• Judging credibility

This is truly the Information Age.

That term was prevalent before the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, and the web has made it even more appropriate for our times. Never has so much information been so readily available to so many people. And never have so many people been able to contribute to the pool of information that is within reach of the general population.

Reporters often rely on public officials to give them information, believing that they know more about a topic or that their knowledge is broader and more wide-ranging than the knowledge or opinions of non-officials.

As individuals, we can submerge ourselves with information about the most esoteric topics. Select any search engine (Google, Yahoo, etc.) and any topic (baseball, beekeeping, books, etc.), and within second you will be overcome with so much information that you could spend the rest of your day sorting through it.

As individuals, we need help in sorting through the maze of conflicting facts, statements, assertions, advice, commands, intelligence, etc., so that we can understand what is important and useful for use and for our society.

Journalists are there to help us.

One of the major jobs of the journalist is to find information that is true, important, useful and interesting.

Journalists must not only gather information but must also develop ways to judge the credibility of the information they acquire. They do this by systematically judging the credibility of their sources. This is an ongoing process and intimately a part of the work of the reporter. In the previous module (2.4 Sources of information <link>), we discussed how journalists acquire information and the types of sources they use. In this module, we will talk about judging credibility.

How do journalists know if something they read or hear is accurate and important?

Journalists try to find experts on the topic they are research. Lots of people may have opinions about a topic. Experts have facts and knowledge.

Experts are people who are generally acknowledged by their education or experience to have facts and knowledge about a topic. Experts are the people whose business it is to know about a topic. They may even be people who make their living by having this knowledge.

Problem: Let’s say you had to find out the value of a Barbie doll manufactured in the late 1950s or early 1960s. How would you do that? Who would know? Whom would you call? Who would be the expert in something like that? Re-read the previous paragraph and see if that gives you a clue.

Experts on variety of topics can be found anywhere and everywhere. Journalists often look to colleges and universities and to government agencies to find experts because of the broad base of their interest and knowledge. People in these places are in the business of acquiring knowledge and information and applying that knowledge to situations or passing that knowledge on to others.

If you have a local college or university close by, you should look on the web site at the list of departments (English, biology, physics, business, etc.) within the institution. The faculty within each of these departments can be considered experts on many topics within the broad subject area of the department.

Another type of person that journalists go to for information because of their built-in credibility are officials. Officials are people who are in charge. They have titles and responsibilities, and the assumption is that they know more than people who are not in charge. For instance:

• a chief of police knows more about law enforcement than other people in the city or county;

• a president of the Parent-Teachers Association knows more about the fund-raising efforts of the PTA than anyone else;

• the director of the local orchestra knows more about the programs the orchestra will present this season than anyone else.

Because there are different levels that officials have within organizations, the top official may not always be the most credible person – the person with the best information – about a specific topic that the organization oversees. There may be some lower-ranking official who has more knowledge or experience about a certain area. In fact, reporters often learn that clerks and secretaries know more about what is going on than their bosses.

A third kind of person that journalists may seek out in researching an article are persons who have an interest in the topic at hand. By that we mean not just people who are interested in something but those people whose lives, businesses, families or activities are affected by the topic. People who “have an interest” are likely to have information, experience and even expertise in a certain topic.

But because they have an interest, journalists must take care in using the information they provide. Journalists must judge whether or not this interest has affected the amount of information they are willing to give or the interpretation they put on that information. In order to make this judgment, journalists must know what the interest is and how likely the sources are to let this interest affect their information.

In politics, this is called “spin,” and the journalist must judge what kind of spin the source is putting on the information.

(This is the reason that many people, including possibly some of your teachers, do not Wikipedia.com to provide good information. The problem with Wikipedia is that you do not KNOW who is writing and editing the information. Consequently, you are unable to check to see if there is any “spin” that you should be aware of.)

As a part of the reporting process, journalists learn to listen carefully, evaluate information and sources, test that information against their own logic and insights, check the information with alternative sources and present the information to other journalists (editors) within their news organization. As they gain more reporting experience, they develop their own instincts, and they learn what sources are the most credible and which ones can be trusted, so that the process become more efficient.