Yet another report on a reporter: A Wired News reporter who had filed hundreds of stories with the organization used sources in a number of stories that cannot be confirmed. The report is interesting to read because it's not just a person here or there, but a long list of people that the report's author and graduate schools couldn't verify the existence of or had credible verification that the person didn't exist. The reporter told the report author that she didn't keep email interviews for more than a month and "as a rule she didn't keep notes or source lists." (Update: There's more at Technology Review about this writer's work for them.)
I expect as a freelance writer, this latest set of purported inventions will make it even more tedious to get my work done. Of course, this reporter with poor records or possibly worse--the report goes out of its way to not accuse the reporter of any specific behavior, but rather point out the lack of confirmation--has no justification for not keeping records.
I have email dating back to 1989, with the bulk of it dating back to 1994. I have the text files with notes of every interview I've conducted. I have the phone numbers and email addresses of every source I've ever interviewed. Why discard any of this unless you feel there's a risk to an interview subject? Fortunately, the field I write about doesn't offer much physical risk or risk of incarceration for those I interview.
I remember about 15 years ago when I was working at a group that offered internships that we were reviewing applications and found a very suitable candidate. She had provided three letters of recommendation, and we'd read them and laid them out on a table top, looking them over. One of us in the group, not me, said, wait a minute: there's something funny. As we examined each letter, we realized that each was distinctly designed differently. The date line, the indents, the formatting, the typeface, were all different. There were three distinct and interesting papers used. The diction in the letters, when re-read, was awfully similar.
We made some calls: "We were expecting a letter of recommendation for so-and-so from you and haven't received it. Did you send one?" The answer: No. Although each alleged recommendation writer wholeheartedly recommended the candidate. It was laziness rather than misrepresentation I would wager, but she didn't get the internship, as you can imagine.
The one way in which a news organization can prevent having sources appear that cannot be confirmed is to make random calls every day or every week to sources cited. This requires that reporters provide just the name, email address, and phone number of every source they cite.
Trust is a precious and fleeting commodity.