Selecting the right sources to quote and use to tell stories is helpful to increasingly skeptical news consumers confounded by a 24-hour news cycle and mobile devices overrun with false rumors and inaccurate information.
Choosing the wrong sources could cause them to question the trustworthiness of a story and the news organization that published or broadcast it.
The Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University has guidelines for readers, viewers and listeners to evaluate the sources journalists use in their stories — protocol reporters already should know to consider:
- Independent sources are better than self-interested sources.
- Multiple sources are better than single sources.
- Sources who verify with evidence are better than sources who assert.
- Authoritative or informed sources are better than uninformed sources.
- Named sources are better than unnamed sources.
“Our experience in teaching more than 10,000 college-age news consumers is that helping them evaluate sources within a news story is a crucial step in building their ability to judge the reliability of a story, whether they can reach a conclusion, make a judgment, take an action or share the story,” said Howard Schneider, executive director of the center and dean of Stony Brook’s journalism school.
Finding the right sources can give readers a perspective, depth of understanding and context they otherwise may not get, said Ruby Bailey, executive editor of the Columbia Missourian. But they are not without bias, so disclosing their interests or links to a news topic can help readers judge the value of the information they provide, she said.
Sources who represent the diversity of communities are better than those from a single demographic, allowing news consumers to hear perspectives from people different than themselves, Bailey said.
“Just to be intellectually curious … requires us to care about somebody’s opinion other than our own,” Bailey said. The best sources “represent a diversity of thought, gender, culture, age and experience.”
The use of unnamed sources can be confusing to news consumers, with some believing an anonymous source might be unknown to the reporter, which is not normally the case. Often reporters must tell a manager the names of sources who are not identified in their stories.
News organizations that use unnamed sources the most generally have a policy for their use. Many require their journalists to make all attempts to get sources to agree to have their names used.
“When we use an unnamed source, we are asking our readers to take an extra step to trust the credibility of the information we are providing,” The Washington Post’s policy says. “We must be certain in our own minds that the benefit to readers is worth the cost in credibility.”
Rod Hicks is Journalist on Call for the Society of Professional Journalists