August 13, 2002

By Joann Byrd

These are questions and ideas journalists can use to help determine how trustworthy a source and his/her information may be.

Question motives:

  • What is the source’s agenda; what does the source have to gain? (Ask yourself: Did the source come to you? Is the source hiding something, shifting blame, promoting a particular viewpoint?)

Question relationships:

  • What is the relationship between the reporter and the source?
  • Do you fear losing the source?
  • Did you choose this source because you are in a rush and this source is usually good for a quote on deadline? Is there an alternative to this source?

Question reliability:

  • What is the source’s past reliability?
  • What is the source’s standing with his peers?
  • How representative is this view: the one employee with a complaint, or does this fit with other things you hear? How widely known is this particular information?
  • Ask the anonymous or new source: What am I going to find out about you? A source who is not experienced with the media (and may be part of a group we count as voiceless) should be approached with sensitivity. The reporter should make it clear that he wants the person to tell her story, but that certain questions are routine for all sources, to assure readers accurate information and to protect the paper and the source.
  • What proof does the source offer (voicemails, e-mail, written documents)?
  • How can I verify this information? What more do I need to know to be able to evaluate the information? (Consult a reliable person with expertise in the subject.)
  • Evaluate the age and maturity of the source: Is a 15-year-old credible?
  • How close is the source to the story? How does the source know what he knows?)
  • How dedicated is the source to getting the story told? (Would the person testify, be identified in the event of a libel case?) Does the person insist on the story running on her terms and timing?
  • If you told the source you were not going with the story tomorrow, it should not bother the person if his goal is the greater good; but it might bother him a lot if the goal is getting his name in the paper or slamming a target.
  • If the public knew where this information came from, would the public have reason to doubt it? (And what do I need to reveal about this source: even my skepticism about the source?)
  • Is this person the best authority?

Question assumptions:

  • Are there underlying assumptions that my source depends on and which I should question?
  • Are there underlying assumptions of mine that need to be questioned? Ask yourself: What are my own biases about this source, and my organization’s biases about this source?
  • What important viewpoints are not represented by this source?
  • As the source lays out the information, keep asking: How do you know this?


  • Use named sources; if you have to use an unnamed source, a named source is required for backup.
  • Sources must have verifiable knowledge of the story.
  • Question source’s motives, reporter’s interest in the story, and relationship to the source.
  • Will the source come forward if we are sued? If not, what is the person hiding?
  • Has the reporter used this source before and found her to be trustworthy?
  • The editor must have the name of an anonymous source before we go on the air.
  • Who are ultimate sources who can validate this person’s information?
  • What does the other side say about this information?
  • Make sure in advance that reporters do not promise anything to sources.

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Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill…
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