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Haven't I Seen You Before? Why News Reports Quote The Same People

Who ya gonna call?
Who ya gonna call?

Al Cross has been all over the news lately. Just in the past couple of weeks, he's been quoted in Time, The New York Times and The Washington Post on no fewer than three separate occasions (here, here and here).

Who is Al Cross, and what has he done to earn such exposure?

Cross is a longtime political columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal. When national reporters are exploring the Kentucky Senate race, they often turn to him for perspective on the ground.

"There are relatively few people like us that have the apparent credentials that reporters and editors want," says Cross, who directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

"I've covered Mitch McConnell for 30 years," he says. "I guess if I were me, I'd call me."

This kind of thing happens all the time. Every state seems to have some expert — a political scientist or reporter — that all the out-of-state media know to call to gain a sense of the landscape.

"My record giving interviews was 15 in one day," says Kenneth Warren, a political scientist and pollster at Saint Louis University. "I had to laugh because I literally kept The New York Times on hold."

It's not just politics. There are experts in any field you can name whom reporters will turn to time and again when they're on tight deadlines and need a quick quote.

"You almost have to actively fight it as a journalist," says Stephen Ward, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon. "You really have to buck that trend and watch out that you're not narrowed down."

Quote Machines

Back in 1990, the now-defunct satirical magazine Spy ran a Washington issue in which Norm Ornstein — then as now a widely-cited observer of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute — was quoted in nearly every story, a total of 17 times, as an in-joke about Beltway insularity.

"These sources who get called upon are productive for journalists," says Matt Carlson, a communication professor at Saint Louis University. "They know how to talk to journalists and give them bite-sized quotes they can use."

It may be more prevalent, Carlson says, because of competitive pressures in the media. Bloggers who have to post five times a day, or local TV reporters who have to file two stories daily, seldom have time to go hunting around for fresh sources.

The Internet makes it easier to find people who appear to have something to say on a subject — and have already demonstrated an all-important willingness to talk to reporters.

"They're quoted in almost every story, and the quotes are almost always the same, too," says Carlson, who has written and edited books on sources.

No Diversity Of Voices

All reporters find themselves having to produce stories about subjects they start out knowing next to nothing about. That's when they'll turn to the tried-and-true — someone with their own blog on a subject, or a credentialed expert they caught on cable.

This feeds on itself. Once a person is quoted frequently on a topic, he will become a "go-to" for other reporters. And it's not such a great thing when so many reporters end up drawing repeatedly from the same few wells.

For instance, you may not know from their names that everyone who's been quoted in this story is a white male — but did you notice they're all academics? Including two from Saint Louis University?

"The problem is, they're overused," says Ward, the Oregon professor. "We can think of practical reasons why reporters do these things, but the problem is we don't get diversity of voices."

If reporters are guilty of perpetually calling the same sources, in some cases people do seek out the attention. A New York man named Greg Packer showed up at so many events where he knew reporters would be looking to talk to people that the Associated Press warned reporters off him back in 2003and finally banned quotes from him last fall.

Broadening The Horizon

Reporters are sometimes on the hunt for someone to quote other than the standard experts.

Rather than asking an economist to expound on the real-world implications of some policy decision, reporters might want the perspective of a small business owner or someone who's been unemployed for a while.

Where do they find such people? Often, they'll turn to associations, which serve every conceivable field of industry, from snack food makers to mortgage bankers to tattoo artists.

Associations are themselves home to many oft-quoted sources. But their PR person often will volunteer to find a "real person" to illustrate a story, even if they aren't asked.

For example: Last year, when the Mississippi River was running low, I called a waterways group and asked if they could put me in touch with a barge operator.

They hooked me up with George Foster, president of JB Marine Service in St. Louis. He couldn't have been more accommodating, giving me an interview and taking me out on the river.

'B' Is The Key

While I was in his office, Foster got a call from a trade publication. He told me he'd already talked to CNN. A week after my story ran, I saw his picture in The New York Times.

"Unfortunately, I got hit on pretty hard," Foster says. "I did a live interview with some folks in England, plus I had a lady from England on the boat out here. I did one from Seattle and several from Illinois."

It was a good reminder that it's best to go out and find fresh sources. But if I ever need to speak to a media critic, I'll skip the journalism professors and go right back to Foster. His experience taught him a lot about what reporters want.

"You're looking for folks who, a) have a little bit of knowledge, and b) are willing to talk to you, and c) have a genuine concern about the issue," Foster says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.