April 14, 2007

TIME OUT: Source Sourcery

This is part of my presentation covered at the KACP workshop "Handling the Big Story on Campus"

Reliable Sources:
How to get people on campus to talk

  • Remember names - Learn the names and titles of all the upper-level administrators and department heads. While no one likes to be thought of as their job title, many in academic institutions (especially the higher up the chain they are) like to be addressed as Dr. So-and-So or Dean Whoever. Don't become over familiar with these sources by using their first names, unless they ask you to.
  • Say "Thank you" - In addition to thanking a source at the moment, let a day or so pass and thank him or her again. Sometimes sources get nervous about what they may have said. A quick call, e-mail or note lets them know you understand what it took for them to meet with you in the first place.
  • Be human - If people see you as a sensationalistic, headline-busting, one-purpose newshound who's only interest is getting the story, they wont trust you. And why should they? To you, they're just walking quotes. However, if they see you as a real person, they can relate to you. Notice their office or desk and talk about similar interests. Talk about the weather. Just talk -- and not as a way to wear them down -- really talk to them. Be interested.
  • Fair to all, large and small - While its important to know the top-level administrator and department heads, know those who come in contact with them (administrative assistants, the person in the food court who serves them coffee, the custodian who cleans their office). These individuals' stories may not support your investigation but that doesn't mean their stories don't deserve to be told.
  • Finding Mr. or Ms. Right - Every division, every department, every office has an "it" person. Not only does this person know everything and everyone, he or she usually collects memo, e-mails and other documents. You need to know this person and you need have those documents. Cultivate -- not manipulate -- a relationship with this person. They usually won't want to go on the record, but who cares? They have all the background and with their documentation, you probably don't need them on the record.
  • Never miss a chance to do a simple favor - Use your resources to help out a source. If a source has a to research something campus related, take the initiative to search through old issues to see how the campus paper covered it and present him or her with a copy of the article. If a source is interested in buying or selling an item let him or her know if your papers offers free classified ads for students and staff. If one of their tips or quotes makes it into the paper, hand deliver the source a copy and say thanks. Note: When a sensitive article gets published hand delivering a copy might make your source look like a snitch. Use your best judgement.
  • Return phone calls, even the painful ones - Not returning phone calls tells a source that he or she doesn't matter to you. Sometimes a sources is simply feeling nervous and needs to talk about it or he or she just wants to chat. So chat and listen. Never give people -- especially sources -- the impression that their story ideas are silly. Even when they are.
  • Check in - Sources get nervous and sometimes they need to freak out to the one person they trusted with their story. Let them release some steam because if they keep it inside, you'll get the call saying they don't want to do the story. So check in to make sure they are doing OK. Keep them updated on your progress. Let them know how they fit into the story. They shouldn't be surprised about their participation when they pick up the paper.
  • Don't bitch and moan - It sounds simple to avoid this behavior but its not. Sources will encourage you to talk smack. Its okay to empathize with them but follow the best friend breakup rule: don't trash your best friend's ex when they break up because they just might get back together. Don't endanger your credibility by trashing someone or by whining about your editor or adviser. That doesn't instill sources with confidence in trusting you or your news organization.
  • Confidential contact - With sensitive information, advise employees not to contact you using college provided avenues of communication (employee e-mail, interoffice mail, voice messages, etc.). Legally, the college can intercept/monitor communication on its systems. Have other avenues set up for confidential communication.
  • Train sources to contact you - Many times we get our tips simply because we bump into a source as we walk across campus or when we make the effort to call them. In addition to teaching sources how confidentially contact you, teach them when to contact you like when
  • they come across information that they find interesting
  • someone gets hired, fired, promoted, awarded, or in any other way their job changes
  • things are "too" normal
  • their work flow suddenly increases or decreases
  • Walk with them - Its simple to try to conduct everything via email or over the phone. But sometimes people don't get back with you. Go to their office, they cant hang up on you when you're face-to-face. If a source can't meet with you because he or she is going to a meeting, class or home, walk with him or her. The ones who are truly busy will be glad you accomodated theri packed schedules and the ones who tried to hide from you will know next time to take your call -- or you'll hunt them down.
  • Break bread - Use those social lubricants like lunch, dinner and coffee breaks to engage sources. Because you are both out of the office, avoid using pressure tactics to get them to talk. Its lunch, not an interrogation. Note: even though you are a poor student journalist, don't let your source pay for you.
  • Always protect your source - Don't name drop with other sources or others in the newsroom. If information is off the record, its OFF THE RECORD. In a micro-community like a college, word spreads quickly if you burn a source. Conversely, word will spread if you can be trusted.
  • Enlist "source references" - Usually when you do win a source's trust, the source will tell his or her friends about you -- encourage this. However, if you're having trouble securing a source's trust, ask if it is OK to have another one of your sources contact him or her to speak of your ethics and integrity. Of course, this means first identifying a source who is willing to be your "source reference."
  • Repeat the rules - Journalists are usually pretty good about explaining on the record, off the record, not for attribution, etc. However, sources don't always remember what they agreed to initially. Remind them of how their information will be used according to your agreement. That agreement can always be renegotiated but don't give up something unless you get something equal or better in return.
  • That thing you do - Sometimes sources try to get all "deepthroat" on you for no reason. Don't let them. Explain how the reporting process works. Describe how information must be triangulated. Tell them you don't call all the shots and that you report to an editor who wouldn't believe the sky was blue if Abraham Lincoln showed him a picture if it. Tell them that sometimes stories don't get published for reasons beyond their and your control. But most of all tell them you're going to be accurate and fair -- and then, be accurate and fair.
  • Ask for help - Use other's expertise. Ask them to help you find out about XYZ ; ask them to explain how ABC works or ask for the history of JKL. Although it may not seem like it all the time, people who work in colleges really want to be of service -- so let them.

Miguel M. Morales, Johnson County Community College, for the Kansas Associated Collegiate Press convention - April 16, 2007
adapted from a handout by Larry Welborn,
The Orange County Register