I always cringe a bit when I read a news report that refers to "informed sources."
Often, it seems, it's only one informed source and we never know exactly who informed the source about whatever he or she or they are informed about. Sometimes, there are two informed sources, but it’s possible that both received their information from the same person, so they really should count as one source.
When the source is a few levels down in the food chain, it's like a game of telephone, where the story changes just a bit with each retelling. It can make a huge difference if the "informed" source was the actual doer or six steps removed from the scene of battle.
Worse, there is a pathology I noticed in my days as a news reporter and, later, as a consultant, that can skew the story significantly. This isn’t about bias or agendas; it’s about life.
When we interview people for insights, the best informed people will often be the ones who say the least. Perhaps they give us the smallest amount of time or they are more circumspect about how they speak. As rule, people whose words are impactful will be careful in their choice of words.
That means, often, that the guy who gives you the best quotes and the largest amount of time might also be the least informed or least connected or least powerful person on the interview list. Of course, that person might have tons of spare time to spend as a source.
There’s a difference, of course, between least connected and least powerful. The most connected and powerful person might be in the best position to see the big picture, understand the competing issues, and deliver on his claims, or he might be out of touch with the daily details or too protective of the status quo. The least powerful person might be a whistleblower or most familiar with the way plans are actually implemented. Other times, the least powerful person turns out to be a crank.
It doesn’t matter if I’m reading something from the right or left, about business or art or politics, simply calling someone an informed source doesn’t do it for me. Of course, if the person is referred to as a well-informed source or a senior-level source, that changes everything. Those are the people you just know you can trust.
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