5 What Makes a Trustworthy News Source?

Mike Caulfield and Kristin Conlin

Experts have looked extensively at what sorts of qualities in a news source tend to result in fair and accurate coverage. Sometimes, however, the number and complexity of the various qualities can be daunting. We suggest the following short list of things to consider.

  • Machinery of care: Good news sources have significant processes and resources dedicated to promoting accuracy, and correcting error.
  • Transparency: Good news sources clearly mark opinion columns as opinion, disclose conflicts of interest, indicate in stories where information was obtained and how it was verified, and provide links to sources.
  • Expertise: Good news sources hire reporters with reporting or area expertise who have been educated in the processes of ethical journalism. Where new writers with other expertise are brought in, they are educated by the organization.
  • Agenda: The primary mission of a good news source is to inform its readers, not elect Democrats, promote tax cuts, or reform schools. You should absolutely read writers with activist missions like these, but do not treat them as “pure” news sources.
Bias is about how people see things; agenda is about what the news source is set up to do.  When assessing the trustworthiness of a source, approach agenda last.

It’s easy to see bias in people you disagree with, and hard to see bias in people you agree with. But bias isn’t agenda. A site that clearly marks opinion columns as opinion, 1. employs dozens of fact-checkers, 2. hires professional reporters, and 3. takes care to be transparent about sources, methods, and conflicts of interest is less likely to be driven by political agenda than a site that does not do these things. And this holds even if the reporters themselves may have personal bias. Good process and news culture goes a long way to mitigating personal bias.

Yet, you may see some level of these things and still have doubt. If the first three indicators don’t settle the question for you, you should consider agenda. Is the source connected to political party leadership? Funded by oil companies? Have the owners made comments about what they are trying to achieve with their publication, and are those ends about specific social or political change or about creating a more informed public?

Again, we cannot stress enough: you should read things by people with political agendas. It’s an important part of your news diet. It’s also the case that sometimes the people with the most expertise work for organizations that are trying to accomplish social or political goals. But when sourcing a fact or a statistic, agenda can get in the way and you’d want to find a less agenda-driven source if possible.


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What Makes a Trustworthy News Source? Copyright © 2019 by Mike Caulfield and Kristin Conlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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