Tips for citizen journalists: how to manage sources


This question came from a citizen journalist who’d rather remain anonymous:

Under what circumstances is it legitimate for a public figure to decline interviews? And if they decline can they insist that their denial remain off the record?

I’m going to answer that question directly and then address some thoughts to what I think may be the larger problem from whence that question springs: how do small publishers cultivate sources and command respect?

Unlike prosecutors, journalists lack subpoena powers. No rule or law requires that public, much less private, officials return calls or answer questions.

As for demanding that the denial be off the record, that sounds rather silly on the part of the official. Maybe they are as inexperienced at dealing with media as media newcomers are at dealing with the egos and idiocyncracies of the people whom they must try to cajole into conversations.

But to put a hopeful construction on what seems a petty demand to keep this denial off the record, I’d guess that the reluctant source does not want to appear non-responsive. And that’s a good thing for the writer. Because while public and private officials are free to ignore media queries, they do so at some peril to their reputations and perceptions. And so long as what you eventually publish about them, or  aboutissues of interest to them, is accurate, truthful and without (obvious) malice, they will be forced to deal with you.

It’s like one veteran  reporter told me back when I was getting started in newspapers: if you want ’em to return your calls, write about ’em!

But you don’t want angry callbacks. You want information and comment, in advance, to enhance the authority of your stories and your publication. And if the “publication” is new and exists entirely online, it may be much easier for reluctant officials to ignore — and more frustrating for newcomers trying to build clout.

How do you get people to talk to you? By understanding why some people willingly talk to media, and learning a few tricks about how to entice – or detour around – those who are reluctant to return your calls.

Before I re-invent the wheel when it comes to managing sourcing, let me fpoint to a Wikipedia entry that gives some good pointers and definitions about what it meant by off the record, how does it differ from background, etcetera.

In particular I direct your attention to a concise, comprehensive and common-sense guide called “Developing and cultivating sources.” Written by veteran newsman Steve Buttry, the guide offers more than 20 tips that will take a newcomer all the way from practical considerations (like making it easy to get back to you) to ethical concerns (like not getting too cosy with your frequent sources) to the hard-edged (like learning how to uncover publicly available documents so when they decline to talk, you still have the ability to shove accurate information right up their ahem).

Since Steve has laid out a sensible framework for source management, let me add a few jaundiced observations that, I hope, will be helpful and not seem overly cynical.

First, people talk to us because we are useful to them. The powerless obviously need our help. The powerful may want exposure; in the case of public officials they may need it. Many private individuals also want recognition (i.e. favorable stories). So when someone offers to talk, in the back of your head you have to wonder why. That should force you to look for countervaling views; look for someone with a balancing, competing or conflicting interest.

Second, there are very few people who are good at taking criticisms or hard hits. Public officials sometimes develop the knack. Public relations people should understand that bad news means bad publicity and should not blame the messenger. But that doesn’t mean they will. I remember one big company I covered scheduled a meeting with me and my editors. They had done a survey that showed most 75 percent of their media coverage was favorable; but my coverage was only 66 percent favorable. There were no complaints of factual errors. My nice ratio just wasn’t up to snuff! And this was from people who pretty much liked and respected me. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t try to lean on me.

Third, the three most important things in source management are accuracy, accuracy and accuracy. When you’re right and you publish something negative about them, it may make them fume, but that heat is all directed inward; they have to get pissed at themselves. At the same time, when you get it right, people come out of the woodwork to help. (Here’s a link to a site suggesting how broacast media solicit viewer tis; it’s even easier with online media, where e-mails or comments are a click away).

Fourth, understand your personal style and use it to best advantage. I am loud and obvious. Subtlely doesn’t work for me so I generally barge right into any conversation and say here’s what I’m after; are you ready to help? For me it works. Perhaps you’re a little more shy. You hang back. That’s OK too. As long as you’re a good listener and you do the right background research, you’ll succeed in getting interviews. (More interview tips here.) 

Fifth, be nice to people. Make it pleasant to talk with you. I am, as I heard a friend say just the other night, a “chatty Cathy.” A little banter goes a long way in soothing ruffled feelings. It is especially helpful when you’re trying to get through to important people to establish some rapport with their handlers or secretaries; if these screening people think you’re rude, you go to the bottom of the pile; if they take pity on you they can occasionally make the boss call you back.

Sixth, under no circumstances scream at sources at the top of your lungs, using foul curses learned while growing up in Brooklyn and perfected while serving in the Navy – as I have done on two, separate occasions in my career. In both cases I delivered that stream of invective through the telephone which, given my volume at the time, was hardly necessary. You may not even want to pound the table, as I did in a third, face-to-face interview that still, some four years later, makes my blood boil. Having spent much of my life getting angry, I have learned that anger almost never works to my advantage. So take a deep breath and exhale slowly. And if the anger hasn’t passed, do it again. I do it. And sometimes it even works 🙂