By Lynn Walsh, RTDNA Blogger
Our business is all about obtaining information. As journalists we use a lot of tools to get that information. From resources on the internet to books to court documents, we look for information anywhere we can find it. I would argue the best source of information is: people. Those people range from anonymous contacts, organization insiders, parents, friends, family... the list goes on and on. We all have people who are our “sources.” But what is that relationship like? How close are you with your sources?
Since our sources vary greatly, our relationships with them probably do as well. Some of your sources may have started out as close friends before they became sources while others may have turned into friends as you continued to work with them on stories. Because of the varying degrees we have with sources, sometimes working with and dealing with sources can be tricky, which begs the question: What is appropriate when dealing with sources? What is inappropriate? How close can you get without crossing the line?
As I continue to develop sources and work in this industry I have often thought about these questions. While I think a lot of these questions need to be addressed on a case by case basis, I think there are a few things that apply 100 percent of the time:
1. Say no to event invitations. If it hasn’t happened yet, it will. I think it is one thing to attend an event and pay for it yourself, but another thing to go with your source and on their dime. Attending an event as their guest can show a certain type of relationship to the public or others at the event that you may not want. Most events are open to paying individuals, so just pay for it. If it isn’t something that you can easily get into without your source, then what would you say you are doing there, if asked by other guests? If you are there for the purpose of a story or a possible story, then you would be disclosing you are and where you work, so wouldn’t it be better to be there on your own? Or on behalf of your station?
2. Don’t promise coverage. For one thing, you never know what might happen that could turn a dull news day into wall-to-wall breaking news coverage. But, more importantly, promising news coverage is one of the fastest ways to lose a source or tarnish a relationship. The moment you cannot pull through on your promise, is the moment your source will most likely be disappointed and possible feel duped.
3. Don’t divulge information about other sources. When someone is trusting you with information, they trust you. They do not expect their personal information to be shared amongst friends and colleagues and they shouldn’t.
4. Remember your manners. Respect and using your manners always gets you far. But, when dealing with sources I have found this advice is even more helpful and useful. It’s simple things like returning phone calls in a timely manner, listening to their concerns and giving them the time of day they deserve that can really make a difference. Saying “please” and “thank you” can really go a long way.
5. Don’t accept anything. Whether it is lunch or Starbucks, just say, “No, thank you.” The last thing you want is for the public to even consider that your story is biased in a certain way because you let a source buy you a coffee or an appetizer.
We also encourage you to review RTDNA's guidelines for evaluating sources.
Do you have rules when it comes to how you interact and develop relationships with sources? Let us know what they are in the comments below.
Lynn Walsh in the Investigative Producer at WPTV, NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach, Florida. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Email her, follow her on Twitter and on Tumblr.
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