How Reporters Can Find Credible Sources

In a world of misinformation, the public needs to be able to rely on what journalists report. But how do reporters weigh what’s a credible source and what isn’t?  

In the video above, NBC News correspondent Stephanie Gosk discusses her sourcing process, including the difference between primary and secondary sources and how much to rely on either. Read her tips below, edited for clarity and length. 

Stephanie Gosk’s tips for sourcing 

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Check out what’s already written. I will immediately look to see if there are any articles about my assignment. I’m asking myself, “How did they learn this information? Who did they hear it from? Is it accurately sourced?” 

Research the origin of the information. When you’re thinking about a primary source, you need to think about the origin of the information. Where did the information come from? You want to get to that source. You want to talk to the person who saw it, you want to read the report or the study and talk to the person who wrote the study. 

Use secondary sources judiciously. A secondary source is a step removed. In other words, someone has taken that primary source, that information, and translated it somehow — they have written an article or have heard something someone has said — making it inherently less reliable.  

But that doesn’t mean that secondary sources aren’t important and helpful. We’re really judicious at NBC News about how and when we use them. As an example, there may be a report in The New York Times, something that’s generating a lot of talk, and the article itself is making news. That is a secondary source, which we will cite and be transparent with our viewers that we don’t have this reporting ourselves. 

Be skeptical. You always have to think about what the source’s agenda and motivation is for telling you what they’re telling you. For example, a pharmaceutical company put out a press release about developing a drug for Lyme disease. Immediately, a lot of news organizations ran with it. Except that when you go to what they’re actually saying in the press release, way down at the bottom, it talks about the fact that they don’t have the people for the trial, that it’s only the first trial, that realistically they’re not looking at an approval for this drug for years. All the headlines made it sound like it was going to happen tomorrow. So, with press releases, you have to think about the company’s or person’s motivation for sending it out.  

🔺 Why You Need to Check Your Sources: The Death Hoax of Lil Tay 🔺

It’s crucial to verify the information you hear from sources. The recent false death announcement of internet personality Lil Tay led to many news sources reporting a story from a questionable source — only to backtrack once the story proved to be a hoax. 

On Aug. 9, the verified Instagram account of Lil Tay, a child rapper who went viral in 2018, posted an unattributed statement claiming that the performer and her older brother had died. Lil Tay’s father and a former manager refused to confirm or comment on the alleged deaths, and Lil Tay’s mother could not be reached for comment, according to Angela Yang, a culture and trends reporter for NBC News. Police officials in Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia, two places where Lil Tay had resided, also had no information on the alleged deaths.  

NBC News did not report on this unconfirmed story, but other news outlets said Lil Tay had died, citing the single Instagram post and various reactions on social media. The following day, Lil Tay released a statement, claiming her Instagram account had been hacked, and while she and her brother were “safe and alive,” she was “completely heartbroken.”  

The Instagram post that falsely announced the deaths was deleted, and some news outlets retracted, and in some cases even deleted, their initial reports on the hoax. Accuracy is a basic journalistic standard. It doesn’t matter who broke a story if that report turns out to be wrong.