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Island of Doubt: Check those references to deflate a source’s puffed-up resume

Island of Doubt: Check those references to deflate a source’s puffed-up resume

Picture of William Heisel
[Photo by Joseph Novak via Flickr.]

What do you do?

It’s a common question you might ask someone after meeting them at a party and certainly a question a reporter could and often should ask a source.

As cynical as this may sound, I would take every answer you get to that question with a grain of salt. Here’s why. People want to sound like the most interesting version of themselves. Nobody just works a position seven layers down from the top boss. They “lead” something. They “manage” something. They “direct a team of people” who do something important. And the business they work for isn’t just a corner dry cleaner. It’s an innovation laboratory using bleeding-edge technology to extract harmful toxins from our microbiomes while maximally conserving water and energy usage.

Doubt people’s resumes.

I had a job interview candidate in my office last week. She used a phrase in her cover letter and resume that I found intriguing, as we certainly could use an expert in this particular coding skill right now. So I asked her more about it. As she responded, it became clear that she wasn’t an expert. And, finally, she just said it, “I’m not an expert in any of these things, but I’m good at finding and hiring people who are experts.”

You may have written down in your notebook some details about a source’s job but not asked them much else about it other than their title. Before you put those details into your story, you should ask them and others more about it.

First, call up the place they work to verify the operation is what they say it is. If it turns out that it’s only a dry cleaner, then just say that in your story. Do you need to point out that they tried to make it sound more interesting? Only if it’s relevant to your overall piece.

If what they do is central to your story, then tell them that you intend to call their boss. Ask for the person’s name, title, and phone number. This can help you build a solid story in multiple ways. If they are wary of you calling their boss, then you can explore the reasons why with them. It may be that they have fibbed to you and now have a chance to correct their story. It also allows you to get another perspective on your overall piece.

You might say, “Well, I can’t call their boss because their boss doesn’t know that they are talking to me.” That could be another problem. I’ve encountered this, too. By telling someone you intend to talk to their boss, you also are putting them on notice that what they said is going to be seen by everyone they work with, including the people they work for. Often the story isn’t “real” for a source until it’s out in the world. You are helping make it real before it goes live and giving them yet another chance to walk back anything they might have told you that wasn’t true. You also are giving yourself a chance to better document an aspect of their story that still seems shaky.

Again, you don’t need to prosecute a source in public just because they misspoke or tried to make themselves sound like someone you would want to meet at a party. But you only have so many ways to test the veracity of what a source is telling you, and one of those ways is by verifying some of the most tangible facts at your disposal.

“What do you do?” is a pretty good place to start.

Next: The special allure that military stories seem to have on reporters and how to avoid stirring up a battle over what did or did not happen on the battlefield.

[Photo by Joseph Novak via Flickr.]

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