Trump coverage launches a new phenomenon: muscle paragraphs

September 19, 2017
Via Pixabay

A CNN story about the firing of FBI Director James Comey cited interviews with “more than two dozen” officials. A Washington Post article about the collapse of the health care bill was attributed to “roughly three dozen” sources. A New York Times story on White House turmoil relied on “dozens.”

In covering the White House these days, there’s something of an arms race to cite the most sources. The bulk sourcing is an attempt to be more transparent and show readers a story is thoroughly reported. But the practice has gone to amusing extremes and still can allow reporters to get away with thin sourcing.

In writing about the turmoil in the Trump White House, it’s no longer enough to simply quote a variety of sources. Reporters now include a muscular paragraph with an impressive grand total. These muscle paragraphs have become a new art form in White House coverage, promising inside dirt from a remarkable number of interviews.

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A typical one from the Post: “This account of the internal workings of Trump’s team is based on interviews with 18 top White House officials, confidants of the president and other senior Republicans with knowledge of the relationships, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly.”

We found examples of the arms race in White House coverage from the Associated Press, CNN, the Times, and Politico, but the practice is most common at the Post.

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The numbers can be big. A Times article on Republicans jockeying for president was based on conversations with “more than 75 Republicans at every level of the party.”

Some muscle paragraphs cite precise numbers. An Associated Press story on President Trump’s “summer of discontent” relied on 10. A Washington Post article on Chief of Staff John F. Kelly had 17.

Other tallies are vague. A Politico article on Jared Kushner’s “privileged status” was based on “more than a dozen.” A Post story about Trump’s “tumultuous first days in office” relied on “nearly a dozen.”

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The bulk sourcing is most common for dishy accounts of West Wing drama with headlines about “Trump’s fury” and the “summer of crisis.”

Describing anonymous sources has always been tricky. Journalists try to give enough detail to provide credibility while still protecting a source’s identity. As a result, the muscle paragraphs often describe the sources in vague terms such as “observers of the new administration,” “people close to Mr. Trump,” and “Trump friends.”

Steven Ginsberg, the senior politics editor at The Washington Post, said the source-counting is a response to the unique challenge of covering the Trump White House.

“When you cover the Trump administration, as all good reporters know, you have to talk to a lot of people to get the full story,” he says.

Tallying the sources adds credibility to journalists’ reporting, Ginsberg adds. “We decided to actually number them in an effort to show our work.” He said the bulk sourcing creates “a much more bulletproof story.”

We agree the source-counting has some benefits. A big number – more than 75! – suggests reporters put more effort into a story. It also provides a defense against claims from President Trump and others that articles with anonymous sources are “fake news.”

But the new practice still allows for sleight of hand. A large number in the muscle paragraph can cloak thin attribution for details in a story. Individual tidbits often go unattributed or have vague sourcing such as “people familiar with the tensions” or “someone with detailed knowledge of the situation.”

Without precise accounting of how many sources are “friends” and how many are “observers,” readers can’t assess whether a story is solid. Even when a story boasts “dozens” of sources, readers should be wary.

See our collection of muscle paragraphs here.

Mark Stencel provided research assistance for this article.

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Bill Adair and Julianna Rennie are the authors of this article. Adair is the Knight Professor of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University and the creator of PolitiFact. Rennie is a student at Duke studying journalism and public policy.