The term ‘news source’ refers to any person, organization, document, or object that provides information to journalists. This may include the spokesperson for an international aid group, an academic, or a regular citizen who witnessed an event. It may also include press releases, court filings, reports published by interest groups, or datasets produced by government agencies.
Sources are crucial to journalism for several reasons. First, journalists cannot observe everything first-hand. For example, they may be asked to write a story about an individual killed by an on-duty police officer, even though the journalist did not witness the shooting. As such, the journalist must seek out individuals who may have seen the shooting and triangulate their accounts to approximate the truth about what happened. Second, journalists lack expertise in certain matters, and they must therefore speak with an expert source (e.g., a climate scientist) in order to better inform news audiences. Third, sources are sometimes the center of a story, as with the head of a government agency who is alleged to have engaged in corrupt acts and should be given a chance to respond to the allegations.
However, the relationship is not unidirectional. Sources also need journalists. First, sources often depend on journalists to spread their views. Without the support of international media, for example, a climatologist’s research findings may not receive a great deal of attention or impact policymakers around the globe. Second, sources gain legitimacy by being featured in respected news media. For example, a rebel leader in Kyrgyzstan may be seen as important (and possibly legitimate) if they’re deemed worthy of being profiled by The New York Times. And, third, sources often have agendas of their own and seek to promote them by gaining media attention. For example, the head of an agency may play up international tensions for a news story in order to secure more funding for their agency.
Sourcing is particularly important because some scholars have argued that what a source is quoted as saying can be even more important than what the journalist writes. That is, news audiences may view the source as being more knowledgeable than the journalist, and thus view the quote as more authoritative than the surrounding context offered by the journalist. (Conversely, audiences may also view the source as more self-interested, especially if they already have low trust in that kind of source.) Moreover, even when they are not quoted, sources often influence how journalists think about a development and consequently produce news about it.
Given that both journalists and sources often have something to gain and lose in their exchanges, the practice of sourcing can also be thought about as an exchange of power. The journalist-source relationship can be adversarial as well as mutually beneficial. For example, a journalist may benefit from having frequent access to a high-ranking official, who in turn benefits from having a sympathetic ear during times of distress. Conversely, a journalist may receive public acclaim for producing a story that details a previous source’s dishonesty.
This negotiation of power is further implicated by notions of reputation and authority. Journalists are more likely to receive access to sources and cooperation from them if the journalist (or the organization they work for) is perceived to be prestigious, or if they have access to an audience of interest to the source. For example, a highly partisan commentator on YouTube may get an exclusive interview with a high-profile politician because the politician is trying to increase their outreach with younger members of their base. There is considerable inequity in who is able to draw on specific information sources, and often in ways that favor high-profile, mainstream journalistic outlets or news media with desirable niche audiences.
In a similar vein, sources are themselves more likely to be selected by journalists if they are located prominently within a power structure. Put another way, the closer a source is to the locus of power, the more likely it is that a journalist will believe that they are worthy of being interviewed. This is because cultures of journalism often treat those with power as being particularly worthy of attention (given their ability to influence society or some development), and because their position of power is often seen as an indicator of some measure of ‘legitimacy’ (at minimum to some group of people).
Scholars have found that individuals who occupy positions of authority are more likely to have their versions of ‘truth’ be more readily accepted both by journalists and news audiences. Conversely, those who are seen or treated as ‘outsiders’ or ‘underdogs’ are typically not taken as seriously. For example, journalists have historically been more deferential to a police officer’s account of an officer-involved shooting than the victim’s.
Growing polarization has challenged this, however, especially when it comes to political actors. In such cases, powerful individuals are simultaneously more likely to have their version of ‘truth’ readily accepted by one group and readily rejected by another. Nevertheless, the apparent existence of a hierarchy of credibility points to a journalistic bias to be more deferential to institutional sources like police officers, military commanders, and other government officials — even in cases where journalists do not fully trust them.
While deference to sources in positions of power (or produced by people or organizations in positions of power) is a common finding across countries, scholars have also found that journalistic trust in institutional structures can vary considerably across countries. For example, journalists in some countries (e.g., Estonia and the United Arab Emirates) express a relatively high degree of trust in the police, while those in others (e.g., Argentina and Tanzania) express low trust. Journalists in the U.S. tend to have relatively low levels of trust in the institutions they cover. Put another way, most U.S. journalists approach claims with a healthy skepticism, even if they’re coming from powerful institutions like the U.S. government or the military.
Sourcing practices aren’t defined solely by power structures, though. Journalists and their sources are human beings, and they are thus subject to a range of human biases.
One particularly important bias is homophily, or the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with people who are similar to them. In the context of journalist-source relations, it produces a phenomenon wherein journalists are more likely to interview people who share their characteristics. Put another way, male journalists are more likely to interview male sources while female journalists are more likely to interview female sources. Similarly, journalists of color are more likely to interview sources of color, and so on.
There is less and less-clear evidence about how this phenomenon impacts how sources respond to journalists — that is, if it impacts their willingness to speak to a journalist who does not share their characteristics. However, there is enough evidence from psychology and sociology to presume that sources would be less willing to open up to someone who appears to be a stranger. This, in turn, raises important concerns about the historic over-representation of white, male journalists both domestically (in the case of the U.S.) and internationally (as foreign correspondents reporting on developments around the globe).
Another important consideration has to do with the simple availability of sources. Reporters typically operate on deadlines, be it a fixed deadline in the case of traditional media or a continuous, ASAP deadline in the case of many online media. Because of this deadline pressure, journalists are drawn to sources who are predictable and responsive.
Put another way, journalists will often turn to sources who respond often and quickly. They maintain address books with recurring sources, which in turn increases the likelihood of the same sources being interviewed. This is especially the case for public information officers or press agents, or public relations professionals whose job it is to respond to media requests and whose training allows them to promote perspectives favorable to their employer.
The growing resource constraints and inequities within journalism has thus resulted in an even greater reliance on sources who are readily available, since journalists continue to be pressed to do more work with fewer resources (and the same, if not quicker, time restrictions). That, in turn, benefits official and privileged sources who have the resources to respond often, quickly, and with a well-managed message. Indeed, empirical studies of news coverage — both domestic and international — routinely find an over-representation of government sources and spokespeople.
News sources refer to people, organizations, documents, or objects that provide information to journalists. This may include a spokesperson or a report produced by an agency.
News sourcing involves exchanges of power, with both journalists and sources having something at stake. Additionally, both journalists and sources are more likely to be interacted with if they are located in high places within their respective power structures.
Journalists are more likely to interview sources who share important visible characteristics with them. Additionally, sources who are more readily accessible are usually more likely to be interviewed by journalists.