Attribution and data triangulation are ways of evaluating information. These are practices that we can adopt from scientific researchers and journalists. Attribution is the identification of the source of information. In this method, questions like “Is the source known?” or “Is the source credible and reputable?” are asked.
Data triangulation is the process of finding two or more sources for the same information. Questions like “Are the sources scholarly, academic, or reputable?”, “How many different quality sources are saying the same thing?”, or “Are the facts verifiable?” are asked.
Journalists and news media build and protect their reputation and credibility by citing as many reliable sources and verifiable facts as possible.
Here are some common codes in journalism that you might encounter when gathering information:
1. On the record.
This is the strongest form of attribution because the identity of the source of information is fully known. This includes anything relevant about how the source obtained the information (e.g. position in an organization, relation to the subject). This allows other journalists or researchers to verify the information directly from the attributed source.
In a news article or video report, it is typical that only a portion of the source’s statement is presented. Ideally, the entire statement from which that portion was lifted is saved on a verifiable record (e.g. as a video or audio recording).
According to the Associated Press Standards & Practices, information on the record is pursued whenever possible. They have strict guidelines when dealing with information that is not on the record.
2. On background.
This is when a piece of information is said to be from an “anonymous source.” However, clues about the “source who refuses to be identified,” like position in an organization or relation to the story, may be revealed. This is sometimes called “non-attributable” information. On background information is strengthened when verified through other sources, preferably one or more on record.
Philippine press freedom laws protect journalists from being compelled by the state to reveal the identity of their sources (R.A. No. 53 as amended by R.A. No. 1447). This upholds the importance of the freedom of the press and news media as the watchdog of the people.
3. Deep background.
This means that the source cannot be identified in any way at all. Whistleblowers who want to reveal wrongdoings often share deep background information for their safety. A good journalist or researcher must verify the information with other sources, especially with someone willing to speak on the record.
4. Off the record.
Off the record means that the information may not be used at all. However, Guy Bergstrom warns that this common term has become confusing and even if off the record information is not published, it may still be passed off as gossip to friends, family, or co-workers.
To avoid confusion, journalists, researchers and their sources are advised to set ground rules before information that is off the record, non-attributable, on background, or on deep background is sent and received.