ARTICLE: Why do journalists rely on unverified sources?

Untitled by tookapic, licence CC0 1.0

How do journalists decide which distant sources they can use, asks Florian Wintterlin, of University of Muenster. Wintterlin interviewed 12 German journalists, whose work often involves using distant sources, such as social media accounts posting from Syria.

Verification of information is still valued by the journalists, but often the journalists lack the time and other resources to do it. Especially in cases of high-impact breaking news, newsrooms often want to get the information out as soon as possible. When verification is not an option, journalists need to choose whether or not they can trust their sources – but what do they base that trust on?

Journalists first try and assess the perceived trustworthiness of the source, for example whether it is associated with a reputable organisation. Sometimes there is neither time for verification nor information on the source’s trustworthiness. In cases like these, journalists have to rely on their “gut instinct”, Wintterlin writes.

Altogether, the use of unverified sources is based on “reflexive trust” – a combination of trustworthiness assessment and risk assessment, both contrasted with available time and resources.

The article “Trust in distant sources” was published by the journal Journalism. It is available online on the publisher’s website (free abstract).

Picture: Untitled by tookapic, licence CC0 1.0.

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