Reporting often involves the presentation of conflicting information from different sources. When this happens, reporters must be diligent in verifying the facts and seeking multiple perspectives. Ultimately, the goal is to provide the context, evidence, and analysis needed for the audience to make an informed judgment. And in moments when information is hard to assess accurately, it is critical for reporters to explain to their readers why they couldn’t obtain that information.
For example, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, two credible health institutions offered contradictory stances on the efficacy of masks to prevent the spread of the virus. In March 2020, the World Health Organization recommended masks only for those who were sick or caring for sick individuals, not the general public.
Shortly after, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention learned more about the airborne virus, it revised its earlier guidance on masks and recommended that everyone wear them, but this contradiction led to confusion and debate as both organizations are widely respected and recognized as trustworthy sources.
With any source, establishing credibility is critical. To ensure their sources are reputable and trustworthy, reporters should assess their reputation. Are they known for their accuracy and impartiality? Do they have relevant expertise or proximity to the story? Do they have any grudges or financial entanglements that would motivate them to lie, or are they independent?
Sometimes bias can explain why two sources disagree on their depiction of events. Take, for example, descriptions of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the starkly different accounts even within Russia. During a live broadcast on Russia’s state-run Channel One news in March 2022 , Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova protested Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a “No War” sign on air.
It’s also no surprise that Ukrainian sources refute Russian sources on the state of the conflict. An early narrative by Ukrainian officials alleged that Russia was providing weapons and troops to separatist rebels, while Russian sources denied any involvement and accused Ukraine of instigating the hostilities. Each side had an incentive to play up the actions of their enemy to establish a moral high ground and justify military actions.
The fast-moving nature of a military conflict like the war in Ukraine often gives rise to a “fog of war,” marked by incomplete or inaccurate information, miscommunication and conflicting accounts. These conditions make it even harder for journalists to verify information and assess what is really happening.
These challenges are evident when reviewing recent stories about the besieged city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. Reports differ on the extent of control by Russian forces and whether Ukrainian troops are withdrawing. Both sides are quick to portray their position in the most favorable light, emphasizing a narrative of growing momentum and increasing enemy losses. In these situations, there is no substitute for reporting from the field, but even then, journalists must be extremely deliberate in their verification process because their stories can influence both domestic and international support.