Use of Sources in Journalism

The use of sources by journalists is one of the most perplexing issues in this professional area. A journalist needs a good, credible source to write a fair and balanced story. Every time that a journalist uses a source, a decision has to be made on credibility. Journalists and editors at the British Broadcasting Corporation (B.B.C.) make decisions every day about which stories they should cover and which sources they should use. The B.B.C. advises its journalists to use sources they trust and to check with at least two difference sources, supporting the organization's key news values of truth and accuracy.

According to research by Jane Delano Brown, Carl Bybee, Stanley Wearden and Dulcie Murdock Straughan which examined the use of sources in American national dailies and the local newspapers of North Carolina from 1979 and 1980, the majority of first-page articles cited government sources. Regarding gender, the study found that male sources dominated over female by a large proportion. In addition, the research showed that most of the content came from routine channels, such as press conferences and official briefings. Dan Berkowitz replicated this study in 1987 but focused on television in the United States as the main area of his research. The findings were similar with routine channels mostly used for obtaining information and male government officials dominating the source pool.

One of the toughest challenge in the relationship between a journalist and a source is the request for confidentiality. Several difficulties arise such as keeping the anonymity of a source but balancing this against credibility. This anonymity may rob the editor of the chance to assess the credibility of a story. This issue was illustrated by the case of Janet Cooke, a reporter for a U.S. newspaper, who in 1980 told the story of an eight-year-old drug addict. The newspaper published the story, called Jimmy's World, which subsequently received a Pulitzer Prize. The paper discovered that Jimmy had never existed and that he had been fabricated by Cooke. The prize was returned and the paper endured great embarrassment.

Another negative consequence of the confidentiality request is that when it is granted, the sources may be tempted to lie on the grounds that they would not be identified by the readers. Confidentiality may also lead to legal problems. A reporter or an editor may be subjected to legal prosecution if they do not identify the source of a story that leads to a criminal trial. According to one U.S. newspaper's guidelines on confidentiality, there are three reasons to identify a source even if confidentiality was granted. The first is obtaining evidence that the source lied, the second is a life or death situation and the third is a court order. Problems may also arise from the use of sources in highly-specialized areas like technology or medicine. A survey of by Dunwoody and Michael Ryan revealed that when selecting scientists as sources, journalists do not always take into account the areas of expertise of the scientist. As a result, 153 of 187 scientists who talked to reporters said that the bulk of these talks had focused on topics tangential or outside of their field of expertise.

The 21st century has seen an increased use of online social networking, a trend that has affected journalism and sourcing of information. According to Annual Digital Journalism Study (2011) by the Oriella PR network, the number of journalists using the websites of social networks has steeply risen since 2010. Almost half of the respondents from 15 countries confirmed they used online networks for obtaining information or verifying it. However, only 4 percent of those polled said they turned first to the online social media for information.

Leading news agency Reuters has published The Essentials of Reuters Sourcing. It states: "Our reputation for accuracy and freedom from bias rests on the credibility of our sourcing." The guidelines advise that a named source is preferable to an unnamed source and that anonymous sources are "the weakest sources." Its comprehensive guide has a wide range of how to assess sources in journalism, ranging from cultivating and dealing with sources, to using single source stories and police sources, reporting rumours and picking up sources from Twitter and other social media. In its Editorial Guidelines, the BBC advises "great care should be taken when using online sources." It continues: "Those conducting research should corroborate any information they find and check the identity of any contributor they wish to use."

Use of Sources in Journalism: Selected full-text books and articles

Reporting for the Media By F. E. Fedler; John R. Bender; Lucinda Davenport; Michael W. Drager Oxford University Press, 2005
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "Quotations and Attribution"
Unnamed and Anonymous Sources: Did They Shape the Debate over Invading Iraq? By Hatcher, John A Global Media Journal, Vol. 10, No. 17, Fall 2010
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
National Security Information Flow: From Source to Reporter's Privilege By Bejesky, Robert St. Thomas Law Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, Summer 2012
Evidence - Journalist Privilege - District of Columbia Circuit Holds That Privacy Act Suit Satisfies Two-Prong Test to Overcome Journalist Privilege to Conceal Confidential Sources Harvard Law Review, Vol. 119, No. 6, April 2006
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Freeing Newsgathering from the Reporter's Privilege By Randall, Jaynie The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 114, No. 7, May 2005
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