Declining trust and the rise of fake news is pushing fact-checking and the importance of credible news sources into the spotlight.
Tanzanian media trainer Leah Mushi says that as much as journalists want to be the first to break the story, it is very important to check the credibility of the source and the authenticity of the information.
“People will not remember who broke the story but rather who got it wrong,” Mushi warns. “Take time to use fact checking tools, make a few calls, and look deep into those documents before publishing a story.”
Uganda’s Monitor Publications’ digital content managing editor Carol Beyanga agrees: “Check online, on social media and with other people you trust to find out if the information sources give about themselves corroborates with what you find from other sources.”
Mushi says a good source is one that can add value to your story. “The source can be can be a professional, eye witness, policy expert on that area, (written) reports or a law in the country.”
Beyanga says a good source includes someone who not only give tips on stories but also is readily available when you need to talk to them and who provides credible information.
“Sources are different. They have different levels of trust in you, the reporter, and act differently towards a published story,” she adds.
“Just because someone does not give you tips regularly does not mean she or he is not a good source. They might give one tip in months or even years, but the tip ends up being a huge story. Or they might insist on never really meeting you in a place and yet their information always checks out.”
Beyanga also advises reporters to do separate research on their sources: “Keep a track record of your source on the kind of tips and information she or he has given you. If most of what they say turns out to be true, they are most likely someone you can trust compared to if the information they give half the time ends up being exaggerated or untrue,” she says.
Acknowledging that sources have a motive for giving information, Beyanga says journalists should know that: “If it turns out that sources have ulterior motives, e.g. they are fighting someone in their office, have a stake in a company, etc., you should be careful. It doesn’t mean you should stop using them as a source, but it means you need to triple check your stories and the angling so that you do not play into their “game”.
Africa Check editor Anim van Wyk advises that reporters seek out primary sources for their stories. Van Wyk says secondary sources may mis-state original sources: “We frequently come across this at Africa Check. Another problem [of using secondary sources] is that information may appear to be more recent than it is.”
Africa Check is Africa’s first independent fact-checking organisation with numerous resources for reporters on the continent.
Conducting research and applying the correct questioning and verification methods decreases the chances of information misinterpretation, notes Beyanga.
Mushi says the internet can be a useful resource: “All journalists (should) use the internet to educate and update themselves.”
frayintermedia recognises that a journalist is only as good as the sources they cultivate. Here are some tips to improve sourcing:
1. Invest in building your network of sources by reaching out to potential sources long before you might need them to be a source in your story.
2. Go beyond source contact details: Know your source’s expertise and limitations.
3. Create a source map for complex stories: Understand which facts have been verified and can be attributed to which sources. Identify and then fill any source gaps.
4. Don’t assume credibility: Even if you know the source, ask critical questions about the information.
5. Ask how would the source know this: Check whether your source is in a position to know first hand the information they are giving. Are they directly related to the story or is this second-hand information.
6. Aim to use primary sources where possible and multiple sources to corroborate critical information
7. Verify the key facts: Ask the source for additional evidence such as documents, other eyewitnesses…
8. Verify documents, pictures and videos before sharing.
9. Don’t assume accuracy because it is published online: Check the information against source materials.
10. Only use anonymous sources when there are valid reasons such as safety concerns. Have you told your audience why the source cannot be named?
11. Be ethical in your use of sources and their information. Remember ethical principles include to seek the truth and report it as fully as possible; act independently; minimise harm and be accountable.
12. Do a final fact check before submitting for publication.