VERIFICATION OF THE RELIABILITY OF SOURCES




One of the cornerstones of journalism is the discipline of verification, which Kovach and Rosenstiel describe as the “beating heart of credible journalism in the public interest” (81). Verification is often thought of as the process of checking the accuracy of facts—the who, what, where when and why of an event—but the term can also refer to the assessment of the reliability of a source.

Whether or not sources (both human sources and documents) are reliable is important to the quality of a news report. Rieh and Danielson point out that although the credibility of a source and that of a message can be assessed separately, these assessments are fundamentally linked and influence one another: “Credible sources are seen as likely to produce credible messages and credible messages are seen as likely to have originated from credible sources” (4).

The question is: How does one verify the reliability of a source? A fact can be regarded as credible by validating its truth. But what makes a source reliable? What is required of a journalist to evaluate “reliability”? The following sections will explore and define the verification of the reliability of sources.

“You’re only as good as your sources”: The value of reliable sources


Because journalists are rarely at the scene of a newsworthy event, they must rely on sources to recount what happened. They also often lack the expertise to interpret certain events and issues, and so they turn to experts to provide informed opinions. Sources therefore are vital to a journalist’s work. In his book Regret the Error, Craig Silverman writes:

A frequent saying in journalism is that you are only as good as your sources. When sources are wrong, so too are journalists. Evaluating the pedigree and honesty of a source is critical to accuracy because sources themselves are so critical to journalism. (145)

Some courts have recognized the value of reliable and credible sources in establishing journalistic responsibility. In the House of Lords judgment Reynolds v. Times Newspapers Limited, Lord Nicholls outlined a list of factors to be considered when determining whether a publication meets the standard of responsible journalism. Known as “Reynold’s factors,” the list includes the matter of source reliability: “Some informants have no direct knowledge of the events. Some have their own axes to grind, or are being paid for their stories.”

Similarly, in the Supreme Court of Canada decision Grant v. Torstar Corp., Chief Justice McLachlin included the “status and reliability of a source” as an element of responsible communication:

Some sources of information are more worthy of belief than others. The less trustworthy the source, the greater the need to use other sources to verify the allegations. This applies as much to documentary sources as to people… At the same time, the fact that the defendant’s source had an axe to grind does not necessarily deprive the defendant of protection, provided other reasonable steps were taken.

While recognizing the importance of reliable sources, neither judgment gives much guidance in determining what constitutes “reasonable steps” towards verifying a source nor defines what it means to be “reliable.” Journalists then have the task of assessing their own strategies of verification.

So what makes a source reliable?


The notion of source credibility has been examined by theorists and researchers across various disciplines, including communication studies, psychology, information science and marketing. Aristotle, when writing about the art of persuasion, listed good sense, good moral character, and goodwill as qualities which “induce us to believe a thing apart from any proof of it” (Quoted in Whitehead 59). Although scholars do not fully agree on the core dimensions of source credibility (Kiousis 383), many have proposed attributes that can help define the concept. Hovland, Janis, and Kelley identified expertness and trustworthiness as factors of communicator credibility; McCroskey pointed to authoritativeness and character; Whitehead added competency and objectivity (Whitehead 59).

Working journalists may recognize some of these characteristics as things they instinctively look for when evaluating their own news sources. In practice, journalists have devised their own informal conventions when seeking out the most reliable source for a story.

Primary sources


One typical piece of advice given to journalists is to rely on primary sources, rather than secondary sources, when investigating a story. In terms of documentary sources, this means seeking out the original data or document, such as court transcripts, minutes of meetings, letters and other official records. For human sources, a primary source might include interviews with direct witnesses. Miranda, Vercellesi and Bruno alter the classification slightly, adding that primary sources possess institutional authority or specific expertise, which provide some guarantee of credibility; this would include a government minister, a city mayor, a lawyer or a university professor (268).

Cynthia Brouse advises journalists and fact-checkers to avoid using second-hand sources, including news reports. “Mistrust all print and web sources,” Brouse warns (50). Newspapers are produced quickly and so are likely to contain errors. The same is true for press releases, which are typed in haste by overworked and underpaid employees. Information on the web is also considered unreliable because web creators may post information online before it is verified, knowing that they can simply fix any errors the next day. “In any case, whether it’s print or web material, the simple fact that human beings have typed up information based on something they found elsewhere makes it suspect” (Brouse 51). Brouse recommends always seeking out the original source of information.

Authoritativeness


The level of authority a person or institution has is closely related to the credibility they possess. Journalists, by convention, choose authoritative sources. According to Leon V. Sigal, “[w]ith the rise of the beat system, authoritativeness came to be identified with the ability to exercise authority in important political and social institutions” (19). Authoritative sources thus would include governors, heads of corporations and other organizations, as well as their spokespeople. In 1920, Walter Lipmann wrote:

The established leaders of any organization have great natural advantages. They are believed to have better sources of information. The books and papers are in their offices. They took part in the important conferences. They met the important people. They have responsibility. It is, therefore, easier for them to secure attention and speak in a convincing tone. (Quoted in Sigal 20)

Whether or not Lipmann’s statements are accurate, journalists came to believe it, and relying on authoritative sources became a standard practice. People in positions of power are regarded as credible because it is assumed that they are “in the know.” This is particularly true among reporters covering government beats, where an individual’s formal responsibility for public policy has become tied to their authoritativeness; in other words, “the higher up an official’s position in government, the more authoritative a source he or she was presumed to be, and the better his or her prospects for making the news” (Sigal 20).

In the absence of a “foolproof criterion” for choosing sources who will provide valid information, journalists must turn to authoritative sources. Unfortunately, this tactic itself is not foolproof. Sigal points out that the convention of authoritativeness is so ingrained that journalists will take the word of a senior official over that of subordinates who may be in a better position to know what is happening day to day (20).

It is also important to note that just as reporters exploit their sources for news stories, officials will use reporters in order to deliver messages to target audiences in an effort to rally and maintain support, both in and out of government, for themselves and their agendas (Sigal 22). In response, Sigal advises readers of news to “make inferences about the sources of information, the positions they hold in public life, the stands they are taking on the issues in dispute, potential targets for their words, and their possible motives in uttering them to reporters” (25). It would be wise for journalists to do the same.

Expert knowledge


Another question journalists must ask themselves when assessing reliability is: Is this source likely to know or be informed about the topic at hand? Hiley H. Ward advises reporters to deal with authorities and experts: “Never accept what a lay person or untrained observer believes in establishing an important point or analysis” (16).

Wilson’s theory of cognitive authority suggests that only those who “know what they are talking about” are recognized as cognitive authorities. People “recognize that some sources have more than ordinary competence in particular spheres; these become the cognitive authorities within those spheres” (Rieh and Danielson 6).

Sources should have a proven knowledge about the subject matter being discussed. For example, an economist’s opinion on the causes behind a recession would be more credible than that of a random shopper at a store. Ward tells journalists to compare sources: “Who has the greater credibility? Who is most likely to know?” (Ward 16).

The consequences of unreliable sources


An unreliable source may be someone who doesn’t have the authority or the knowledge to speak on a particular topic. In some cases, sources may be unreliable because their personal biases influence their version of a story, or they may simply make mistakes. In other cases, a source may be unreliable because he or she is outright lying or trying to mislead reporters.

In Regret the Error, Craig Silverman describes instances when hoaxers, liars and spin doctors have taken advantage of the news media:

The absence of effective checks and balances to prevent people from having their way with media organizations means readers and viewers are regularly treated to fake and otherwise incorrect stories. In these examples, the conscious fibbing and manipulation by a source combines with the willingness of journalists to take newsworthy stories at face value and rush them out into the world. Unreliable sources take advantage of the news media’s need to find an untold story or locate a great source to illuminate the news of the day. (139)

For example, in 2004, the BBC, Reuters, CNN and London’s Telegraph, among others, all reported on a phenomenon called “toothing”—people using Bluetooth phones to solicit and engage in anonymous sex with others. It turned out that “toothing” was a hoax launched by two men who created a fake forum and posted messages posing as eager “toothers.” The pair created the hoax to see if the media was as gullible as they expected (Silverman 138).

Others have claimed to be someone they are not. In 2006, the New York Times published a front-page story about the iconic “man in the hood” whose photo became a symbol of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. They profiled Ali Shalal Quaisi, who insisted that he was the man in the photograph. After Salon.com raised questions about the man’s identity, Quaisi eventually acknowledged he was not the man in the pictures, forcing the New York Times to publish a correction. Other media outlets had also cited Qaissi as the man in the hood, but they too were wrong. The Times’s public editor, Bruce Calame, said the paper had felt Quaisi was credible because other publications that were making the same claim had gone unchallenged (Silverman 144). It turned out that if the Times had only done some digging in their own archives, they would have discovered a 2004 story that had correctly identified the man in the hood.

There are a few reasons why reporters may be susceptible to using unreliable sources. In the above example, the Times accepted that Quaisi was who he said he was because other organizations were reporting the same thing. Time can also be a factor; in a 24-hour news cycle, journalists may not have the resources to perform detailed checks on their sources.

Silverman also raises another major weakness within the press—what he calls the search for the perfect source: “Journalists are always looking for that one great source to help illuminate a story, someone whose personal tale illuminates one of greater suffering or a greater good. A source that is the story, rather than someone who can just talk about it” (140). Journalists search for that perfect source, someone to hang the story on, by sending out mass emails, reaching out to friends, families and contacts. This leaves journalists open to manipulation. Some people try to be the perfect source to gain benefits, such as exposure or notoriety. Sometimes they think they are just giving the reporter what he seems to want. Either way, the source is not credible and reporters must remain skeptical and be careful not to be blinded by their search for the perfect source.

Because liars, hoaxers and unreliable sources exist and can inflict damage upon news coverage, Silverman says it is up to journalists to keep up their guard at all times (139).

Checking for reliability


Unfortunately, checking for source reliability doesn’t seem to be a common practice among reporters. A German study found that journalists only spend about 1 minute and 45 seconds per day checking sources in terms of plausibility or correctness (Machill and Beiler 182). During the work day under observation, only 53 of the 235 journalists performed a source check at least once, including phone calls, internal editorial discussion and online tools (189-90).

Machill and Beiler point to several factors that might account for this lack of cross-checking. One is a scarcity of time and financial resources in many newsrooms. Another explanation is that journalists may already know the majority of their sources and already trust the materials from news agencies. (182)

How much source checking is done should depend on the story. Journalists don’t usually check up on people they talk to for man-on-the-street stories. But for important stories, such as in-depth reports or stories of great magnitude, sources should be thorough checked. Brouse considers several factors when deciding how far to go when checking up on a source, though she seems to rely primarily on her own instincts:

Have I read all the material there is to read about Joe Blow, and does it contain any contradictions or suggestions that Mr. Blow might be less than truthful?...What impression does Mr. Blow make on the phone? Is he vague, blustery, earnest, slick? None of these is a completely reliable test of Mr. Blow’s truthfulness, but fact-checking is an art, not a science. (50)

Conflicts of interest and ulterior motives


Journalists are always advised to avoid any conflicts of interest, real or perceived, that they may hold which could influence their reporting of a story. Sources, too, may have their own conflicts of interest and journalists should try to be aware of them.

For example, in 2007, the Los Angeles Times had to publish a correction after it discovered that a source they had interviewed about her positive experience as a patient at Lindora Health Clinic was also in fact an employee of Lindora Inc. According to the publication, Carrie Clemens did not acknowledge this fact when asked about her place of employment (Roan). Conflicts of interest such as these damage a source’s credibility.

Sources may also have their own agendas or motives in speaking to the media. Journalists should consider what reasons a source may have for talking to them. Public relations and promotional personnel have an obvious mission; they want to tell the stories of the organization they work for from their perspectives. While journalists should be wary of PR tactics, Hebert Strentz points out that the PR mission is not necessarily incompatible with being helpful to reporters. Public relations personnel can still provide accurate information about a company. Strentz advises journalists to approach the news-gathering situation with a degree of good faith:

There is a difference between being open-minded and being naïve, just as there is a difference between being skeptical and inquisitive instead of being cynical and incredulous. Readers are better served by open-minded but skeptical and inquisitive reporters. (117)

Grant v. Torstar also acknowledges that sources with ulterior motives are not necessarily contradictory to responsible journalism, so long as a reporter takes steps to verify the information: “The fact that the defendant’s source had an axe to grind does not necessarily deprive the defendant of protection, provided other reasonable steps were taken.”

The issue of anonymous sources


The use of anonymous sources can be problematic when trying to establish reliability. Granting individuals the protection of anonymity means that they can say whatever they want without being held accountable for it. In a speech at the University of Kansas, John Quinn, then-editor of USA Today, told the audience:

Pity the poor reader, who is asked to believe that today’s informed sources are telling the truth when they say that last month’s informed sources are liars. If the press required those liars to put their names on their lies, there would be a lot less lying. The readers know that. They have concluded that those unidentified sources are a bunch of liars, and so are some of those who are quoting them and playing their game.

The source story is allowing the manipulators to lie, strategists to float trial balloons and willing journalists to impress their peers at the expense of their credibility with the public. (Quoted in Ward 19)

When a source asks for anonymity, a journalist should consider what their motives may be. Is he a whistle-blower who wants to reveal corruption at his company? Or is he an individual who wishes to launch criticisms against a public figure without having to defend them? “Anonymous sources will always exist, even in cases where they shouldn’t, and liars, hoaxers, and others out for self-gain will continue to call up newsrooms and pitch reporters,” writes Silverman. “The onus is on reporters and editors to keep an appropriate distance from sources while also questioning their motives. Reporters should always ask themselves that classic question: Qui bono? Who benefits?” (149)

Applying scientific methods to journalism


Some authors have pushed for the application of scientific methodologies in the practice of journalism. Phillip Meyer popularized the notion of “precision journalism,” the use of social and behavioural science research techniques in news gathering. While “new journalists” like Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe have pushed journalism toward art in their search for truth, Meyer suggests that a better approach is to push journalism toward science: “Scientific method offers a way to make happenings objectified, measured, and named” (5).

Miranda, Vercellesi and Bruno suggest extending scientific methods to the assessment of sources. While many journalists may simply “trust their gut” or “use common sense” when deciding if someone seems dubious, Mirada, Vercellesi and Bruno have attempted to classify journalistic sources and create an objective framework for evaluating them.

The science world in particular places great importance on evaluating sources. Journal articles are rated by an objective measure called the “impact factor,” which is based on the number of citations an article receives over a certain time period. A similar objective criterion does not exist for journalistic sources.

Miranda, Vercellesi and Bruno designed a checklist for assessing sources in an attempt to provide a methodological tool specifically for medical journalists. Their checklist contains the following questions (270):

  • Have the findings been published in a peer-reviewed journal?
  • Has the institution a high reputation?
  • Has the author(s) a good track record in the field?
  • Are there any conflicts of interest?
  • Who funded the study?

With some modification, this framework could be adapted for use by all journalists, not just those reporting on science. When verifying a source a journalist can ask similar questions:

  • Does the person have a high reputation? Do people who know him—neighbours or colleagues—consider him to be trustworthy?
  • Does the person or institution have a good track record in their field? Is she authoritative?
  • Is the source knowledgeable on the subject? Is she considered an expert?
  • Are there any conflicts of interest? Who does the source work for? Does the source have an underlying motive or agenda and does it seem to influence his opinion?

These are all important questions to ask when trying to assess a source’s reliability. The above questions are not a perfect or complete test of credibility, and other factors may have to be considered depending on the context of a particular story or source. However, the development of guidelines or methodology to verify the reliability of sources is important to the practice of responsible journalism.



Works Cited


Brouse, Cynthia. After the Fact: A Guide to Fact-Checking for Magazines and Other Media. Toronto: Ryerson University, 2007. Print.



Grant v. Torstar Corp. 2009 SCC 61. Supreme Court of Canada. 22 December 2009. Web. <http://csc.lexum.umontreal.ca/en/2009/2009scc61/2009scc61.html>

Kiousis, Spiro. "Public Trust or Mistrust? Perceptions of Media Credibility in the Information Age." Mass Communication and Society 4.4 (2001): 381-403. Print.

Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know nd the Public Should Expect. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. Print.
Machill, Marcel, and Markus Beiler. “The Importance of the Internet for Journalistic Research.” Journalism Studies 10.2 (2009): 178-203. Print.

Meyer, Philip. The New Precision Journalism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Print.

Miranda, Giovanna F., Luisa Vercellesi, and Flavia Bruno. “Information sources in biomedical science and medical journalism: methodological approaches and assessment.” Pharmacological Research 50 (2004): 267-272. Print.

Reynolds v. Times Newspaper Limited and Others. House of Lords. 28 October 1999. Web. <http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld199899/ldjudgmt/jd991028/rey01.htm>

Rieh, Soo Young., and David R. Danielson. “Credibility: A multidisciplinary framework.” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 41 (2007): 307-364. Web. <http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.105.2429&rep=rep1&type=pdf>

Roan, Shari. “Bread, milk -- and a diagnosis.” Los Angeles Times. 22 January 2007. Web. <http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jan/22/health/he-walkin22>

Sigal, Leon V. “Sources make the news.” Reading the News : a Pantheon guide to popular culture. Ed. Karl Manoff and Michael Schudson. New York : Pantheon Books, 1987. 9-37. Print.

Silverman, Craig. Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007. Print.

Stentz, Herbert. News Reporters and News Sources: Accomplices in shaping and misshaping the news. Des Moines: Iowa State University Press, 1989. Print.

Ward, Hiley H. Reporting in Depth. Mountain View, Calif. : Mayfield Pub., 1991. Print.

Whitehead, Jack L., Jr. “Factors of Source Credibility.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 54.1 (1968): 59-63. Print.



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