« Punctuation, Titles, Grammar, and Style | Home | Magazine Brands Teaming Up with Book Publishers »

Reliable Sources, Accessible Sources, Part I

Posted on Monday, January 30, 2017 at 10:28 PM

Using sound editorial judgment to identify credible sources.

By William Dunkerley

It's time to reexamine how we deal with the issue of sources. They are an essential part of most editorial stories.

Sources can provide the nuggets of information on which to base an article, they can offer a perspective that allows readers to see a topic in a comprehensive context, and they can affirm or question the validity of claims that arise regarding areas of interest.

In this age of social media, it's worth taking a fresh look at the nature of sources and their accessibility to us.

Back to Fundamentals

Beginning university students are schooled on the matter of sources and what constitutes a reliable source. The University of Oklahoma's School of Library and Information Studies has created a comprehensive online resource (http://bit.ly/2kOkevj) to help students and instructors. It's really worth a look as a refresher course.

The site aims to help users:

--Define what credibility means and why it's important to use credible sources

--Find credible sources

--Recognize and identify what makes a source credible

--Evaluate a source for its credibility

In addressing credibility it says, "Credibility is defined as 'the quality or power of inspiring belief.' Credible sources, therefore, must be reliable sources that provide information that one can believe to be true."

That's a good starting point, but it doesn't give us the whole picture in today's milieu. For me, "believability" is not the only test. Factuality is important too.


I've done a number of studies of topical themes popularly portrayed in publication. Upon close examination it's been impossible in multiple cases to find a factual basis. Nonetheless, those popular media portrayals have become established beliefs among audiences.

Circumstances like that present editors with quite a challenge. Something based in fact may not be believable as a result of prevalent misunderstandings. Truth and fact may therefore appear counterintuitive to the reader. That makes it necessary to consider how much of the truth your audience can handle. You may have to first create a readiness in readers to redefine their beliefs.


The foregoing underlines the importance of ethical editorial judgment.

Social media presents its own set of challenges here. I've seen cases where bloggers have uncovered new information or presented unique analyses that have escaped attention from recognized experts or officials. But will information from a blog be believed by your audience? You may have to dig up supportive references to give your readers confidence in the blogged material.

Another issue is the reliability over time of any particular blogger. You may justify to readers material from a particular blog post only to see that blogger later go off on a tangent with unsupported nonsense. Using a blog as a source requires great vigilance.

Vigilance is likewise needed for Twitter feeds. Unsupported allegations can arise quickly and be received with little scrutiny by users reading the tweets.

One example involves presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. After his primary loss to Hillary Clinton, many of his supporters were disappointed that Sanders did not continue asserting his opposition to key ideas of Clinton's. To rationalize his silence an explanation erupted on Sanders-friendly twitter hashtags: that he had been silenced after receiving death threats targeting his wife. No factual substantiation ever appeared as far as I could tell.

A Formula for Good Judgment?

Indeed, is there a useful formula for making editorial judgments?

Wikipedia has codified the process of what constitutes a credible source. The purpose is to allow people without expertise (anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry) to exercise editorial judgment. But too often this approach results in formulaic judgments being made by people who are working in the blind. There's no substitute for experienced, professional editorial judgment.

When making editorial judgments about sources, there are some important principles to consider. Perhaps the foremost is that we owe our primary allegiance to our audiences.

According to ASBPE, "In all ways, editorial coverage must be based solely on reader needs in the view of the editors.

"A publication's constant attention [must be given to] reader needs and on a publicly expressed dedication to such journalistic principles as:



--full attribution to sources

--clear separation of news from analysis, news and analysis from opinion, and of editorial from advertising content."

In Part II we'll move into issues of theory versus practice in the utilization of sources, and we'll discuss the matter of access to useful sources.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

Add your comment.

« Punctuation, Titles, Grammar, and Style | Top | Magazine Brands Teaming Up with Book Publishers »