Verifying secondhand sources: A primer and checklist
Editor’s Note: This post was updated on September 8, 2014.
When we talk about “sources” at Bleacher Report, we often mean something quite different from an anonymous, confidential or personal contact feeding a scoop. Although B/R has vetted a number of writers (they know who they are) to work closely with our editorial team to publish exclusive information obtained from such firsthand sources, that isn’t what we’re talking about here.
Instead, we mean a different kind of source, one that every writer in the digital space must know how to properly vet and present to readers: credible secondhand information obtained from another reporter or media outlet.
The challenge for all writers in choosing whether to use any piece of information—firsthand, secondhand or otherwise—is verification. Nobody wants to be remembered as the person who got something wrong, or who passed along bad information.
Consider the cautionary tale of Dave Checketts, the former Utah Jazz and New York Knicks executive who reported over the radio in November 2011 that an NBA labor agreement was imminent. The report quickly proved to be erroneous, leading to Checketts being raked over the coals via social media.
Check out this Storify for an idea of how quickly and dramatically this impacted Checketts’ reputation.
You don’t want this to happen to you.
Fortunately, the Poynter Institute’s Jeff Sonderman laid out a number of considerations for evaluating sources in an excellent “How To” post in July 2011. Although he focused on verifying the credibility of news accounts published on social media, his guidelines can be translated more broadly to the evaluation of all published sources.
Sonderman’s guidelines are pasted in bold below, and I’ve added details to help relate those guidelines to verifying appropriate B/R sources.
“Consider the social history of the source.”
- Does the source have a history of reporting credible news, such as the New York Times, SI.com or a local outlet with beat writers?
- Does it have a clean track record of avoiding incorrect or erroneous reporting?
- Does it have a history of presenting information in a straightforward, objective manner? Is it known for being biased? If the latter, does that bias influence the report?
- Does it have a traditional editorial process in place for vetting sources and verifying reports? Major sports media outlets and traditional newspapers typically have such a process.
- Are its reporters respected as authorities on the sport/team/player/etc. in question?
- Does the outlet host wire stories and/or other syndicated content originating from other sources? If so, can you tell whether the report’s byline is someone directly affiliated with the outlet or syndicated from elsewhere?
- If the report is syndicated, be wary of assuming the report has been vetted through the outlet’s own editorial processes. Instead, you should keep digging until you find the original source of the story, and make your judgment based on that source, not the outlet that syndicated it.
- If your source is a Twitter account, is it affiliated with a respected organization? Do any tweets from this account contradict or recant the tweet in question?
- Fansites and message boards are NOT reliable sources of information.
“Ask: Was the source in a position to know what he claims to know?”
- Can you identify the level of access the reporter has to the story? Is it being reported firsthand? Secondhand? Even further removed than that? If not firsthand, you can and usually should find it elsewhere.
- Does the reporter clearly indicate where the information originated? Generally speaking, more specificity results in more accurate reporting.
- Specific: “Aaron Rodgers told me …”
- Anonymously vague: “A high-ranking team official said …”
- Intentionally vague: “I’m hearing rumblings …”
- Based on the available facts, is it reasonable that this reporter would be the one to break the news?
- How is the news presented? Once you’re satisfied with the credibility of the reporting, it’s equally critical to frame your headline and commentary appropriately:
- Fact: It has definitely happened
- Verifiable rumor: It may have happened, or is likely to happen
- Mere speculation: It could theoretically happen
“Seek official corroboration.”
- This should help you gather context for what’s being reported. You can generally find an “official” position via an official website, Twitter feed, league or team spokesperson, etc.
- How does the report compare with the most recent official position on the subject? Does it feel consistent, or at least like a reasonable development from that position?
- If it’s inconsistent with the official position, consider why that might be. Does this inconsistency make the report feel more or less plausible, based on your own experience?
“Seek social corroboration.”
- Continue gathering context by searching for additional reports that corroborate or contradict the report.
- Are other reputable media outlets running with the news, either from your source or otherwise? If so, are they presenting it as fact, rumor or speculation?
- If multiple outlets are running with it, it’s extremely important to credit the original source of the report in your commentary. If you came by the original report via a secondary source, proper etiquette is to credit and link to the original source, while giving a “hat tip” (either by writing “(h/t)” or “via”) to the secondary source.
- If no other outlets are running with the story, why not? While it’s certainly possible you’ve found the report before those outlets, it’s also possible they’re exercising caution until it’s been verified, or have deemed it to be non-credible.
These guidelines should help you think critically about every piece of information you elect to use and—more importantly—the source of that information.
Remember: In the eyes of a reader, you’re only as credible as your information, so if you have reason to doubt a source’s credibility, don’t use it.
If, on the other hand, you believe your source is credible, be sure to properly credit and hyperlink to it in your article per our Attribution Guidelines.
This may sound easy enough, but it’s even easier to ignore red flashing warning signals when you’re rushing to publish. However, as Dave Checketts would likely tell you, it’s far better to wait and know for sure than to rush and get burned.
Dan Bonato is Bleacher Report’s Director of Quality Control.