20/20 #8 — Show me your story: Relationships with sources

Sources, from the woman at the bus stop to the mayor’s media coordinator, make your story. Here are four quick rules to remember about the relationship between reporters and sources:

  • Look for the authoritative source. The woman at the bus stop may be an authority on her own feelings about how often the buses run, how dangerous the corner is, or what would make a better bus stop shelter. The mayor’s aide may know the mayor’s schedule and the mayor’s official position on transportation, but might not know anything about actually riding the bus.
  • Treat sources with respect and honesty. Even if they do not reciprocate.
  • Your source is not your friend. You need to maintain enough distance for objectivity. Your FIRST obligation is to your story and your readers / viewers / listeners, who rely on you for accuracy.
  • Be clear about your role. You are reporting. Everything they say is on the record, unless you specifically make an agreement to the contrary. If you know the source socially, clearly separate social conversations and reporting conversations.

Sources frequently ask if they can see the story before it is published. The answer is NO. This is a basic rule of journalism. The only person who sees your story before it is published is your editor. Exceptions:

  • You may read back quotations, or send quotations to sources to verify their accuracy.
  • If you have specific questions or if you want to make sure that you have accurately described what the source has said, you may send that portion of the article to verify accuracy. For example — your source described the three steps to home composting, and you want to make sure that you got these right.

Questions for discussion:

Who are the must-ask sources on stories?

How do you deal with a hostile source?

How do you find sources?