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TJ Tool: Analysis of the use of sources and their transparency value


The journalistic source identifies the origin of the information provided by a journalist.

This discussion on the classification of sources is closely connected to, and should be read with, the criterion of transparency.  Throughout this project, many hours have been devoted to addressing the nature of sources, sharing cases and asking about their identification and classification.  These discussions have led us to conclude that adopting TJ Tool, the Transparent Journalism Tool of the Público newspaper, is an interesting and necessary reflection on the principles that should form the basis of rigorous and responsible journalism.


We understand that the classification of sources must take into account to two concepts in parallel: the nature of the source - person, institution or unidentified - and our direct or indirect relationship with it - which allows us to distinguish between the sources mentioned by other media and those consulted by us.

  1. A Person source is one that, directly, offers information, testimony or opinion at an individual level, in person, whether directly spoken or through recordings or testimonies expressed and collected in different formats and transmitted through the various channels available. This includes personal meetings, interviews, statements, phone calls, voice or image recordings made by the journalist, postal items or through available digital technologies such as email, social networks, blogs, web pages, etc.  We are not talking about assessing here the quality or depth of the information, as we are focusing on analyzing traceability.  These sources include citizen witnesses of events, specialists in different areas, professors, scientists, artists, film directors, etc. who speak on their own behalf or in their own work, without representing any organization or institution.

The publication must decide if politicians and public representatives of organizations should always be identified as Organizations or Institutions, or if it is possible to classify them as Person sources.  This does not alter the transparency value of the source.

  1. Organization or institution source. These are political organizations, parties, unions, the Crown, the three branches of legislature and their bodies, the government, organizations, associations and groups that express themselves as a collective, whatever their activity, nature, geographic scope or level of officiality.  We also consider as ‘Institution sources’ legal sources, laws, codes, the Constitution and its interpretations, which are used as sources of the information that is published.

    As mentioned in section 1 above, we have to deal here again with the difficulty, which requires clarifying or at least agreeing, of how to treat spokespersons and representatives; do they speak in their own name or the organization they represent.

Information from other media, estimated by some professional organizations to be 49.7% of all published information, ought to be also included here, with a lower traceability rating.  However, it is so recurrent that we register it independently.  In addition, since the contact with the person or organization was not directly checked, we move to another level in terms of transparency.

  1. 'Other Communication Media' should be categorized as an indirect source from another organization dedicated to reporting information, which is considered reliable, but in terms of transparency it would not receive the highest ratings.

Once the source is identified as Other Communication Media, whether it is a quote from a competitor or a news agency, the source extraction process continues, although it should be discarded if the writer has not contacted the sources cited.  In this way, the tool provides an incentive for a careful analysis and treatment of how sources are reported in the body of the text.

At the lowest level of transparency are the sources that are not identified by name and surname, including those that, for reasons of confidentiality, decide to refrain from making statements in front of an open microphone.

After weeks of assessments, discussions, consultations[1], and studying examples that journalists meet daily, we have decided to identify two different levels:

  1. Unidentified sources with names and surnames, which refer to the organization or institution to which the source is linked (e.g. political party sources, agents involved in an investigation). We give these sources, which comply with the so-called "reserve rule", a minimum transparency rating to recognize the journalist's effort to approach the sources and their commitment not to publicize their name.
  2. Anonymous sources: those that, for reasons of security, to preserve their right to privacy or for other needs or intentions, hide their name and their relationship with any organization or institution. The valuation, based on transparency, is categorically zero.  Publishing information based on an anonymous source must be justified based on the relevance of the content, the author and the medium.  These will have to offer the guarantee of truth in front of public opinion or the courts.
  • There is also information known as "off the record"[2], which is information that comes from unidentified sources but whose content should not be published either. Therefore, its transparency value is also non-existent.
  • A variant of the off the record is "embargoed" information that only allows the content and the name of the source to be made public once certain agreed conditions, normally after a specified time, are met. When this embargoed information is published, it acquires the transparency value that corresponds to when it is openly identified.  In the event that the content and/or the source of the embargoed information is published before the agreed conditions are met, the code of ethics is broken by which the journalist agreed to listen to the source.  This is a serious lack of professionalism that will result in damage to the reputation of the author and the publication that disseminates the information.

The good practices of rigorous and reliable journalism dictate that information from anonymous sources should be avoided as much as possible.  It should only be resorted to for investigative journalism, when the relevance of the news requires, as it can put heavy demands on a scrupulous journalist’s commitment to the truth.  The author, supported by the publication, carries the burden of credibility in these cases and is responsible for the truth of the information before the public and, in some cases, before the courts.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Source_(journalism)

[2] https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Off_the_record

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