Sources are the individuals that reporters interview to obtain information. It is on this information that news stories are based. Because no standard definition exists for what constitutes a source, documents such as accident reports, corporate press releases, and even other news media reports sometimes serve as sources, providing information that becomes part of, or the basis of, news stories.
Sources also originate news. They call reporters, send press releases, or provide documents in an attempt to disseminate their views through the mass media. By originating news stories and providing viewpoints to reporters, sources have a major influence on the framing of news stories (Sigal 1973).
Types Of Sources
Studies have examined the types of sources used by reporters in countries such as New Zealand, Hong Kong, the United States, Great Britain, and Denmark, and the results show similar sourcing patterns in most cases. Individuals interviewed and identified in stories are called on-the-record sources. Reporters are expected to quote and identify these sources accurately. Reporters have been dismissed for falsifying sources’ identities and quotations (Quill 2004).
Different types of news stories use different sources. With breaking news, which concerns unplanned events, reporters locate individuals who were involved in, or who observed, the event. The term breaking news originated in television and refers to breaking into other programs to report on an important, unfolding event. In breaking news about accidents, crimes, and disasters, sources may include victims, police, relatives, or bystanders, who give the reporter their understanding of the event. The use of multiple sources gives news stories a multidimensionality they would lack if they relied on a single source. Reporters can also turn to so-called expert sources, who provide insights not available on the scene (Albaek et al. 2003; Soley 1992). For example, in the case of natural disasters following a hurricane, reporters interview meteorologists, oceanographers, or other scientists who can explain the causes. Typically, breaking news stories use a wider variety of sources than do routine, beat news stories.
For beat news, reporters cover a particular topic, government branch, or industry they consider newsworthy. Typical beats include city government, the legislature, political campaigns, and education. As beat reporters cover the issues, they develop and maintain relationships with sources of information, who usually have an appointment in a government agency, a trade association, a political campaign, or a public relations department of a corporation. These individuals are referred to as routine sources. A reporter depends on regular interaction with these sources, who in turn rely on the reporter to disseminate their views. The two have a reciprocal relationship that meets the needs of both.
In the United States, for instance, routine sources are not typical of the general population, tending to come from businesses, the professions, and government. For example, studies of routine sources quoted in news stories show that over half are government officials, and the next largest group is made up of spokespersons for businesses and industries (Berkowitz & Beach 1993; Brown et al. 1987; Comrie 1999). These sources tend to be higher-status white males with more influence than the average citizen, which is why news tends to reflect the viewpoints of those in power. Entrenched, powerful institutions are the focus of news stories, and reporters predominantly draw on sources from these institutions. Studies of news sources show that women, minorities, labor union representatives, and other less powerful groups are underrepresented compared to their numbers in the population (Freedman & Fico 2005; Manning 2001; Whitney et al. 1989).
Another reason why news sources in the United States tend to be white, male, higherstatus, and more influential than the general population is that reporters tend to locate and interview sources who are like themselves. As sociologist Herbert Gans observed, journalists “find it easier to make contact with sources similar to them in class position, as well as race, age, and other characteristics” (1979, 125). This contention is born out by research showing, for example, that women reporters are more likely to use women as sources than are male journalists (Zeldes & Fico 2005).
Studies of reporters show that they are also college graduates, and as the prestige of the medium for which they work increases, so does the prestige of the college from which they took their degree. In the United States, Washington reporters, who represent many of the most prestigious national media, are predominantly men from the northeast who attended highly selective universities such as Columbia, which explains why their sources have similar characteristics. European journalists are demographically similar to US journalists, being male, white, and well educated (Manning 2001).
Identification Of Sources
Journalists usually identify most sources by name and official position in news stories, but not always, particularly in Washington, DC, where officials prefer to speak with anonymity. When anonymous, the sources cannot be held responsible for their statements. Reporters may describe such anonymous sources in news stories as a “high-ranking official” or a “senior official.”
Many news media have policies on using anonymous sources. The Associated Press (AP) wire service “Statement of news values and principles” advocates using anonymous sources only when (1) the information provided by the source is fact rather than an opinion, (2) the information would not be available otherwise, and (3) the source is reliable and has direct access to the information. Even under these conditions, reporters “must get approval from their news managers before sending the story to the desk.”
These principles developed in the United States because presidential administrations anonymously provided reporters with information that later turned out to be false. This happened so much during the Nixon years that Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee temporarily banned reporters from using unnamed sources in their stories (Bagdikian 2005).
However, non-US media and journalism associations have similar policies. The Finnish Union of Journalists’ “Guidelines for good journalistic practices” (2007) states that the “identity of a person providing confidential information cannot be disclosed without permission,” but also warns that sources “must be treated critically,” particularly in controversial matters: “the information source might have personal interests or the intention to cause damage.”
Rules For Confidentiality
Anonymous sources provide reporters with information in several ways, including “off the record” and “on background,” although there is no accepted definition of these terms. In response, some news organizations have developed their own definitions, which they expect their reporters to use. According to the AP (2007), “off the record” means that the information “cannot be used for publication.” For U.S. News & World Report reporter Edward Pound, “off the record” means that he “can’t use it unless I can get it elsewhere” (Shepard 1994, 23). AP journalists can publish background information along with a description of the source’s position, but without the direct identity of the source. They can also publish deep background information, but without identifying the source in any way. Those providing deep background are sometimes called confidential sources.
Despite differing definitions, anonymous sources are generally unavoidable, but must be used cautiously, because the information they provide would simply not be available if they had to identify themselves. One reason for caution is that they cannot be held publicly accountable for what they say. The confidentiality agreement between the reporter and source can also interfere with the reporters’ responsibility to the public to provide as much information as possible. US courts, however, using Branzburg v. Hayes (408 U.S. 665, 1972) as precedent, can order reporters to break their confidentiality agreements.
In the early 2000s US courts displaced a lenient interpretation of Branzburg, asserting that they can now require journalists to divulge information about sources. In contrast to those of the United States, courts of other countries, including Australia and Great Britain, have concluded that the confidentiality of news sources is necessary to protect the public right of access to information about government.
Controversies About News Sources
Several other controversies surround news sources, including reporters’ use of supposedly expert sources, who are not themselves participants in news events. The reporters interview these sources to gather either background information or predictions about the outcome of still-unfolding events. Research suggests that expert analysts, whom reporters refer to with such titles as Political Scientist, Scholar, or Economist, influence public opinion because journalists present them as well-informed, detached observers rather than as biased participants (Elliott & Sothirajah 1993; Page et al. 1987).
Although presented as unbiased experts, many such analysts are neither experts nor unbiased. Among many examples, one frequently quoted US expert, described as “the coauthor and editor of twelve books on government,” had actually coauthored only one book (Cooper & Soley 1990, 24).
Like Washington reporters, expert sources tend to be elites or have appointments at so-called think tanks. Think tanks are institutions whose primary purpose is to influence public policy and public opinion. The London-based Royal Institute for International Affairs (now called Chatham House), the Tel Aviv-based Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, and the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies house experts that reporters interview for stories in those countries.
Most think tanks have ideological orientations, but the news consumer usually remains unaware of their ideologies. For example, analysts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, DC, appeared frequently in interviews about the 1990s Gulf War (Kurtz 1991). The news reports, however, failed to reveal the conservative bent of the think tank and its sources of funding, which included the Pentagon and other government agencies, along with corporations holding large military contracts.
A related controversy surrounds the revolving door between sources and the news media, where the news media later hire influential sources to work as journalists. The practice raises the question whether partisan spokespersons can shed their party politics and become non-partisan journalists. In the United States, television hosts and reporters for ABC News and NBC News worked, and served as spokespersons, for government leaders (including US presidents and the partisan leadership of Congress) before being hired to work as journalists.
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