 

Listen on one level for facts, on another for good quotesand on a third level for elaboration and substantiation. You need to be thinking, is the source making a point clearly and supporting it? Do I understand the point? If not, ask the source to repeat, elaborate or define the meaning. When you are listening for meaning, you can direct the interview instead of letting the source control it.

Therefore, always prepare a list of key questions in advanceYou will feel and act more confidently when you are approaching strangers for the man-in-the-street interviews, for example, and be able listen more acutely at your meetings.


To get responses that are quotable, ask questions that are open ended. Avoid asking anything that could draw a yes/no response.

If you ask someone a question that she can answer with a one-word answer, you’ll get a one-word answer. That won’t do you any good when you sit down to write.

Do you think the government should fund a jobs creation program?

Yes. And because that’s all you asked me, I won’t elaborate.

What should the government change to deal with U.S. joblessness?

Everything. And because that’s all you asked me, that’s all I’m going to say.

These are called “closed-ended questions.” Closed-ended questions can be answered with a yes, a no or a single answer. They don’t ask the source to elaborate or say “why.” And unless you need specific information, they’re not useful questions to ask because they don’t produce answers you can use in your story. They surely don’t produce colorful quotations.

A better question is an “open-ended” question. An open-ended question is one that allows the source to “think out loud.” It invites the source to wax poetic, ramble on, offer perspective, give opinions. Those kinds of responses are the ones that will reap you good material for your story.

What do you think about the debate over funding a new jobs creation program?

What do you think about the proposals from members of Congress to raise taxes and cut government spending in order to stimulate the economy instead of spending more money on a jobs creation program?

What do you think about proposals from members of Congress to cut corporate taxes to stimulate corporate re-investment in business development to stimulate the economy instead of spending more money on a jobs creation program?

These open-ended questions are the type that force sources to answer in paragraphs rather than in single words. From those paragraphs, you will get good quotes, perspective and the right angle for your story.

So as you work on your police story sidebars, your man-in-the-street interviews and your pre-meeting research, skip the yes-or-no questions and the ones that allow sources to get away with giving you one-word answers. Ask your sources open-ended questions, especially at the beginning of the interview.


Journalists use a variety of approaches to obtain as much information as possible before they begin writing. Here are some stock questions:

Basic/to get basic facts:

Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?


Explanation/to get reasons behind previous answers:

How would you change the situation?


Explanation/to widen the scope of the interview:

What other options need to be considered?


Explanation/to get new information:

How would you do this?


Justification/to question established ideas:

Why do you believe this?


Justification/to understand the reasoning of the source:

How do you know that?

Can you prove that?


Suggestive/to introduce an idea by someone else:

Could you consider the idea suggested by …?


Suggestive/to bring up a new idea:

What would happen if…?


Choice/to get a definite answer from the source:

Which proposal do you favor?

What do you think of…?


Chronological/to ensure understanding of a process:

What is the next step?

You will need to take copious notes while you are interviewing your sources or sitting at your meeting. You need to write down everything relevant or colorful that was said, word for word. In fact, if you didn’t get it word for word, you can’t use it in your story! You can’t fill in the blanks afterward. You can’t try to remember what the person said. You have to know it and be able to prove it should the source challenge you. The only proof you have is what you’ve written in your notebook.

Make up the fastest shorthand you can develop and still read. Buy a reporter’s notebook at an office supply store–they’re smaller than steno pads and allow for quicker note-taking. Use a tape recorder if you want, but don’t rely on it. Take notes at the same time. I can tell you from painful experience that tape recorders will fail you at the most inconvenient of moments. If you don’t have notes to back up a blank tape, you’ll be in huge trouble come deadline day.

Once you’ve finished your interviews or left your meeting, you will need to whittle those pages and pages of notes into a short, matter-of-fact article:

  • Read all of your notes. Using a colored highlighter, mark the most relevant, important and interesting things each source said. These are the points you will make in your story. It will break your heart to leave so much unused information in your notebook, but you’ll have to do it. Only the news makes it into the paper.
  • Outline our story. Remember, you’re using inverted pyramid style. Figure out what the most important information you learned is; use that in your lead. Then order the rest of the facts according to importance.
  • For each fact, determine whether the source has said something that backs it up, clarifies it or offers a compelling perspective about it. If so, include that information in the story right after you have made the point.

A word of caution about email interviews

Sometimes, a source will agree to answer your questions only via email. Try to talk her out of that.

While email is a great tool for making initial contact with sources, setting up appointments to meet or call for an interview and even asking follow-up questions, emailing is not an effective way to conduct the interview itself.

Here’s why:

  1. For starters, you don’t really know if the person who e-mails you the responses to your questions is the one who wrote those answers. If you send your questions to the president of a company, for instance, it’s very likely that he will route them to a member of his public relations staff, who will compose the answers for the president to return to you. So you won’t be getting your information from the person you wanted to talk to. And if you quote from those responses, you won’t technically be using the words of the person you attribute the quotes to.
  2. You are unlikely to get spontaneous responses, and you’re unlikely to get responses that sound conversational. When people compose their responses in writing rather than discussing their answers with you in a conversation, they choose different, more careful words that often sound more like they came from a report or a textbook than from someone’s mouth. That kind of response makes for stilted, boring quotations.
  3. You can’t ask for immediate clarification of something that you don’t quite understand. Sure, you can e-mail again later, but the moment has passed. You can’t “call” the source on something that seems off to you.
  4. You will find yourself “reading between the lines” because not everyone writes clearly. It’s very easy to make assumptions or to misread what someone has written. When the information comes via a discussion, it’s much easier to “hear” inflections, emotion and even lies. It’s much easier to say, “Do you mean…” to get clarification.


You can use quotes in three ways:

  • You can write the quote word for word, just as the source said it. That’s called a direct quote. Direct quotes always appear inside of quotation marks. You must attribute every direct quote to the person who said it. You may not change any words in a direct quote. If you didn’t get the quote word for word, you may not put it in quotation marks.
  • You may also use partial quotes. If you got most of the words but not all, you can put the words you know in quotation marks and finish the sentence using your own words. The part of the sentence that is in your own words does not go inside the quotation marks. The sentence still gets attributed to the source who said it.
  • Finally, you may paraphrase a quote. This means you explain what the person said using your own words, not the source’s. You do not put quotation marks around paraphrased quotes, but you do attribute them to the source. This is an important rule. A paraphrased quote reflects not what was said, but what the reporter said was said. Big difference! We rephrase direct quotes in our own words to capture the essence of what the source said when the source’s own words are not clear, when the terminology is too technical, when the remarks are too long, etc. Paraphrased material does not get placed in quotation marks nor can paraphrase be turned back into a quote. They are not the exact words of the source. Never, ever place quotation marks around something that you don’t know for sure came out of someone’s mouth word for word.

A person’s words are not subject to a writer’s interpretation. Do not change words in direct quotations, even if the grammar is bad. If the quote is crucial to the story but is not clear, a reporter may alter it in one of the following three ways:

  • Paraphrase the quote. The writer may paraphrase by removing the quotation marks.

Original quote: “This vase is an older than, much older, version of the one in the museum,” he said.

Paraphrase: He said his vase is an older version of the one in the museum.

  • Use ellipses (three periods) to indicate that words have been left out.

Ellipses: “This vase is an older … version of the one in the museum,” he said.

  • Use brackets to add words of clarification.

Brackets: “This vase is an older … version of the [Ming vase] in the museum,” he said.

To recap:

  • Direct quotes and partial quotes are placed inside of quotation marks and attributed to the source.
  • Paraphrased material does not get placed within quotation marks but it must be attributed to the speaker. You should paraphrase quotes that are obvious, confusing, or full of jargon.

In addition, you should rely on quotations sparingly. They are best used when the source says something so eloquently that it could not be better put by the writer (for example, the Gettysburg Address); when the speaker’s exact wording is what makes the news (for example, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”); or when the wording reveals something important about the speaker (for example, “Winning is not everything,” Lombardi said. “It’s the only thing.”).


We use direct quotes when

  • Someone says something unique.
  • Someone says something uniquely.
  • Someone important says something important. 

Quotes should be useful, informative and move a story forward. But quotes have to be in context, so there needs to be narrative between them. This is how you avoid “stacking” quotes one after another, too.

What was said generally is more important than who said it. For this reason, we usually place attribution at the end of the sentence. We place attribution after the first sentence of a multi-sentence quote. But if your story contains lots of quotes, vary the attribution structures (within the rules, of course). And whenever you introduce a new speaker in your story, place the attribution before the quote. If you quote a new speaker and fail to put the attribution at the beginning, the reader will assume that the first speaker still is being quoted.

In general, it is better for reporters to paraphrase sources because journalists are professional communicators and the sources are not. A poorly framed statement should be paraphrased, not corrected.

For that matter, ellipses should be used sparingly, such as to indicate when an obscenity, profanity or vulgarity has been removed. Most news outlets consider such words offensive or gratuitous.

Finally, accurate note-taking must be followed by accurate transcription. A paraphrase is a quote summarized in the reporter’s own words. Therefore, it’s no longer an exact replica of what was spoken and can’t be turned back into a direct quote if your notes don’t indicate the words came directly from your source

The following are some key rules for using quotes:

  • Put commas and periods inside the quotation marks. And do not presume to know what people are thinking or how they are feeling in their quotes; use only periods and question marks for terminal punctuation.
Right: “Read my lips,” President Bush said.
Wrong: “Read my lips”, President Bush said.
  • Attribute every quotation to the source, even if it’s obvious who said it.
Right: Here in the United States, Zeishan Fatima, a Pakistan refugee, grapples with the issues that come with her new lifestyle. “I really feel the absence of an extended family,” she said.
Wrong: Here in the United States, Zeishan Fatima, a Pakistani refugee, grapples with the issues that come with her new lifestyle. “I really feel the absence of an extended family.”
  • Place attribution after the first sentence of a multi-sentence quote. Attribute each quote only once.
Right: “I love the independence and freedom I find here,” said Delrine Alvis, a 42-year-old immigrant from Sri Lanka. “I love being my own boss. I love living on my own.”
Wrong: “I love the independence and freedom I find here. I love being my own boss. I love living on my own,” said Delrine Alvis, a 42-year-old immigrant from Sri Lanka.
  • Report only what people said, not how they feel or what they believe.
Right: Lorraine Hamilton, 38, said she probably would have divorced her husband even in her native Bangladesh.
Wrong: Lorraine Hamilton, 38, feels she would have divorced her husband even in her native Bangladesh.
  • Objects and institutions cannot speak. It’s better to attribute actions and announcements to people.
Right: University of Maryland officials canceled classes today because of the snow.
Wrong: The University of Maryland canceled classes today because of the snow.
  • Do not put quotations around anything that is not a direct quote. Do not use quotation marks to emphasize a word or phrase. Putting quotation marks around jargon does nothing to explain what a term means.
Right: Vice President Al Gore said the Information Superhighway, the worldwide network of computers that includes the Internet, is already larger than he expected it ever would be.
Wrong: Vice President Al Gore said the “Information Superhighway” is already larger than he expected it ever would be. Putting quotation marks around jargon does nothing to explain what it means.
  • Avoid repeating the reporter’s questions in a story; just write the answers.
Right: Washington homeowner Ann Meyer said Mayor Marion Barry’s re-election would send her “to look for a house in the suburbs.”
Wrong: When asked what she thought of Mayor Marion Barry’s re-election, Washington resident Ann Meyer told a reporter, “I’m going to look for a house in the suburbs.”
  • Identify every source on first reference by using first name, last name, and some description.
Right: Mary Atwater, who works for a London lawyer, hired the professor to do a freelance job.
Wrong: Mary Atwater hired the professor to do a freelance job.
  • Use simple words of attributionSaid, added, and noted are the most acceptable.
Right: “This is the hardest class I’ve taken so far,” said Roy Nelson, a sophomore.
Wrong: “This is the hardest class I’ve taken so far,” grimaced Roy Nelson, a sophomore.
  • When the attribution is at the beginning of the quotation, the order is: attribution + colon + quotes + caps

Right: Socrates said: “The easiest and noblest way is not to stop the mouths of others, but to improve yourselves.”
  • When the attribution is at the end of the quotation, the order is: comma + quote + attribution + period


Right: “The easiest and noblest way is not to stop the mouths of others, but to improve yourselves,” Socrates said.
  • Place lengthy description of the speaker after the attribution, as in said John Doe, a psychologist who specializes in cybercriminal profiling.


For more guidance on these rules, see Chapter 8 on punctuating quotes and Chapter 9 on attribution in The News Manual. To cement your understanding, complete the Quotes & Attributions Self-test under the link for My Tools > Self Assessments in the classroom.


Information does not need to be attributed to a source if you are a witness or if the information:

  • Is a matter of public record.
  • Is generally known.
  • Is available from several sources.
  • Is easily verifiable.
  • Makes no assumptions.
  • Contains no opinions.
  • Is noncontroversial.

When confronted with ethical dilemmas in your pursuing your story, such as when and what to quote, consider the consequences. The general criteria for pushing your way into a story are:

n  What is the objective of my story?

n  Who will be hurt, and how many?

n  Who will be helped, and how many?

n  Will my decision to pursue this story contribute to the reason for writing the story?


  • Use quotes sparingly. Choose quotes that say it better than you could write it. These are rare because you are a writer and most likely choose your words more carefully than any of your sources.
  • Use quotes to add color to a story. If somebody has a great personality, it shows in her quotations. Use quotes that are funny, compelling, shocking or interesting. Leave the duds in your notebook.
  • Don’t repeat quotes. Once a source says something, don’t use any more quotes from other sources who said the same thing.
  • Don’t stack quotes. Avoid running paragraph after paragraph of quotes. Remember: You’re the writer. The quotes are there to supplement your writing, not the other way around.
  • Don’t make fun of a person’s accent or dialect (i.e., you wouldn’t quote a Southerner saying, “I’m goin’ fishin’.” You’d write: “I’m going fishing.”) Likewise, don’t clean up quotes to make the source sound better; if someone uses poor grammar or even bad language, leave it in the quote.
  • Avoid offensive words. If it’s too offensive or hard to understand, paraphrase the quote in your own words and leave the quotation marks off. (Most newspapers do not print swear words. They paraphrase or use this format: “My teacher is a crazy b—-!” he said.) In other words, spell words correctly, even if the source mispronounces them, but do not edit the source’s grammar.


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