Understanding sourcing

Marcus DiPaola
7 min readNov 29, 2020

This article will give you an understanding of how journalists get information about things they did not witness themselves.

If you want to become an investigative journalist, here is a link to the book I read as a teenager and re-read once every couple of years to refresh my memory.

Key vocabulary

Read this briefly and refer back to it as you read the article. It is not important that you fully understand everything in this list immediately, as I will give examples that will make it clearer in this article.

Source — A source is any person who gives a journalist information. Examples of sources include: a policeman or fireman who’s job it is to talk to the media, a lawyer, a person who witnessed a crime, a government agency spokesperson, the White House press secretary, the U.S. President himself, a union steward, a random person on the street, or a teacher. Sources are never paid for their information.

On the record — When you message or speak to any reporter, you are on the record by default. This doesn’t mean the reporter will use or even care about anything you say unless you did something. For example, even though all DMs sent to me on Instagram are — by default — on the record, I have never published or reported on one, and probably will never publish or report on one.

Off the record—Journalists don’t like using this phrase because it’s an unofficial phrase. In order to go “off the record,” the journalist must agree to go “off the record,” first. You can’t say “Off the record, I ate a falafel.” and expect that to be off the record.

On background or not for attribution—The source wants to be identified in a specific way in order to remain anonymous. This is usually the result of a negotiation to protect the source but still get the information out. Journalists will discuss exactly what

Deep background — There is no universally agreed upon definition for this term, and it’s rarely used, or used verbally by sources to indicate they’re scared. Sometimes it can mean the information given by the source can by reported only using the phrase: “[Publication name] has learned” with zero description of the source.

Anonymous or anonymity — A journalist promises to not use the person’s name.

Reporting in aggregate or “in aggregate” — Sources tell a journalist to group them together with other sources with similar jobs or opinions in order to preserve their anonymity.

Journalist — A wide category of jobs for people involved in the process of collecting new information. This includes producers, photojournalists, editors, managers, MMJs, columnists, sound gatherers, news directors, and TV anchors. (for the purposes of this article I will use journalist and reporter interchangeably)

Reporter — The specific job title for a person who’s focus is collecting new information from sources.

Credibility (finding out if someone is lying to you)

Journalists generally want at least two sources for information but will accept one source if it’s a boring topic, or if the source is an official representative for a large organization. Example of large organizations include the ACLU, hospitals, governmental organizations, Fortune 500 companies, a sports team, the American Red Cross, etc. And unlike police officers, journalists do not pay their sources.

Here are questions we ask ourselves about a source’s information to figure out whether they’re telling us the truth or not:

  • How did my source get this information?
  • Who else has this information?
  • Has this source previously told me things that I later found out were provably true?
  • Has this source previously told me things that I later found out were provably false?
  • Does the information I’m getting make sense with what I already know?
  • Is the information I’m getting logical?
  • Does my source have a good reason to lie to me?
  • Does my source have a good reason to tell me the truth?
  • Are there documents I can look at which would verify what my source is telling me?
  • Who else in the media is my source speaking to?

Some stories or tidbits of information need a lot more than just two sources in order for the journalist to be sure an individual tidbit information is accurate and the context in which the individual tidbit happened, especially when reporting at the national level. It’s not uncommon to see stories reporting what 10 to 20 sources said in aggregate.

Why people ask to be anonymous?

People can get fired, put in prison, sued, and sometimes even killed for telling us the bad things that their boss, company, or criminals in their community are doing.

Sometimes victims of a crime don’t want every boss, coworker and first date that googles their name to know what they went through.

Sometimes people are trying to expose their boss doing the wrong thing, but doesn’t want their name used because they’ll get fired and they have a family to provide for.

Sometimes people lie to journalists and don’t know whether they’re going to get caught, so they ask to be anonymous because they don’t want to risk being known as a liar.

Sometimes people lie to journalists because their boss asked them to and they know for sure they’re going to get caught and want their name left out because they don’t want to be known as a liar.

Uncovering secrets

Reporters usually initially hear about a secret from a source who tells them the secret off-the-record. Reporters then check with other people to make sure what they learned is true. Reporters do not publish things until they are 95 percent sure what they learned is true.

Reporters make a list of people who might have access to the information as part of their job. Reporters then contact everyone on that list, one by one to see if they will either say the secret is true or false.

If one person on the list says the secret is true and is willing to say it’s true publicly, the journalist tells everyone that the person says the secret is true.

If two people on the list say the secret is true, and one person says it’s false, reporters search for official documents to back up one side of the story, and use what they already know to make an educated guess at the truth.

If no one on the list is willing to talk to a reporter, journalists make a list of people who the people on the first list might have told, and then contact that list of people, and crosscheck the information they get from them with documents.

Sometimes reporters hear a rumor and ask their sources if the rumor is true, but the source can’t tell them because it’s a government secret. In that instance, it’s common for the source to say, “Hey, if you can get someone to give you this on background, I will tell you whether it’s true or false.”

Sometimes sources are only willing to give secrets in aggregate, which means a lot of people have to give the reporter the secret.

Journalists don’t always publish secrets they learn. Sometimes they’re only 75 percent sure a secret they learned is true, and 75 percent is not enough. Many people think journalists like to take risks, but we are all super risk averse because we can get sued for publishing false information. Most mainstream outlets have lawyers on staff to make sure what we learned is true and would hold up in court. Sometimes only five people know a secret, so journalists can’t publish it without a longtime source from getting caught.

What about claims of “fake news?”

Politicians from both parties often claim journalists made up sources or information because the sources didn’t use their names.

Journalists go to great lengths to make sure the information they’re publishing is true, and oftentimes when dealing with secrets, lawyers review the articles and reporters’ notes before publication to make sure it’s actually true, because the only valid defense in court is that you were telling the truth.

These politicians always claim loudly and publicly that the journalists are lying or are “fake news,” and their followers believe it, despite not knowing that if it were actually fake news, the politician would sue and win.

Why do people talk off-the-record?

Sometimes people talk off the record to give an editor or reporter factual information they can check out to try and get a story killed. This sometimes works if the factual information is verifiable, or if the source threatens to sue, the reporter or (more often) the editor may cave and kill the story.

Is a reporter required to give a source anonymity if they ask for it?

No. Sometimes reporters refuse to accept information from people who have lied to them in the past. Sometimes reporters don’t think the source’s reason is good enough to give them anonymity.

Reporters only agree to give sources anonymity when there is no other way to get the information or if it would put the source’s life in danger. When journalists agree not to use someone’s name, they give as much detail about them as possible.


Journalists use documents to

  • verify individual sources’ stories
  • discover people stealing money
  • discover trends they can ask sources about

Journalists get documents by asking the government for them in a specially formatted email or by filling out a form (FOIA), and sometimes directly from sources.

Local news

In local news, sources are often spokespeople. If someone cites “a police source” it’s almost always an official police spokesperson but is occasionally a police officer or dispatcher the reporter has as a source.

White House & political news

Covering the White House, sources to lie to us all the time, so we check everything. All we do is keep their name secret. If someone says they heard Trump say something outrageous, we have to ask exactly what date and time he said that, and find out who else was in the room. We make a list of all the people that were in the room, and find out what they heard. Once we’ve talked to enough people and verified that the people we talked to were actually physically present in the room to hear it happen, that’s when we publish a story with anonymous sources.

White House staff tell reporters secrets for different reasons. Sometimes they care about having an accurate historical record. These are people who loved history class in high school. Sometimes they want to make someone else look bad. Sometimes they lose an argument in the Oval Office and want to get the public on their side. Sometimes they see or hear something that scares them and they don’t know who to tell, so they want to get it out to everyone in the hopes that the right person will find out.

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