A source who has a personal interest in the outcome may not even know how that influences their perceptions. It’s the purest kind of cognitive dissonance.
So, a source who doesn’t have a stake in the outcome, who is therefore is independent, is usually reliable.
Let’s be clear: Rational Self Interest, looking after your health, your wealth, your loved-ones and your comrades is not the same thing as selfishness, the childish or irrational desire to possess everything.
We use Leonardo DaVinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, which was his ground-breaking reduction of human proportions to geometry to help students think about journalistic independence. We also use it in this lesson, to reinforce understanding of independence and self interest.
Sources are, like you, pulled in all directions by a variety of allegiances:
- Religion/Political: We can’t be neutral about the religious (and political) beliefs and comrades we choose;
- Intellectual: We are not neutral about what we think we know as a result of our education and unique experiences;
- Familial/Romantic: Every code of ethics warns professionals we can’t be neutral about the family we are born into, the family we spawn and those we love;
- Financial: And when our finances are imperiled, we can’t be expected to make an independent or neutral observation.
So, when a reporter offers you a witness or expert or observer, you want to know of any major conflicts of interest. Of course a Cardinal says the Church isn’t to blame for pedophile priests, of course a surgeon thinks every ailment requires surgery, of course the Dad says his kid never hurt anyone before he shot the neighbor, of course the sales manager says the car is awesome.
Before we leave this topic, it's also important to understand that with these challenges, it also becomes important for us to understand that a balance has to be maintained in any journalistic endeavor.
Let's go back to the example of the controversy with the Secret Service.
One other individual, Jeh Johnson, who is the current Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security commented on this case that he is still confident in the Secret Service boss…his employee.
But can we easily dismiss what he says? He is definitely protecting his people, but on the other hand, who would know the inner workings of the Secret Service?
We offer this example mostly to caution against unduly harsh assessment of politicians and political appointees. While it is true their self-interest can get in the way, it is also true that they are in the middle of the action and may know first-hand what others could only guess at.
Given that, how do you evaluate his reliability as to the qualifications of the Secret Service director?