Primary sources

A primary source is always better than a secondary source. Just-the-facts is always better than hearsay. Reading the “Canuck letter” is always better than hearing about it, and verifying that someone actually did write it is always better than hearing “so-and-so told me he wrote it” or “everyone knows so-and-so wrote it.”

I’ve rarely come close to anything as groundbreaking as what Woodward and Bernstein did almost 40 years ago, but I do love the sense of cracking even a tiny, insignificant mystery. The time I uncovered a story that didn’t appear on the Post’s front page for another two months was a definite thrill. Under the tutelage of so many influential mentors, from Mary Lou Beatty to John Brady to Meg Guroff, I’ve learned to dig a little further, to put the story ahead of myself. Watching TV images of reporters asking murder victims’ relatives how they feel makes me cringe, of course, but in a private interview, I would do the same. You have to ask the question to get the answer.

I was looking into this smoking issue for the Post today when a secondary source led to a (presumably) primary one. Two people had mentioned a lawsuit that sounded intriguing, Smith v. Jones. Somehow I was going to have to find out about it, but I’m no expert on courts. Do I track down a lawyer? Delve into the court system for a summary, if any? Then today, one of the original sources on this story got in touch: Sam Smith, the plaintiff, will be back from overseas next week. Would I like to talk with him?

Suddenly Smith v. Jones is more than an abstraction. He lives! And I’ll get to ask him the questions to get the answers. Why? Where? How did that make you feel? (Then on to ask Jones the same things.) It may not be Watergate or even the Canuck letter, but readers will get a better story, and that’s what counts.

Copyright 2011 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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