The term ’news source’ refers to any person, organization, document, or object that provides information to journalists. This may include the spokesperson for an international aid group, an academic, or a regular citizen who witnessed an event. It may also include press releases, court filings, reports published by interest groups, or datasets produced by government agencies.
Sources are crucial to journalism. First, journalists cannot observe everything first-hand. For example, they may be asked to write a story about an individual killed by an on-duty police officer, even though the journalist did not witness the shooting. As such, the journalist must seek out individuals who may have seen the shooting and triangulate their accounts to estimate the truth about what happened. Second, journalists lack expertise in certain matters, and they must therefore speak with an expert source (e.g., a climate scientist) in order to better inform news audiences. Third, sources are sometimes the center of a story, as with the head of a government agency who is alleged to have engaged in corrupt acts.
Sources are often featured in news stories because they have some form of expertise that is of relevance to the story. Expertise simply refers to skill or knowledge in a particular area.
Although “expertise” is sometimes thought about as a special form of knowledge — something that only exceptional individuals can possess — it turns out that most people are actually experts of some kind. For example, I am an expert on the intersection of journalism and technology as a result of my extensive academic study in that area. However, I am also an expert on what it is like to watch the Arsenal football team over the past decade, seeing as I’ve rarely missed a game. I’m also an expert on what my neighborhood sounds like at night, seeing as I’ve regularly slept there for the past few years.
While I may be an expert on those three things, I am certainly not an expert on many other things. For example, my fashion sense is limited at best, and I would certainly have little to offer a journalist producing a story about the latest fashion trends. Similarly, while I am certainly knowledgeable about what it is like to watch soccer, my expertise on how to dribble effectively in a game is lacking (by many accounts).
This way of thinking helps journalists recognize that expertise is neither universal nor something only held by a certain kind of person (i.e., someone with a specific background or education). Rather, expertise is contingent on the subject matter at hand and may be possessed by a range of different potential sources.
News stories tend to have multiple sources, and they typically draw upon multiple forms of expertise as well as expertise in different areas. Thus, it is helpful to think about the main purpose of the story and the mix of sources necessary to flesh out that purpose.
For example, in 2019, the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois collaborated on an investigative story titled “The Quiet Rooms” that examined the disciplinary practice of secluding (and isolating) unruly students in public schools around Illinois. The story was rooted in a comprehensive analysis of a database of reports about incidents that resulted in a child being sent into an isolation room. However, in order to answer the questions of ‘why’ (does this happen?), ‘how’ (does this get overlooked?), and ‘what’ (is the impact of these practices?), the story also drew upon sources with expertise that the database cannot offer. It sourced information from scientific experts who study educational practices and could assess the effectiveness of tactics like social seclusion. It included information from advocates who have expertise on the prevalence of the issue and the challenges to addressing it. It sourced information from school district officials, who have expertise in the day-to-day activities of running a school system and dealing with an array of disciplinary issues. And, it included quotes from schoolchildren who experienced seclusion, and thus have expertise in what it feels like to be isolated.
In short, that story was able to paint a very comprehensive picture of the practice of seclusion in Illinois because it drew on multiple sources, each of whom could contribute something different to a story. While the number of sources for that story was exceptional (ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune spoke with more than 120 sources), the emphasis on seeking out a diversified mix of sources is common to both in-depth investigative journalism and day-to-day general assignment reporting.
When writing a story, journalists must thus think about the central question(s) they are aiming to address with their story. Then, they should seek out the sources that have the expertise necessary to address each of those questions from different vantage points.
Throughout this process, the journalist should frequently ask themselves: Why is this person qualified to answer this question? Perhaps, it is because they have extensively studied that phenomenon. Perhaps, it is because they hold a position that makes them the ultimate decision-making authority. Perhaps, it is because they have lived experience with that issue.
Additionally, journalists often strive to offer contrasting opinions in their stories in order to introduce competing ideas (and reduce the impacts of the journalist’s own biases on the story). Thus, journalists rarely settle for a single source in any one area. Instead, they typically talk to many. (Oftentimes, sources are interviewed but never included in the story because a different source can articulate a point better.) Put another way, good journalists challenge themselves to actively seek out a diversity of voices, perspectives, and identities. They seek out individuals with different backgrounds, life experiences, and areas of expertise.
Following a strategy of interviewing people who can offer different perspectives can help produce a more well-rounded story. However, journalists should take care to avoid false balance — or the portrayal of opposing viewpoints as equally legitimate, even when one is more grounded in evidence or better corroborated by other trustworthy sources. (For example, journalists should not seek out a climate change denier simply to offer an alternative — and discredited — perspective.) Indeed, journalists sometimes end up promoting misinformation in the search for balance, which effectively goes against their purpose as journalists.
Sourcing is ultimately a highly consequential act, but by focusing on the expertise of individual sources and incorporating a diverse mix of sources, journalists can produce better, more informative stories.