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Home > Publications > Quill > Getting to the source


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Monday, April 2, 2007
Getting to the source

Developing reporter-source relationships without becoming chums

By David Cuillier

When Lusk Herald reporter Brandie Bartelt wanted to find out why the police chief resigned in January, she knew she could ask Mayor Pete Pier.

The official city reason was that the Lusk, Wyo., chief was “retiring.” In an off-the-record interview, however, Pier confirmed Bartelt’s suspicions that the chief wasn’t doing the job and was asked to resign. That information did not make it into the story.

Hurt feelings were spared, Pier said, and in a small town of 1,400, many people already knew it was time for the chief to hang up his holster.

“It’s a small community,” Pier said. “Some things don’t need to be said. … I trust (Bartelt), and because I trust her I think the public gets a good representation of what is happening.”

Bartelt said she isn’t afraid of writing negative stories, but source development is important for keeping information flowing.

“I go by the philosophy that I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine,” Bartelt said. “Obviously, you want something from them and they want something from you. That’s the way the world is. … You’re probably a liar if you say you don’t have some sort of relationship with your sources.”

For some journalists, Bartelt’s words grate more painfully than a snow plow on dry pavement. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics states that professional journalists should remain independent of sources.

After all, some media critics say, it’s because of cozy source relationships that journalists failed to aggressively verify the U.S. government’s assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The incestuous journalist-politician world was highlighted during the February trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby over the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity. It’s about going to the “dark side” without leaving the desk.

For other journalists, Bartelt says out loud what many keep to themselves. Without some kind of source development, information dries up. Maybe it’s a friendly gesture, or an amicable lunch. Maybe it’s holding off on a negative story, or failing to aggressively pursue a tip.

It’s an ethical dilemma. On one hand, journalists need to provide truth to the public, and developing sources helps get at some truth. On the other hand, getting too close to sources might lead to soft-pedaling stories, forgoing independence and preventing important information from getting to the public.

In this story, we’ll hear from people struggling with the dilemma and see the breadth of its reach throughout journalism, in all market sizes. We’ll hear from ethicists and experienced Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters who are able to write bad things about people and still get their calls returned.

Pervasive practice

A survey of 287 journalists by the Pew Research Center in 2000 found that 42 percent of reporters said they sometimes or often avoid stories that would hurt their relationship with sources. The results were the same between community journalists and those working for national media outlets.

And those are just the reporters willing to admit such self-censorship.

“That’s sad,” said Helen Thomas, who started covering the White House in 1961. “Why would they do that? Their job is to tell the truth. That’s the Holy Grail of journalism.”

Thomas said she understands, particularly in Washington, D.C., why it’s important to develop sources, but sometimes it goes too far.

“I think there has been more cozying over time … and journalism has paid a heavy price,” Thomas said. “Every reporter wants to have good sources, especially when you are covering government and government is so secretive. But you have to be very wary.”

Even Thomas, however, breaks bread with those she writes about. On Feb. 6, Thomas accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Washington Press Club Foundation’s 63rd annual congressional dinner at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The gala, which raises money for scholarships, included a backslapping mixing of journalists, Washington politicians and Hollywood stars. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi saluted Thomas.

“They had to say those nice things. It’s pro forma,” Thomas said. Despite the commingling of journalists and politicians, it’s important for reporters to aggressively pursue stories, she said. “You can be cut off, but so what? Isn’t it better to have your honor and integrity?”

Thomas said journalists probably feel more pressured today to avoid angering sources because of increased government secrecy, which makes reporters more reliant on official sources. Combine that with shrinking staffs and greater workload, and a lot of journalists have less time to dig for information. So they rely more on officials.

This can be particularly difficult on beats that tend to rely on sources more than public records, such as sports and entertainment — or in communities where journalists see their sources at the grocery store and in church pews.

“It’s not easy in a small town,” said Don Flood, editor of The Dover Post in Dover, Del. “We’re a small weekly paper, a family business. If people trust you, they’ll talk to you.”

Flood, who has worked at the paper for 25 years, said he once had to write about a neighbor who was caught embezzling.

“He lived two doors down. His daughter baby-sat for us, and his wife taught our daughter piano lessons. He would wave at me. After the story came out, of course, he never waved at me again.”

Sometimes, new reporters out of college are afraid to anger sources, Flood said, so they write the story the way the source wants it, not how readers want it. He teaches reporters that sources calm down and talk later.

“You have to be fair,” he said. “It’s not about liking. It’s about respecting you.”

Toughening the hide

Developing a thick skin can be hard for college journalism students at first.

At North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, students working on The Sentinel published a story this year criticizing the wrestling team. According to Nils Rosdahl, who has advised the paper for 23 years, the athletic director was furious, but he didn’t just complain. He paid his tuition and enrolled in the lab newspaper course as a student to see how the newspaper works. He attends class.

“So far it hasn’t affected our coverage,” Rosdahl said. “The news students are planning to run a piece looking at the overspending of athletics. They haven’t told (the athletic director), and he’ll probably be angry. The sports editor won’t be mad, but he’ll wish it didn’t run.”

Rosdahl said he doesn’t think that college students have changed much over the years, and aggressiveness comes down more to individual personality than experience or age.

Dennis Ruzicka, adviser of the Ferris State Torch at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., agrees.

“I’ve known a lot of students who weren’t particularly concerned what people thought,” Ruzicka said. “On the other hand, you want to be fair to people. You don’t want to damage them unnecessarily — the second SPJ code principle of minimizing harm. It depends on the maturity of the reporter.”

Some of Ruzicka’s students say they are objective reporters and not cheerleaders. Yet they also hesitate to actively pursue a story, thinking that aggressively digging up problems is advocacy journalism. Their definition of objectivity has, in a sense, caused some students to just “report what has happened.”

Even the best journalists eventually learned that they can’t keep trying to play it safe or make sources happy, no matter what the beat or circumstance.

“Early in my career when covering city council I might have backpedaled every now and then,” said Jim Ash, capital bureau chief for the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat.

Ultimately, he learned that journalists have to be wary of being used by politicians.

“We aren’t here to promote their political agendas,” he said.

Gentle but firm

Duff Wilson, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, understands the difficulty of source development for beat reporters, especially when an investigative reporter swoops in, drops a bomb, then glides away to leave the beat reporter stumbling in the rubble of burned sources.

But Wilson said it’s still possible for a beat reporter to maintain relationships and do critical stories. For example, Wilson suggests reporters be upfront with sources when a negative story is about to be published. Wilson even gives them a copy the day before publication so they can correct errors and avoid surprises. The story might not change, but at least the source felt he or she was treated fairly.

“You really have to separate friends from sources,” Wilson said. “You don’t make friends.”

Good reporters also use their personalities to their advantage, Wilson said. “For me it might be a kind, gentle, understanding demeanor, which I have,” Wilson said. “I listen well and hear them out.”

Even if sources get mad, so what? When Wilson covered the Duke University lacrosse team rape case, the defense lawyers were unhappy with a story he wrote and “froze” him out. “That’s going to happen,” he said. “They talked to me again eventually.”

Reporting critically of sources can actually increase the flow of information, not constrict it, Wilson said. When Wilson was a city hall reporter and wrote stories that the city deemed negative, the mayor might not have talked as much to him but he was able to get the information through other means.

Also, Wilson said, once line workers saw that he was not in cahoots with the mayor tips filtered in that led to better stories. Some journalists find a problem in an agency and report it knowing that the initial story will unearth more serious problems that lead to better stories.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Eric Nalder, who won the Pulitzer Prize twice for his investigative reporting, said writing critical stories has opened up new sources that went beyond the officials.

Nalder said he has always looked at every story as an investigation, even when he got his start at The Whidbey News Times, a weekly in Oak Harbor, Wash. “If someone came to me with a feature about a sewing club then I backgrounded every person in that sewing club.”

The key, Nalder said, is to be accurate, up front, and respectful. Reporters, he said, should be looking out for citizens, not their sources.

“You must set the standard for your way of doing things with people,” Nalder said. “Your standard should be that you are going to seek the truth and that you are going to dig deeply for it. You will find that on a beat if you establish that mode immediately you are going to get better stories and sources will open up. People will take you seriously.”

Of course, Nalder said, journalists have to develop trust and a connection with sources to get information. Nalder often delivers his “art of the interview” training sessions at conferences, providing psychological strategies for getting information out of sources, particularly reluctant sources.

“There is such a thing as honest manipulation,” Nalder said. “You’re getting people in a frame of mind to talk to you and helping them organize the information in their brain. Having them relay information in a chronology, for example. That is manipulation, but it’s a smart way to interview. We’re working for our readers, not for the people we are interviewing.”

Nalder said some journalists get too chummy with their sources, to the point of lunacy. Once he attended the White House correspondents dinner and he was flabbergasted by the schmoozing between reporters and the elite, including Donald Trump, President Bill Clinton and Barbara Streisand.

“I thought it was an obscene circus,” Nalder said. “It was appalling to me. These journalists were all bug-eyed over inviting these people. They were participating in the show. They put on the party. Then there was a competition to see who could bring in the best celebrities. I thought it was all very dopey.”

Building an ethical climate

No matter what journalism professors or editors say, reporters are going to get too close to their sources, said Virginia Whitehouse, a media ethics scholar from Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash. Sometimes they get so close they start dating.

The key, Whitehouse said, is for reporters to discuss the issue with their editors.

“Ethics conversations usually stop with ‘don’t do it,’” she said. “We can’t say ‘just say no.’ We need strategies for young journalists, and it needs to be made clear by employers.”

Editors need to develop relationships so reporters can feel safe raising an issue. Virtue, she said, involves middle ground. Otherwise, reporters may hide the issue.

“There needs to be a climate where people are making ethical decisions together rather than autocratically,” she said. “If a journalist is withholding information because the editor is cranky, then you have an ethical climate problem.”

Ron Smith, who teaches media ethics at the University of Central Florida, said that once a conversation is started, the focus should be on the No. 1 principle of the SPJ code of ethics: Truth.

Smith said journalists have to look hard at what they are doing and who they are serving.

“If you are bending the truth for sources, then you are crossing the line,” Smith said. “If you are siding on the non-truth side consistently, then you have problems. Maybe you’ve been on the beat too long.”

Ultimately, getting too close to sources can lead to firings. Thomas J. Roach, a former journalist who now teaches public relations at Purdue University Calumet, said he fired a reporter once for being too close to sources.

“In class you tell (students) to cover everyone the same, but I don’t know where it works that way,” Roach said. “There are no black-and-white situations. A good reporter gets to know everybody, writes the good stories when they come up, and writes the bad ones when they come up.”

Roach said a lot of bad PR practitioners hound and badger journalists to bend them their way. Reporters need to stand their ground.

“It’s like the shootout at the O.K. Corral,” Road said. “Everyone has big guns, and anything can happen. The sources that are going to get mad — screw ’em. They are the ones who have the problem.”


Tip Sheet 1

Ten tips on how to keep and maintain relationships with sources without getting buddy-buddy:

1. Be up front with sources from the start. Tell them, “I am not on your side.” Set the standard that you are going to seek the truth and that you are going to dig deeply for it. People will take you seriously, sources will open up, and you will get better stories.

2. Be respectful, friendly, accurate and honest. Sources will respect you and talk to you even if they don’t like what you reported.

3. Avoid surprises. If you are going to publish or air something negative about someone, let them know in advance and get their side. They won’t like it, but they will understand it.

4. If you go to lunch with a source or to a social gathering, be there as a journalist, not a participant. Do not accept gifts, and pay for your own meals to delineate the boundaries.

5. One of the best ways to get to know something is through feature writing. Write positive stories as you try to get to know an agency, but make sure they are newsworthy features. Make sure the stories are legitimate and helpful for the public.

6. Even more important, don’t be afraid to write negative, legitimate newsworthy stories about your sources early on. This will make clear the role you play in society. As long as you are accurate and up front, most sources will understand. Also, it will loosen up other tips about wrongdoing and problems in an agency.

7. Remind yourself: Public officials need me more than I need them. They will come back, and even if they are less forthcoming, I can get the information through other means.

8. Be transparent. If my boss, or more important, readers and viewers, knew what I was doing with my source, would they approve? Always think of your reporting as transparent. If readers wouldn’t approve, then don’t do it.

9. If you feel that you can’t pursue a negative story for fear of alienating important sources, discuss it with your boss and ask that another reporter be assigned to that story. Also, it might be time to shift to another beat.

10. If you’re a supervisor, make sure your reporters know they can talk to you about these issues. The alternative is that they might hide good stories from you.


Tip Sheet 2

Chum checklist

How far are you willing to go to keep sources happy without compromising your independence? Check all that apply, and then compare notes with your colleagues, particularly your bosses or employees, over a brown-bag lunch or coffee.

Not all of these are necessarily wrong, depending on the situation. But if a lot are checked, it might be worth talking about it. An honest discussion might lead to strategies that maintain the flow of information from sources without denying citizens the information they need to know.

In the past year I can remember at least one time where I:

1. _____ Smiled and acted friendly with a source.

2. _____ Expressed interest in a source’s hobbies or family, even though I didn’t really give a whit about their vacation to the Grand Canyon last summer.

3. _____ Dressed or acted similarly to my sources to fit in and get them to open up.

4. _____ Attended or hosted a social gathering that included chatting with sources, such as a Christmas party, wedding, press club dinner or drinks at a local bar.

5. _____ Wrote a newsworthy and legitimate feature story about sources to get them used to me and to know that I write about the good as well as the bad.

6. _____ Sent a Christmas card, get-well card or thank-you card to a source, either issued by the company or purchased personally.

7. _____ Covered a groundbreaking, ribbon-cutting or lame press conference that wasn’t that newsworthy but showed my sources that I care enough to show up.

8. _____ Told a source juicy information not privy to the public, perhaps about other sources, to build trust and a mutual exchange of information.

9. _____ Flirted or went on a date with a source.

10. ____ Agreed to let a source go off the record.

11. ____ Read back quotes or facts to a source before publication, and made changes requested by the source.

12. ____ Let a source read a whole story before publication, and then changed the story tone to conform to source wishes.

13. ____ Omitted from a story a damaging fact or quote about a source that would have caused some hard feelings.

14. ____ Delayed publication of a story at the request of a source.

15. ____ Decided not to pursue a negative story about a source or agency so they would keep talking to me and wouldn’t freeze me out (a third of journalists admit they sometimes or always do this).

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