HARO Might Tank Media Credibility Unless It Takes Vetting Sources More Seriously

In 2018, Peter Shankman launched Help A Reporter Out. Now a CISION brand, it has since grown to become the largest free source repository in the world, fielding thousands of requests for information from media outlets worldwide every week.

About 75,000 journalists and over 1 million sources are connected to the HARO network. The New York Times and the World Financial Journal, among others, have utilized this tool for years. But what seemed like a resourceful way to help journalists and bloggers get in touch with credible sources and small businesses build their reputations has a dark side that raises concern.

How HARO Works

Writers and reporters use Help A Reporter Out (or HARO) to receive opinions from subject matter experts. Conversely, communications teams and PR firms use it to pitch experts.

Reporters signed up on HARO send a request by submitting a written summary of their needs, which is sent out to a mailing list three times daily. Communication teams and individuals signed up as sources send their comments or pitches in response.

HARO has been called “the Tinder of public relations” (PR) — connecting those seeking reputable sources with experts seeking publicity. An additional perk is that the websites of the media where these experts are quoted provide them with valuable inbound links (backlinks).

Experts' opportunities to gain not only visibility but also a free backlink from a well-regarded niche website are enhanced by HARO. Unfortunately, what could be a win-win situation has instead become a breeding ground for fake experts and fraudulent individuals.

Where The HARO Problem Begins

Because becoming a source on HARO is easy and free (as the company puts it, “registration takes a minute”), some have abused the platform to present false information to reporters for publicity and link-building.

Individuals who are not in actual professions often present themselves as such. Or, in the worst instance, posing as someone else and presenting bogus credentials.

Source finders often receive pitches from phony experts who know little about a particular area or topic. Using ChatGPT or Google, it is all too easy for sources to develop intelligent responses in this era of artificial intelligence. HARO's shortcomings are of paramount importance, as they deceive reporters and undermine the media's credibility.

Only recently, my editor received a request for a guest post from someone claiming to be a Certified Financial Planner (CFP). Upon performing a background check, they were found to not have a CFP designation. And in the only publication where they claimed to have a feature, the said post was taken down. Chances are, this person is probably using HARO to try to get some credible journalists to cover their story. This isn't farfetched, as such events have occurred before.

There are older stories like the self-promoting comedian who deceived scores of media sites into quoting him about his experiences as a millennial, although he was actually 55 years old. And that of Patricia Russell, who claimed to hold a CFP and be a personal finance expert resulting in being featured in several media outlets until she got caught.

With these sad HARO stories, comments from experts might start to be taken with a grain of salt, and media skepticism—which is already at an all-time low—will only get worse. Only 34% of Americans, according to a Gallup survey, have a lot or some confidence in the media.

HARO Needs To Take Responsibility

Given the complete lack of transparency, it is impossible to know whether or not HARO actually validates its sources. HARO doesn't mention any validation process anywhere on its site. We can't assume that HARO performs thorough due diligence in around one minute of onboarding sources. It may appear that HARO has handed off all of the responsibility to the journalist.

One of its rules specifies that media members perform additional due diligence. This rule follows the admonition that sources must have clear and reasonable expertise in the issue relevant to the query. According to HARO, if the source's authority on a topic isn't evident from their title or the company they represent, the source must explain why they are an authority on the issue before giving their pitch.

Since sources only have to go through three processes—registering with very basic information, monitoring source requests, and sending pitches—without a verification process, the rules seem to imply that once sources can prove who they claim to be or why they're a good fit to comment, it is entirely left to the journalists to investigate further.

It's like HARO is telling reporters, “You're welcome to come and seek experts on our platform, but hey, don't trust who they say they are.”

Rather than leaving reporters to rely solely on the words of sources or conduct their own source investigations, it would be more helpful if HARO had stringent processes to weed out individuals lacking proven experience and expertise. Reporters may then conduct source investigations as a second step of verification rather than what could appear to be the first and only layer to ascertain the identity of sources.

Reporters Must Take HARO'S Advice or Find Better Alternative

According to Brian Thorp, founder of Wealthtender, “reporters naturally understand the benefits of incorporating quotes from expert sources in articles to express diverse points of view and instill confidence among readers. But relying upon popular platforms like HARO to source presents risks when so-called experts aren't in fact who they say they are.”

Hence he advises journalists to take HARO's advice and take additional time to confirm the identity of sources. “For example,” he says, “ensure sources' contact information, such as their email address, matches the domain of their business website.”

Thankfully, Thorp notes that alternatives to HARO have emerged, like Qwoted, that vets sources before their acceptance to the platform. And reporters seeking a particular area of expertise can turn to specialist platforms, like Wealthtender, which exclusively connects reporters with financial experts on its platforms, including advisors and coaches. These newer platforms, according to Thorp, give journalists working on tight deadlines one less worry so they can spend more time writing.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Amaka Chukwuma is a freelance content writer with a BA in linguistics. As a result of her insatiable curiosity, she writes in various B2C and B2B niches. Her favorite subject matter, however, is in the financial, health, and technological niches. She has contributed to publications like Buttonwood Tree and FinanceBuzz in the past and currently writes for Wealth of Geeks.