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Q: How transparent should a reporter be about a source who is not credible?

Protestor holding sign with cut out letters that spells Transparency Credit: Alec Perkins/CC https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

A:

There are two distinct situations that could lead to this scenario. In one, a reporter is working on a story but one of the sources is questionable. Perhaps the source’s story doesn’t add up, or facts can’t be verified. There could be questions about the source’s independence or whether he or she is really in a position to know this information. Or maybe the source is requesting anonymity or an off the record interview that violates the news outlet’s policies – or the journalist’s comfort level. 

In this case, either the story is killed or the reporter drops the source and finds another who meets the I’M VAIN criteria. This isn’t an issue of transparency. If a source isn’t solid, the reporter shouldn’t use the source at all, even if that means not reporting a story. 

But in the second scenario, a public official makes a claim that isn’t credible. Because this is a public official making a statement that people will hear whether journalists cover it or not, ignoring it isn’t a good option. Particularly with social media, officials can bypass the news outlets and get their messages directly to the public – even when those messages aren’t credible. 

In this case, journalists report the claim and use transparency to show the efforts made to verify it.

A great example is a recent Washington Post story: “Trump says he’s not contagious. Health experts say that’s not certain.” 

The story was based on President Donald Trump’s tweet: 

As the article notes, the tweet itself was flagged by Twitter for “misleading and potentially harmful misinformation.”

The story goes on to examine the tweet and a memo from Trump’s doctor, which said the president wasn’t a transmission risk. It notes both what the letter does say, and what it doesn’t–namely, that there’s no mention of a negative COVID-19 test.

The journalists also interview three infectious disease experts about what the “cryptic” letter could be referring to and provide context from the CDC guidelines about how long an infected person should isolate (10 days for mild to moderate cases, 20 days for severe ones.)

Transparency also comes into play when the reporters note that we don’t know how severe Trump’s COVID-19 case was, citing specific misleading information from the White House. 

While transparency involves showing the steps a reporter took to report a story, it also means pointing out–or admitting–what a journalist doesn’t know. When information can’t be verified or discredited outright, being upfront about what isn’t known can make the report more reliable.