In class today we watched a movie about sourcing in stories. The movie raised several interesting points, one of them being the false balance some media affords issues such as climate change can mislead an audience. But what the movie focused on was knowing where your source is getting their information and who is paying for that information.
The movie uses flame retardants in furniture as an example. In the debate about whether or not flame retardants were harmful to the health of humans, scientists would argue and present evidence that proved all the reasons it wasn’t and all the side effects it can have on a person’s health. The side that was in favor of using flame retardants in furniture presented a doctor that told a story about a baby whose mother left a candle in his crib. His mattress was flame retardant but his pillow wasn’t, and the baby died after the candle fell over and his pillow caught fire.
But when journalists for the Chicago Tribune looked into this story, they found the doctor had told three different versions of it at three different hearings. When they questioned him, he said that the stories weren’t true but it was the principle that mattered. It turned out that he had been paid to testify by a company that was funded by manufacturers that relied on flame retardants in their products.
When you look at that story, the importance of knowing a source’s motivations becomes evident. You have to know their background and who is paying them to know whether or not what they are saying is true. And it’s important to know that what they’re saying is true, because even if they are a source that you quote in a story, you are attaching your name to that information. Whether or not someone says a fact doesn’t make it true and doesn’t mean it should be published.