Sourcing For Beginners?

Congratulations are due to Bob Neer, one of Blue Mass Group's founders, for the publication of his first book: "Barack Obama for Beginners: An Essential Guide." It is a tidy, quick-reading 70-page bio from Steerforth Press in New Hampshire. I had a few issues with some of the decisions about what to include or focus on, but I am clearly not its intended audience. The book moves through its tale swiftly in punchy, declarative sentences; the tone is decidedly rah-rah throughout, but not Obamaniacal; and nearly every page contains a somewhat cartoony illustration of the text. It reminded me of a Pete Rose bio I was particularly taken with as a kid (back when he still seemed heroic) -- and I mean that as a compliment. I assume that this is the desired effect of any book with the phrase "for beginners" in the title.

I found myself distracted, however, by a technical aspect of the book: its sourcing. The book itself contains no notations, and only very rarely cites sources within the text; instead, a front note advises the reader that "Complete source notes... are available at"

Some of you may recall a controversy over the sourcing in "Bluest State," a book written last year by WBZ-TV's Jon Keller. After the Herald raised the issue, BMG bloggers -- including Neer -- were withering in their criticism.

It's interesting to see how the two writers (or more aptly, their publishers) approached the same basic problem: pages of end notes are seen as an unnecessary expense for a popular-audience paperback, and you don't want to bog down the prose by having every other sentence contain some version of "...according to Joe Reporter in a 1991 Daily Paper article." Yet, you don't want to pass off other people's work as your own reporting, and you'd like to give readers an opportunity to know where your information comes from.

In both cases, it seems to me, they arguably went with approaches more fitting to their particular type of book. Keller's book is partly original reporting and partly researched; so, the primary concern was to make sure the reader could distinguish between the two as they read. The solution: attach "according to"-style descriptors in the text for material that might be confused for original reporting (particularly use of third-party quotes, and other specific information not available from multiple sources). Material that the author and editors felt was clearly coming from multiple news reports, was not sourced.

Neer's book is entirely culled from other sources, so that distinction was not as important; also, I imagine that "beginners" are relatively unlikely to care about having sourcing at their fingertips. Still, some readers will want to know the particular source of each informational nugget. For example, some readers might be inclined to take claims from Obama's own books with a grain of salt. Also, original, unique reportage deserves citation, somewhere. So, citations were made available on the web to those who wished to find them, but were not considered important enough to put within the pages.

That's my interpretation, anyway. In an email exchange with me about this issue, Neer argues that there is no difference between printing the notes in the book versus online. "The fact that the notes are not physically printed in the book would be, I think, significant if there was not an explicit notification that they can be found on the website," he writes, adding that "Putting the notes on the web, in this day of easy access to the internet at home, work, and at public venues like libraries, makes it generally available."

I'm not so sure I can agree -- particularly for a book touted by the publisher as readable "on commutes," and obviously intended (it seems to me) for readers who aren't turning to the web to get this kind of information on the candidate. Having citations "available," however readily, is not the same as having them within the book covers. And, lots of folks still don't have the equipment, or the know-how, to access a web site: my Dad and the Republican Presidential nominee, just to name two.

As a practical matter, people reading Neer's book repeatedly come across specific information and direct quotes, without any indication that these were the result of someone else's reporting other than the author's. Neer, again, disputes this, arguing that the clear reference to the source notes on the web obviates that potential misperception. But that reference alone gives no indication of how much of the book is original or not. The book itself does not contain notation numbers, for instance, nor a bibliography.

I'm not sure that it matters; anyway, I'm not in that world, so I don't know what is considered standard or acceptable. I had much the same comment about Keller's book. (I asked Neer in my email whether his experience had changed his thinking about Keller's book; he stood by his criticism.)

But I do find one thing telling. Among the very few "according to"-style references in the book is one on page 54 that cites "...blogger Matt Stoller." Stoller is a well-known member of the progressive blogosphere. My guess is that Neer would have felt bad using something from a fellow blogger without citing him by name. Yet, by my quick count from the source notes, Neer used the work of at least five dozen journalists from roughly 30 different "MSM" sources, without naming a single one of them in the book's text. Why not?

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