Sources: how to know if they are reliable
Information sources provide journalists with the content that allows them to produce the news. The sources are the voices, written or audiovisual, that are relevant in any given social context: documents, press releases, statements, witness accounts, videos and so on. So, governments, institutions and other political, social, and cultural actors are important sources of information. Depending on the type of news story we are preparing, scientists and/or experts are also relevant sources. A journalist’s job is to assess whether the information provided by a source is reliable and relevant. The more reliable a source is, the higher the quality of the information that reaches us.
Before releasing a story, journalists must always check with at least two sources. In addition, these sources must be “plural” and “representative”. There is no single way of explaining reality, and the sources we find may have their own agendas, which is why it is essential to gather information from multiple sources (plurality of sources). When we say that sources must be “representative”, we mean that they cannot be just anyone, but instead, they must represent the group that the news story is about. This is extremely important so that we don’t confuse information and facts with opinions.
The different types of sources
When preparing information, journalists can use different types of sources, which are classified as: documentary, eyewitness and expert sources. Each type serves to inform us about different things.
“Documentary sources” are written and audiovisual documents that provide verified data on a subject. For example, when we want to know the details of a law, report on unemployment, or discover citizens’ opinions on a subject, we use documentary sources such as, in Spain, the Official State Gazette (BOE), the statistical data of the State Public Employment Service (SEPE) or the surveys of the Sociological Research Center (CIS).
If we want to report on specific events or experiences, we use testimonial, or “witness”, sources; that is, people who have directly experienced the situation we want to report on, whether it is a fire, a demonstration, or any other experience.
If we want to delve deeper into a subject and be able to interpret it, then we will turn to expert sources: academics or professionals who work exclusively on a particular subject.
Sources are a precious asset for good journalism, and that is why the profession’s code of ethics devotes special attention to them. Sources must be protected, since in some cases, by passing information to a journalist, the source could be compromised. That is why journalists may decide not to reveal who has given them a certain piece of information. One of the classic examples of the importance of protecting a good source is the famous “Watergate” case, which began with an investigation by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post and cost Richard Nixon his presidency.
In this investigation, a source who was close to the White House provided valuable and verifiable information which the journalists used to build the investigation that uncovered the wrong doings of the Republican Party. The source, known for years by the pseudonym, “Deep Throat”, did not reveal his identity until a few years ago. This case is always used as an example in introductory journalism courses to demonstrate the importance of having a network of well-connected, reliable sources with information that can be verified, whether the identity of the source can be revealed or not.
Assessing the credibility of sources
However, there are times when important sources lie. One of the most interesting debates in recent years has revolved around the tweets of former US President, Donald Trump, who told outright lies on social networks. In fact, The Washington Post’s fact-checkers identified over 20,000 of his statements as false or inaccurate. Yes, Donald Trump was the president of one of the most important countries in the world, and therefore his statements are relevant to the news, but do journalists have to give visibility to outright lies? Should those lies influence what topics are discussed? Or, to put it more expertly, should a lie be allowed to set the media agenda and influence public opinion?
The debate is complex since in recent years we have become accustomed to information based only on the statements of politicians or institutions, but faith in these public figures has been decreasing. The self-serving, and increasingly blatant, lies of certain political actors have led to the public’s distrust and have opened the debate on what role journalists and normal citizens should play.
Nowadays, we live in a complex socio-political environment where we are constantly flooded with information, but we cannot simply rely on statements coming from political sources. Journalists must always scrutinize information coming from political and institutional sources and contrast it with data from independent sources. It is no longer enough to simply publish Politician A’s statement and Politician B’s counterstatement. Instead, journalists must contrast the statements, check the data provided by both and then interpret and give context to each side’s argument.
Actually, “fact-checkers” have been performing this function in a more specialized way for some years now. For example, during the 2021 Catalan campaign election debates, verification teams such as Newtral and Verificat checked politicians’ statements in real time. A politician’s word is no longer enough. We need statistical data, expert information, and proper management of other information sources so that what we learn through the media and social networks is credible and reliable.
Journalists as mediators
We have already discussed politicians and institutions, but we should not overlook the need for competent, expert sources on issues like health. The pandemic of hoaxes generated by the Coronavirus crisis has highlighted the need for dependable, expert sources. The fact that someone is a physician does not automatically mean that person is an expert on epidemics. If we want expert knowledge on any subject, the source of information must be backed up by research, publications, and references from the scientific community. Sometimes, these scientific sources are written in extremely complex language that is not easily understood by people who are not scientists. That is why the role journalists as “mediators of reality” is key. Journalists must interpret the data that comes from expert sources and make it accessible to the public. Scientific journalists and scientists who can explain things in layman’s terms have become more necessary than ever, and they are reliable sources of information.
Today’s widespread distrust of the media and large institutions has sent many people down the dangerous path of alternative news sources, which at best are inaccurate or incomplete and may even be false. Reliance on alternative and non-validated sources of information can lead to conspiracy theories and misinformation, which are then shared online and spread like wild fire: from Bill Gates’ vaccine chips to the effects of 5G; the list goes on.
You are also source
Nowadays, we are all potential sources of information and we can post anything online at any time. Therefore, when we come across a new piece of information from a potentially questionable source, we should always ask ourselves: “Who is saying this?”, “Do they have direct information?”, “Are they in contact with someone who does know?”, “Is what they say backed up by other reliable sources?”, “Can what they say be verified or am I simply supposed to trust what they are telling me?”. It is essential that we think about the kind of information we are taking in and ask ourselves if the source is reliable. WHO is saying WHAT and WHY? Our PANTERA method will help you decide if you should trust a source.
Even if now we suspect that everyone has an ulterior motive for communicating something, it does not necessarily mean that the information they provide is unreliable. We can always contrast and confirm information with other sources that have different perspectives and different motives. Gathering information always depends on what the sources can provide. Reality is not black and white, not good, or bad; reality is complex. Therefore, as citizens we must demand that journalists provide us with reliable and diverse sources so that we have the most complete picture of reality.