FAQ's for Lesson 6 - Says Who?

faq_icon_noun_like.svg.pngIMVAIN FAQs

How do we determine whether a source verifies?

A source who verifies is one that provides corroborating or supporting testimony or evidence. The news consumer does not have to rely on the source's word alone, for she also provides evidence to back up her claims. For instance, The New York Times ran a story about an immigrant who accused an immigration agent of forcing her to have sex with him in exchange for the proper paperwork. Her accusation had more weight because she verified it with an audio recording that serves as direct evidence.

If popularity doesn't equal reliability, then why are multiple sources better than a single source?

These are two different things. A website that ranks highly in a Google search, or a story that trends on social media, is there for a number of reasons — clicks, shares, it's amusing or outrageous, the website owner paid, etc. — none of which have to do with reliability. Journalists seek and check sources for reliability as part of the verification process. These sources tell what they know. Ninety-nine percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring and is caused by humans, not because it's a popular position, but because the evidence backs it up. If six people, independent of one another, say that a gunman ran into a movie theater, they're not saying that to be popular but rather because that's what they saw.

Further explain corroboration. How do you connect corroborate and multiple?

When we ask you to evaluate a source in a story, ask yourself who else is saying roughly the same thing, or is there any other evidence such as a photo or video or official document that supports what that source is saying? What we do not mean is, does a story have many sources? Nor do we mean that a person speaking on behalf of a group is a multiple source. If, for example, a spokesman for the police makes a statement, he's a single source, not a multiple source because he represents a group or institution. IMVAIN is meant to be applied to the evaluation of sources within a story, not to the story itself.

Is it better to have multiple unnamed sources or one named source?

The more supporting evidence the better, so if a story has multiple unnamed sources who are all saying roughly the same thing AND whose testimony is supported by additional evidence, that is better than a single named source with no additional support.

How could The New York Times reporter have gone about her investigation when multiple sources told her the same thing?

This is one of the great dangers in journalism. Judith Miller was not reporting on something that people doubted. The overall narrative was that Saddam Hussein must have had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in 2002 because he had them in the past and had even used them in Iraq’s war against Iran in the 1980s and on his own people after the first Gulf War. Miller's misreporting illustrates the dangers of making assumptions and falling prey to groupthink.

To be fair, most other journalists followed her lead. The exceptions were three journalists from Knight Ridder and one each from CBS and The Washington Post.

A highly recommended PBSvideo report on this mess, called Buying the War, is available for free here:


Using the Iraq example, how can you distinguish if "multiple sources" are actually one source?

One of the mistakes Judith Miller made was not to double-check the identity of the people she was quoting. She took the word of Ahmad Chalabi that some of the sources he put her in touch with were not the same person — some of the interviews were done by telephone.

How can a journalist avoid the mistakes of Judith Miller?

Staying humble is a good place to start. When journalists believe they are reporting a story that will “change the world” they often use that as a rationalization to cut corners. Journalists do change the world, but they do it in every story they tell by telling it as accurately as possible.

It is also important to remember that no single reporter can ever be totally responsible for mistakes. As in the Rolling Stone campus rape story, editors must share the blame, and in the Miller case that was doubly true of editors at The New York Times. It used to operate on the maxim “Don't get it first, get it right.” The pressures on the newspaper industry helped change that into “Get it first and get it right.” The difference may seem subtle, but it is crucial. And the mistakes made in the rush to be first have served to undermine the credibility of all news organizations.

If a single person is a witness to an event, does it make the story less credible?

That depends. If it is a non-controversial event, then it won’t matter so much, but if it is an important event that people disagree on, it does matter. So, if you claim I said “Obama was a failure as president,” and I say I did not, having only one witness to that conversation makes it more difficult to conclude who was right.

If an article refers to an earlier report by a different news outlet, would that outlet be considered a source?

Yes, in that case the outlet becomes a source of information in the story.

Can you further explain what an authoritative source is?

An authoritative source is someone who knows a lot about a subject through study and/or long-term investigation of a subject. A source's relevant credentials, education, training, professional experience, research make her an authoritative source. An informed source is someone who has first-hand knowledge of a subject. In some cases a source can be both Authoritative and Informed.

So, for example, Stony Brook President Stanley is an Authority on university administration because that has been his job for many years, even before he came to Stony Brook. And now he is both Authoritative and Informed when it comes to the administration of Stony Brook because he has first-hand experience. That is why we combine the two in our mnemonic device. In other cases, by contrast, a source can be Informed but not Authoritative. If a source witnesses a crime, that source is informed about what she witnessed, but not necessarily an authority on crime trends or the justice system.

Could a thoroughly characterized anonymous source be considered "somewhat" named?

Probably not – the same problem of lack of accountability is still there – but that would certainly add to the source’s reliability.

How can a journalist know someone's internal motivations?

Sometimes it’s quite clear – a CEO will be motivated to tell a journalist only positive things about his or her company. Sometimes it’s quite difficult – an expert professor who seems independent might actually be in the pay of the company that he or she is being asked about. This is why it is so important for journalists to do a lot of research BEFORE they interview sources.

Much of it is common sense, but it also comes with experience. Journalists get to know how people talk when they are being defensive or hiding something.

Can stories based on sources who are not independent still show some truth?

Yes, just as a press release could contain reliable information. Remember, the five characteristics of IMVAIN are all part of a 3-dimensional appreciation of the reliability of the source. You have to weigh them all. See the next FAQ for more details.

If a source lacks one of the factors from IMVAIN, does it become identified as unreliable?

It's not a good idea to dismiss any source because they lack one of the IMVAIN criteria. We include five steps in the evaluation process because all five steps are important. Source evaluation involves critical thinking, and some subjectivity. There are different degrees of self-interest. For example, one source's self-interest may be so powerful that we doubt everything he says, while the self-interest of another source may spring from her authoritative position and not be disqualifying. Even a source that lacks independence can provide valuable information in a story, especially if that source verifies with evidence.

Can you use someone else's opinion in an unbiased story?

Yes. An important part of journalism is to report what people think and believe. That is not opinion journalism.

What if journalists have very few sources at their disposal?

Remember, journalistic truth is provisional. One of the reasons stories change over time is that journalists find more and more credible sources. Transparency requires that journalists are honest with the consumer about the limitations of the sources they have used and are clear about what they don’t know.

What type of source is more important, authoritative or informed?

It depends on the story. If it’s a story about a traffic accident then the journalist will want an informed source – someone who has first-hand information about what happened. If it’s a story about a dangerous intersection where many accidents have occurred, the journalist would want to interview traffic experts and government officials with knowledge about the intersection itself and about research into what makes some intersections safer than others.

Please re-explain the difference between independence and self-interest?

There are different kinds of self-interest: monetary (the source or his organization would gain or lose money), personal (the reputation of the source or that of a friend or family member or organization would be damaged), intellectual (the source has for a long time supported an idea or explanation and does not want to admit he was wrong), and philosophical/religious (the source has a firmly held belief that he would never relinquish).

How can bad sources slip through the cracks?

For the same reason that the verification process can break down. Journalists rush to publish a story and get sloppy; deadlines and other pressures lead to inadequate fact-checking; sources can unintentionally provide incorrect information, or lie as in the case of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; verification is difficult, and sometimes a reporter may settle for a "good enough" source rather than the right source.

Would it be considered a failure to be transparent if a reporter used a source that is authoritative, but is not the most knowledgeable on the subject? For example, if a journalist is writing a story about a new specialized medical treatment and the source is a general practice physician who is not an expert in that diagnosis, is it a lack of transparency to represent that person as an expert on the subject?

Yes, that would be failure by the journalist, and, to be frank, it happens all too often. Sometimes it is because of lack of time, sometimes it is because the journalist simply doesn’t know enough about the subject, sometimes it is because the journalist is lazy.

If multiple sources lie, is the journalist still to blame after the truth comes out?

It’s the journalist’s job to report facts, it’s not the source’s responsibility to tell the truth. One hopes that sources tell the truth, but they don’t follow the professional and ethical standards that journalists are supposed to. Journalists must be accountable for what they report.

How can the average news consumer learn to distinguish good sources?

You will find that if you apply the critical thinking skills and tools from this course, over time identifying good, credible sources will become second nature.

Are truly independent sources ever actually useful? Most people have a stake in the matter somehow.

You have to guard against being too cynical. You might be able to find some self-interest in authoritative source like a scientist or a researcher but by and large academic experts can usually be considered to be independent. You are right, however, to imply that we should not automatically dismiss sources who lack independence. Often a source lacks independence because he is deeply involved in a story and his contributions to the story do matter a great deal.

Could relevance be another thing to look out for in a source? They could be everything in IMVAIN but what if it isn’t necessarily connected?

Yes. Relevance is related to Authoritative/Informed. Is the source an authority on the subject covered in the story? Is the source informed in a way that’s relevant to the news report?

IMVAIN is really idealistic. Nothing would ever get published if a story had to meet all these criteria.

This is true. It’s still necessary for news consumers to use critical thinking and exercise their judgment because it’s incredibly rare for a source to satisfy every part of IMVAIN. It’s possible for a solid, well-reported story to rely solely on sources who are not independent. We should not dismiss a source because of one flaw or even because of three flaws. We have to weigh the source’s strengths and weaknesses and draw a conclusion.

Aren’t anonymous sources sometimes better because they are usually high-ranking officials who have valuable information?

In some cases, yes, an anonymous source is a great source and she has good reason not to be named in a news report. The point is that, all things being equal, we would prefer it if that same source gave her name and stood by what she said.

Why aren’t all outlets mandated to be completely transparent?

Who would mandate this? There is a professional code of ethics and each individual news outlet adheres to a set of standards, but there could not be a law requiring independent news outlets to be transparent. Nor could professional organizations force news outlets to follow their guidelines. By being transparent a news outlet maintains its credibility in the eyes of its peers and the news-consuming public.

Is there ever a reliable source who does not verify with evidence?

Yes. You may hear from an expert who gives an informed opinion instead of verifying.

Should a journalist assume a source has verified what they say?

Reporters should never assume anything! Reporters should always verify with other evidence and sources. In some stories, there may be only one source available and the story is deemed important enough that it should run anyway. Perhaps by running the story other sources will step up and share new information.

If a source is not independent, should we distrust the article or news report?

It’s not necessary to dismiss the news report simply because its sources lack independence. A whistleblower, a victim of a crime, a congressional candidate — none of these sources would be independent in a story but, because they have relevant knowledge, they’re necessary sources.