5 tips for journalists who want to do a better job of cultivating sources
Sources are one of a reporter's biggest assets. If you cover a regular beat, you'll find yourself talking to some of the same people pretty often. Over time, if you forge relationships with the right sources, you'll find that they can become the gateway to career-making scoops.
Sources who trust and respect you will come to you first when they hear news on the down-low. But it takes time to earn that trust and respect. Here are five tips that will put you on the right track.
Embrace the small talk
Many reporters aren't into schmoozing, but a few friendly words can set you apart from reporters who treat sources like information-vending machines instead of human beings. Think of small talk as the mayo in the tuna salad sandwich of your reporting.
When you reconnect with a source you've talked to before, ask how their day is going. Genuinely listen when they respond. Pay attention to whether they're married or have kids, and ask occasionally how their family (or even a pet) is doing. If you have something in common with that source, take a moment to discuss the topic, whether it's a sports team or an obscure favorite food.
Most people like it when you're interested in them, and when you take the time to nurture that interest by finding out more. It's flattering, but it's not cheap flattery; it shows you're paying attention to the details. That's a sign of a good reporter.
Don't be a stranger
If you find someone you think will be a goldmine of information, check in with them regularly, even if you don't need to interview them. This is another good time for small talk, and to ask if there have been any developments on a topic you've discussed before. Look through your contacts and see if there's someone you haven't heard from in a while. Give them a call; they might just have a scoop for you.
Email is a good way to touch base with sources, though they may be reluctant to put anything hush-hush into writing. Phone calls are better. In person is often best, whether you just drop by to see sources on your way to a City Hall meeting or you grab coffee regularly with them. The key is making sure they don't forget you, and that they remember you're interested in what they know.
Social networking sites have given reporters even more ways to keep up with their sources. Many journalists use Facebook and Twitter to find sources, interact with them informally, and find out what they're sharing with their audiences.
What happens “off the record” stays “off the record”
We all know reporters who say there's no such thing as “off the record,” or who promise to keep a source's information in confidence, and then quote them in the next day's news. Don't be that reporter.
Many sources want to tell you more than their higher-ups will allow. Of course, such information can be incredibly valuable, especially if you can use it to get on-the-record sources to verify what you've heard. If someone says they want to go off the record with you, say yes -- and mean it. (But don't be afraid to ask: "Is there anyone I should talk to who may be more likely to speak on the record?")
For many sources, going off the record is not only an opportunity to make a news story more accurate; it's a test of the reporter. Sources want to know whether you'll honor their request not to be quoted. If you can report those details without revealing your source, you're that much closer to gaining that source's trust. With time, this can lead to bigger and bigger tips.
Ask your sources to recommend more sources
At the end of interviews, ask your source whether there's anyone else you should talk to about the topic at hand. It's likely they'll have someone in mind.
Sources inside an administration, whether it's a government agency, a school, or a business, will probably recommend colleagues, while citizens and rabble-rousers are apt to connect you with birds of the same feather. Good sources of both stripes will hook you up with sources “across the aisle,” so to speak. Take your source's advice, but if they've got a bias to protect, make sure you round out their recommendations with other voices.
Avoid getting too friendly with sources
In Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical film "Almost Famous," rock writer Lester Bangs tells the fledgling journalist William Miller, “You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars. They are not your friends.”
It's unclear whether the real Lester Bangs ever spoke these words, but they reflect good advice. When you interview someone often, when you write about them regularly, they can start to feel like a friend. That's especially true if you follow the rest of these tips, because you'll wind up feeling closer to them than you would an average source.
Getting too close can jeopardize your objectivity. If you become friends, you may find yourself telling that source's side of the story -- to the detriment of the other sides. You may withhold important information to protect the source unnecessarily. You may even avoid writing news articles because your source wants to suppress information.
Needless to say, this is bad news -- it's the opposite of what source cultivation is for. There's a fine line between trusted source and confidante. Be careful to stay on the right side of that line, and you'll be well on your way to scooping the competition.