5 tips for getting people to go on the record
With the presidential primaries just a year away, we’ve entered the stage of the permanent campaign that will include many foundational profiles of the potential candidates.
Among the perennial challenges of such stories: sources reluctant to go on the record with critical remarks or recollections about someone who might end up as leader of the free world.
The Boston Globe published a 4,100-word version of the genre in its Sunday edition: a profile of Jeb Bush's high school years at Phillips Academy by Michael Kranish, the paper's deputy Washington bureau chief.
It's the sort of look back at the bad-boy-years often diminished by blind quotes that readers have no way of verifying (and that I've been guilty of relying on myself way back when). Not so with Kranish's piece, which includes on-the-record recollections of Bush by named classmates about everything from pot-smoking to bullying.
Kranish also got Bush on the record for the story, which included his acknowledgement of drug use and his lack of recollection when it came to bullying.
As the co-author of two biographies of presidential candidates (John F. Kerry: The Boston Globe Biography, and The Real Romney), Kranish has also published a book about Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps as a result, his approach to candidate profiles seems to me to reflect the attention to process and rigor you’d expect from a careful historian.
The timing of his Bush piece was just right for the journalism ethics class I’m teaching this semester at Northeastern University, since this week's topic is attribution and sourcing. I’d already pulled excerpts from Kranish’s story for an x-ray reading in class when I sent him an email probing the details of his approach.
You’ll find a transcript of our email exchange below, but here’s a list of five techniques that Kranish described, along with some of the ideas I shared with my students in class yesterday. They’re not that different from the fundamentals of solid reporting, which shouldn’t be surprising.
- Contact as many possible sources as early in the campaign cycle as possible. Some will insist on speaking on background, but these conversations will help inform your subsequent interviews with sources willing to attach their names to their comments.
- Do sufficient homework to let the sources know they’re talking with someone who’s taken the time to become knowledgeable about the subject matter. That kind of preparation can increase the comfort level and trust many sources require before agreeing to be quoted by name.
- Assume nothing about the accuracy of previously-published accounts of the topic you’re reporting.
- Recognize the sorts of stories that require anonymous sources, and the ones that don’t.
- Negotiate the time and space from your employer to invest what it takes to produce fully documented journalism.
I wasn’t the only reader to follow up with questions about Kranish’s Bush piece. Bill O’Reilly pressed him on the question of what level of scrutiny is appropriate for a candidate’s high school years.
Since our email exchange was originally intended for classroom use as opposed to publication, I invited Kranish to edit the following transcript. He made some minor changes and deletions.
How difficult was it to get those comments with full attribution? Did some of your sources initially ask not to be quoted by name? If so, how did you persuade them otherwise?
Kranish: Getting folks on the record for this story was a matter of tracking down many classmates. Of the 30 or so I was able to reach, most were happy to talk to me. A few only did so on background, and one didn't want to talk to me at all. Having done profiles like this many times, I knew it was essential to reach classmates early, preferably before other reporters. I went through the same in doing an early story on Kerry's fellow Vietnam vets. That's why I did this story so early. (A few had talked for a magazine story 14 years earlier, but in much less detail.)
A key in getting folks to talk to me on the record is to show that I've done my homework. Before talking to them, I scanned every issue of The Phillipian from Bush's time, read the yearbooks, went through the alumni magazines, and so on. By the time I make my calls, I have a good idea of what it was like to be at Andover at that time. Archival research set me up for rest of the reporting (I love archival stuff and have also written history.)
None of this is possible without time and space. I'm really lucky that the Globe will give me what I need on both counts.
The other thing, importantly, is not to assume what you've seen repeated in various stories is correct. (I came upon various things that were either wrong or that I couldn't verify and thus left out). I read what's out there and then start from scratch.
There's at least one summary observation attributed to "classmates." How do you decide what needs direct attribution with a name attached, and what doesn't?
Kranish: On reference to "classmates," I use such if readers can see I've quoted many on the record and it's on a minor point that doesn't merit a full quote. This only works if there's a lot of on-record quotes.
Additional comments from Kranish:
I am conservative in the use of unattributed quotes - it has to be a very high standard. I spend half my time as an editor, half as reporter, and I apply the same in editing mode. Every time you use an anonymous source, it can raise questions about the authority of the piece. I do use them when absolutely necessary, of course. And some types of stories, such as national security, are difficult to write competitively without them. But too many stories have anonymous sources who have an agenda, are being critical, etc. I've co-authored two biographies on presidential candidates for the Globe. The Kerry book had none or very few anonymous quotes. The Romney book had a handful for various reasons, but also had more than 1,000 footnotes. If we are going to write about a person who may be president, some readers are going to unfairly assume there's an agenda (in today's world), and all the more reason to be careful on this issue.
As a two-time participant at Poynter, I'm sure I picked up some of these views at those sessions (my first when it was Modern Media Institute in 1983).