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Journalism: Getting Reluctant Sources on the Record


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A piece of journalism is only as good as the information it draws from. In this session, learn the importance of sourcing and see where others failed. Also, find out how to get the most reluctant sources on the record and know where to turn when all else fails.

Published in: News & Politics
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Journalism: Getting Reluctant Sources on the Record

  1. 1. Getting reluctant sources on the record
  2. 2. The importance of sources  Stories are only as good as the information they contain  The public — more than ever — deserves to know the origin of information  A story is more likely to stand up to criticism — claims of fake news, for example — if it has solid sourcing
  3. 3. Example
  4. 4. Example
  5. 5. Whatdoes SPJ’sCode ofEthics say? Journalists should…  be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.  identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.  consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.  diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.
  6. 6. InitialSteps  One of the most important steps in approaching sources is to simply ask if they will talk  People deserve a chance to simply answer your questions  Asking people to answer question upfront can protect you and your news organization from accusations of unfairness  You must give people an acceptable amount of time to answer your questions
  7. 7. What next?
  8. 8. Evaluateyour approach  Each approach to dealing with a reluctant source should be unique  Some relevant factors:  Where does the person fit into your story?  Witness  Victim  Perpetrator  Knowledgeable person  How did the person respond to your initial ask?  Why won’t they talk to you?
  9. 9. Step 1 Ask the source why he or she won’t talk to you
  10. 10. Step 1 Ask the source why he or she won’t talk to you The person’s concern may be relatively simple to address
  11. 11. Step 2 Ask the source if they know what you want to know
  12. 12. Step 3  Approach the person with genuine care and interest in their information  Ask the person to meet — for coffee, perhaps — and emphasize there is no expectation that they share their story  Explain why you want to hear their story  Explain what you know to show you’re serious about the story  Consider trading information for what the source knows
  13. 13. Step 4  Ask the person if the information lives somewhere else  Public documents  Other people  Ask for a more generalized version of their information  Consider what concessions you’re willing to make to retrieve the information  Anonymity?  Off-the-record source  Background information * BE SPECIFIC IN AGREEMENTS
  14. 14. Additional Helpful Steps  Check the background of sources  Look for common ground and other shared interests  See if friends on social media may be potential sources  Leave the source with some information at each meeting to gain trust
  15. 15. Another Avenue • * Ideal for larger investigations and mostly reserved for sources accused of wrongdoing
  16. 16. Subject
  17. 17. Subject Ex-Partner Old Roommate Ex-Coworker
  18. 18. Subject Ex-Partner Old Roommate Neighbor Employer Ex-Coworker Sibling
  19. 19. Subject Ex-Partner Old Roommate Neighbor Employer Ex-Coworker Partne r Sibling
  20. 20. If you speak to enough people surrounding the subject or source, they may agree to speak with you to get their truth out.
  21. 21. Take-home Points  Ask the source if they’ll talk to you  Ask why they won’t talk to you  Ask if they know what you want to know  Give people enough time to respond to questions  Evaluate your possible paths  Show genuine care and interest  Explain what you know  Consider trading information  Ask for generalized information  Find out where else the information lives  Consider concessions  Ask yourself if the source is the right source  Be specific when making anonymity agreements
  22. 22. Questions?  Lynn Walsh  @lwalsh  Andrew M. Seaman  @andrewmseaman