Sources — and facts — are the meat and potatoes of reporting

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 8, 2010

Good morning, class. Please, take your seats.

This is Journalism 101, and today’s lesson is titled Brett Favre, being first and the new media.

Once upon a time, newspapers were information. Reporters were usually dressed in coat and tie, many wearing fedoras. They were a respected lot. What they wrote was gospel.

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The key to being a great reporter was having sources. Good sources are like a good recipe — work it correctly, and the result is golden. A story from yesteryear told of a court reporter for an upstate New York newspaper.

The reporter covered the highest state court and had a judge or someone close to the judge as his prime source. The night before a big decision would be announced, the reporter would call his editor, tell him what was going to happen and that the stories were already written and in his desk.

Competitors fumed, but the information printed was always accurate.

Fast forward 50 years. It’s Tuesday, 10 a.m. The Associated Press — a consortium of newspapers worldwide that, basically, share stories — moves a story about Favre in the annual drama that has become Brett Favre. Supposedly, the quarterback or someone close to him — get used to that “close to” message, it’s a euphemism for an unnamed source — sent a text message to a few players saying he was going to retire.

What did the text message read? Did anyone read the text message? Did anyone ask Favre if he sent a text message? Who received the text message? Salient questions indeed, and ones that should have been asked — 50 years ago those questions would have been asked before the presses rolled.

For all we know, the sister-in-law of a third-string player posted on a blog that her husband’s brother, the third-stringer, got a text from Brett announcing said retirement. Once information is in the blogosphere, news outlets run with it — including this one. Teammates were asked about the mysterious text message.

Athletes have a tepid relationship with reporters, so it is quite possible those players just wanted to have a bit of fun. Surprisingly we didn’t read this quote: “Well, I haven’t actually seen the text, and it didn’t come to me, but I do know he is retiring.” Athletes are funny like that.

One day later, finally, when asked if he sent a text message announcing his retirement, Favre said he did not. All he said is if his ankle feels OK, he will play this season.

The next story, with named sources, appeared on Wednesday. Each news outlet that changed its homepage, led off with the news or reported it on a section cover should crack an egg right on the nose.

In the thirst to be first, building sources is an afterthought. Working the beat is becoming less and less common. The journalistic fabric is deteriorating as the zeal to be first — right or wrong — has replaced being right.

Sean P. Murphy is web editor. He can be reached at