A Question of Ethics: When is a single source story ethical?

Aly Colón is the Knight Professor of Media Ethics in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Washington and Lee University

A Supreme Court draft ruling. A 10-year-old rape victim’s abortion. Journalists have relied on single sources to tell challenging stories in recent months. In most situations, the more reporting and sourcing a journalist can offer readers, viewers, and listeners, the more ethical the journalist’s reporting becomes. More sources provide more opportunities for verification.

One source makes it harder – but not impossible – to verify facts and understand the complete context. Here are some questions to ask before publishing a single source story:

  • How does the source know what they know? What direct evidence can they provide or point toward? How would someone challenge this evidence? 
  • What other sources might be available, including documentation, that could support or challenge the primary source? Who are other potential sources and what information could they substantiate or challenge? 
  • What other verification tools might we use?
  • What competing values are you weighing in your reporting and publishing of this as a single-source story?
  • How do you account for divergent views of this situation? 

What other questions might you ask before publishing a single-source story? Email me your suggestions.


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