Where does the news get its news?

Another way to ask the question above is, “By which paths does information reach the reporter?” These paths, also known as sources or channels, shed a great deal of light on how any given story is reported. One can find evidence of bias by looking at both What Sources Are Used and How Sources Are Used.

What Sources Are Used

Key Questions to keep in mind while reading the following example of What Sources Are Used:

  • Is there any similarity in the sources cited?
  • Can you get a sense of who gave this information to the reporter, or where they might have gotten it?
  • If you answered yes to the previous question, then does that source provide enough information or is more needed to fully understand the situation?

Example 1

Here is an articles covering the Panama Invasion of 1989, the bold formatting has been added:

The Washington Post
December 28, 1989

Consider the Following:

  • Only one source was used for the enitre story: The US Military
  • The US Military had the unstated agenda of legitimizing their highly controversial invasion.
  • There is no further mention of the "knowledgeable civilian sources" noted in the first paragraph (except for non-military U.S. Officials)

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What Sources Are Used:

Very often in journalism it is not the actual reporting that is biased but rather the very sources of themselves. Leon V. Sigal was one of the first researchers to look for bias by studying the sources used by reporters. He, and a number of others, determined that it is more objective to look at who the sources are instead of trying to interpret what the sources are saying.1 In 1973, he published his findings from a survey taken from thousands of samples of page-one articles spanning 20 years (1949-1969) from The New York Times and The Washington Post.2
He classified all channels of information into three categories: Routine, Informal, and Enterprise (the categories are broken down in the chart below). After analyzing the stories which used only one source, stories which used multiple sources (divided into one primary channel and one or more secondary channels) and all stories together, he reported two major discoveries:

Channels of Information for News in the Times and Post Combined-All Stories (N=2,850)
Official proceedings
Press releases
Press conferences
Nonspontaneous events
Background briefings
Nongovernmental proceedings
News reports, editorials, etc.
Spontaneous events
Books, research, etc.
Reporter's own analysis



1. More than half of the stories relied on routine channels (this includes the majority of single-source stories and the majority of primary sources for multiple-source stories). 2. Nearly one half of routine channels were U.S. Officials (92% of whom were Executive Branch Officials). This meant that from 1949-1969, a substantial majority of stories in the two most influential newspapers in the country came from the Officiall White House Spokesmen. One-third of all reports were printed without any follow up sources.3

One broad implication, made by Sigal, was that the news medium (aptly named) acts a mediator, “between the officialdom and the citizenry of the United States.”4 He likened the it to a pipeline connecting a reservoir to a city. A few drops might evaporate or get redirected, but the effects of the pipeline are insignificant in comparison to the source of the water, the reservoir. It would be easy to pass judgement on the US Government but it is enough to simply say that it is deceptive to the public when newsmen rely too much on routine channels. By doing so, they are leaving much of the task of selecting the news in the hands of thier sources.

It is worth remembering that Sigal’s findings were calculated from sources which are now over 30 years old. Sigal, himself, acknowledged a visible trend towards less news gathering from routine sources, and more from enterprising channels (most notably interviews). However, there are more recent studies which also prove news entities are often dependent on a limited base of soucres.

Charles D. Whitney and Brown et al. both concluded (in 1989 and1987, respectively) that government officials are used more than any source in print and broadcast news.5 Noam Chomsky reported in his 1988 indictment of the mass media, Manufacturing Consent, that white males associated with elite institutions are the most frequently used sources. This is confirmed in studies by liberal media watchdog group, FAIR, in 1990.6 This same study, along with that previously mentioned by Whitney, observes that women, representatives of civil rights, human rights and labor groups are grossly underrepresented. Since women make up over half of the US population, this inequality casts doubt on the supposition that the media acts as an objective mirror through which societal events are reported.

Such accusations are summarily rejected, and a uniform explanation is given for all documented evidence of bias in news composition, ad nauseam: white males associated with elite organizations are cited as sources so much because they are the most newsworthy.

Such a claim is difficult to refute because so many high positions of power and influence (those which determine policies and set events in motion) are held by said white men. Even though this explanation does not seem to fully justify the lack of other sources, it is equally important to consider the consequences of the media's dependence on these routine channels. The biggest danger of passively reporting whatever official line is coming from a press-release or press-conference is this: you can't be certain you are not being mislead.

The following two excerpts, from articles one week apart, used the same source. This demonstrates the ease with which an untruth by a US Official can be printed as fact. The media had no choice but to report what was said, in complete faith that they were being told the truth.

The Associated Press, March 23, 2003 Sunday
WASHINGTON -- War has brought little change to the regulated, by-the-numbers life of President George W. Bush.
He is not worried or plagued by doubts, aides say, and is hewing closely to his usual routines and habits even as American bombs pelt Baghdad and allied tanks dash across the Iraqi desert.
"The president is following his normal routine," Mr. Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said before the president left to spend the weekend, as he has often throughout his term, at the secluded Camp David presidential retreat in the silence of Maryland's Catoctin Mountains.
He has been working out almost every day, and a longtime Bush aide said he also seems to be sleeping well, is sticking to his diet and even giving up desserts as he tries to shave seconds off his running time.
Since the air war's opening runs Wednesday night, Mr. Bush has been formally briefed on military operations several times a day and informed of crucial developments as they occur. And never a big TV watcher, he isn't following television news accounts closely as the dramatic events unfold.
The New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller, March 29, 2003, Sunday
WASHINGTON, — George W. Bush was standing three feet from his television screen in his cabin at Camp David last weekend, absorbed in every detail of the news from Iraq, when a correspondent came on to report that the president of the United States, according to White House officials, was not glued to the TV.

Mr. Bush started laughing, said his close friend Roland Betts, who was with the president at the time.

"He is just totally immersed," Mr. Betts said in an interview. Mr. Betts said that he and Mr. Bush talked of little else but the war over two days at Camp David last weekend, and that the president regularly turned in to the cable channels for updates on Iraq. When Mr. Bush saw something that concerned him, Mr. Betts said, he picked up the phone to tell Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser who was at nearby cabin, to look into it.
In the opening days of the conflict, White House officials were so eager not to personalize the war as a Bush revenge match against the dictator who tried to assassinate his father that Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, at first suggested that Mr. Bush was not even watching the enormous blasts on live television of the first bombs thundering down on Baghdad. Mr. Fleischer said later that the president had indeed been watching television. The reality is that the war now dominates the White House and the president's life.

If the White House is willing to mislead about something as insignificant as this, one could wonder how much isn't being revealed. There is a greater need for dependence on other sources outside the official line. No one argues that the best source for information on something like a military operation would be an officer in the armed forces. However, a greater effort to find secondary sources and commentary from people with assorted backgrounds and experience is needed for the media to become less of a conduit for governments and official institutions and start reporting stories as they are seen from more than one prespective.

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How Sources Are Used

Key Questions to keep in mind while reading the following example on How Sources Are Used:

  • Who is being quoted?
  • Is there any mention of opposing viewpoints?
  • Are there a lot of quotes/interviews about only one side of an issue?
  • Are the quotes expressing a biased viewpoint which, in turn, are left unchallenged by the reporter?

Example 2

Article 1

Article 2

The Jerusalem Post
September 22, 2002

The Observer
Guardian Newspapers Ltd.
September 22, 2002

Consider the Following:

  • Article 1 quotes mostly Israeli Officials and Military
  • Article 1 is written by the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper, which may have political motivation to picture the Israeli Government in the best light possible (go to Institutional Affiliations)
  • Article 2 quotes a variety of political condemnations and eyewitnesses
  • Article does not quotes any official Israeli soucres

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How Sources Are Used:

Nothing legitimizes a piece of news like an eye witness report or commentary from an acclaimed “expert.” * People like thinking that they’re getting the story ‘straight from the horse’s mouth.’ Of course, there’s more than one horse. Sometimes, it seems as if there are as many expert opinions as there are regular opinions. Eye witness reports vary from one person to the next. In any controversial issue, a good reporter will collect as many of these sources as is necessary to create a complete picture, balancing the scales, so to speak. However, we would be foolish to expect such thoroughness or integrity from every journalist.
It is often the case that we find a disproportionate number of sources cited and interviews conducted. It is unwise to speculate on the intentions of any journalist. Still, it is important to realize that by selectively utilizing the power of quotation marks, editorial bias can be woven into an article without the reader noticing it. All an author need do is combine a few opinionated statements with a “ and a ” and they can create a biased report while conceivably maintaining the appearance of being objective.

(Top of Page) (Example 1: 1989 Panama Invasion) (What Sources Are Used)(Example 2: Conflict in Israel/Palestine)


  1. Lawrence C. Soley. The News Shapers (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1992), 11.
  2. Leon V. Sigal. Reporters and Officials (Lexington Books, 1973), 120.
  3. Ibid, 124.
  4. Ibid, 129.
  5. Soley, 17.
  6. http://www.fair.org/reports/nightline-guest.html