Sources: Reliability and Attribution

This section addresses these ethical issues:

Using reliable sources and properly attributing information to them are essential to the practice of journalism in all media. The fundamental principles at the start of this project guide all journalists to, “Ensure that sources are reliable. To the maximum extent possible, make clear to your audience who and what your sources are, what motivations your sources may have and any conditions people have set for giving you information.” Doing so is part of telling the truth, which is a key way that journalists serve their audiences.

Assessing reliability of sources

Thinking critically about source reliability is important both in the initial search for sources during story development and in later evaluation during editing. You should always ask yourself questions like the following:

What are the biases of the source?

Does he or she have any conflicts of interest? No one is free of a viewpoint, but be aware of the source’s perspective and consider what gaps or blind spots may go with that perspective.

In stories on scientific and technical matters, for example, beware of biases on one side of disputed topics. It may be hard to find an expert on a specific drug, but there are dangers in turning to the company that makes the drug for help in finding someone. The company is hardly likely to connect you with someone who thinks the drug is dangerous.

Are the places you are looking for sources potentially skewing the range of viewpoints?

Think about the social, political and economic makeup of organizations that may serve as potential sources, as well as the geographic locations and online communities in which you seek sources.

“Ordinary people” stories can present sourcing problems. Think about the biases that may arise from using different social media to find sources. For example, if you use Twitter to find people to interview about what they bought their kids for Christmas, are you looking to a skewed sample (richer people, more liberal politically)? If you post on Facebook via people you know, what kind of people will see your note there?

How does the source know something?

Considerations include whether the person received information firsthand, whether the original source was reliable and whether the person’s knowledge is up to date.

It’s easy to take information from someone that appears authoritative because the person has a title, but that is no guarantee the information itself is accurate.

Attributing to sources

Attribution is the key way that journalists signal the reliability of what they are reporting. It should be clear enough so that readers can assess the reliability for themselves. Consider these questions:

Is the language of the attribution as clear and detailed as possible?

That means being specific — at least name, title (if any) and affiliation/organization. Even if confidential sources are used, the attribution should tell readers as much as possible (e.g. “according to a senior military official who had read the classified report”) Where relevant, give detail that may signal bias or point of view (e.g. that the study a scientist carried out about a drug’s effectiveness was funded by the manufacturer).

Does a link provide clear enough attribution, or is more needed?

In online stories, linking is a key part of attribution. It can help users see and evaluate the source’s reliability in much more detail than a phrase of attribution alone. In some cases, linked text may be enough for proper attribution, but it’s important to consider whether an additional attributing phrase is needed for clarity.

Where is the attribution placed?

Some people believe that if you have firmly established that something is true, you can just report it as fact at the top of the story and put the attribution in later. Others think it’s important to attribute from the start. In a chronological account, some people think one attribution at the start is enough, but others think it needs to be repeated. Again the key question is whether the source of the information will be clear to readers, viewers or listeners.

The main author of this section is David Craig of the University of Oklahoma.

See also the sections in this project on “Confidential Sources” and “Interviewing.

Additional Resources
You can quote me on that: Advice on attribution for journalists, Steve Buttry