Sources are the journalist’s most important external resource. They are the key to developing good stories, to understanding a field or a topic and to presenting good information to news consumers.
In a very real sense, a journalist is only as good as his or her sources.
In the normal work of daily journalism, many sources that a reporter will call upon for information will be used only once. That is, a reporter is unlikely to have to call that person again for information about another storie. Contact is made quickly, and the exchange of information takes relatively little time – if, of course, the reporter is experienced about contacting people without knowing them and persuading them to give him or her the information that is needed.
These contacts, even if they occur only once, are valuable if the source has a good experience with the reporter and if the source feels as though he or she is appreciated. In these circumstances, the source is likely to have a good feeling about the reporter and the news organization.
If a reporter is on a beat – if he or she covers the same topic or place (such as police or city government) – developing sources is a somewhat different matter. Beat reporters use the same sources repeatedly. They develop relationships with those sources that enhance the trust between the source and the journalist.
No one has to talk to a reporter. Reporters do not have subpoena power. They have to persuade people to talk to them, and if someone choses not to do so, there is really nothing that reporters can do about it.
Then why do sources cooperate with reporters?
Many sources cooperate simply because they are asked to do so, and they are trying to be helpful.
Sometimes people cooperate because they want to tell their side of a story or they would simply like to get their name mentioned in a news article.
People cooperate because they think it will do them good.
Public relations and public information professions cooperate because that is their job.
And people cooperate because they believe that those they oppose – such as political opponents – are also cooperating, and they will be at a disadvantage if they do not do so.
Journalists always try to get sources to cooperate with them, but they should also try to discern the motives of people who do. Sources can have their own agendas and their own reasons for cooperating that have nothing to do with writing an accurate journalistic report. Reporters should try to be aware of these motives.
Beyond that, in developing sources, journalists should remember the following:
The best sources are those that are official and expert (see module 2.4 <link>). But reporters should always be willing to go beyond these sources to seek out those who may not always be quoted by the news media.
Reporters should seek out those who have the most and the latest information. Within organizations, these are often the public relations or public information people, but again reporters should not hesitate to go beyond these sources.
Reporters must identify the publications and web sites that are the most referred to and most reliable in giving information about a particular topic. And they should include the web sites, along with links (see module 2.9 <link>), in their reports.
Differing points of view about information should always be sought, but a journalist is under no obligation to include ALL points of view in a report. Reporters must be discerning and skeptical about the information and opinions they gather.
Journalists in the United States do not pay sources for their cooperation. (This is not the case in Great Britain or Western Europe.) Paying sources casts doubt on the credibility of both the source and the journalist or news organization.
The ultimate goal for the journalist is to develop his or her own expertise in the subject that is being written about. One of the best pieces of advice for a young journalist in the age of the web is to select a subject, learn as much about it as possible and start a blog. (See module 4.2 <link>)
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