Trainer, BBC iLearn
All reporting begins with the research. To fill in a news report or any other story the journalist needs some specific information to report.
Journalists gather information three different ways:
1. from written sources, e.g. documents, files, minutes, reports, books.
2. from oral sources through interviews, press meetings etcetera.
3. from personal observations.
Journalists must cherish and develop their sources of information. In all journalism sources are the most important. Either we report or write editorials we base our article on the facts gathered from the sources.
A journalist needs a good network of sources he or she needs to treat the sources both critically and carefully.
How to find sources
* Build your own network of sources. File all the names of people you ever interviewed in your personal index. You will be surprised to see how useful this will prove to be.
* Use your network of sources as a resource for developing stories. Does any of them have suggestions for the story you are working on? Do they know other possible sources?
* Make a brain storm – a “mind map” – to create a list of possible sources on each new subject.
* Let one source lead you to the next. When interviewing a source always finish the interview by asking: Do you know other relevant sources (documents or people)?
* Also, ask the sources if there is anything they would like to add. Sometimes they were waiting with the answer to the obvious question they expected you to ask.
* Always ask your sources for documentation to back up their allegations, or where you might find such documentation.
* Ask your sources if they know independent sources who can confirm their allegations.
* Written sources, including press clippings, can give you an easy map to find other oral sources, but beware: the re-use of these (often popular) sources generally confirms the already known and often limits your research.
* Use first-hand sources. If you quote a document, quote from the original document. If you want to quote from an already published interview, always try to confirm the accuracy of the quotes with the interviewee. Unfortunately you can’t rely on the accuracy of the work of your colleagues.
* Ask your sources — perhaps off the record — what they think of the other sources you have consulted in your research. This is to check the motives of your sources, their credibility, their independence and especially, in the case of “experts,” their reputations in their respective fields.
The expert, the partisan and the case
Organize your oral sources at three levels:
1. Who are the independent experts on the subject? That is, who are the people not involved in the issue/controversy/dispute but who have a scientific approach to the problem, with enough knowledge about it to be able to make valid general statements about it, who can document the problem and can give a reliable perspective — historically, globally or concerning the future?
2. What parties have a professional or vested interest in the outcome of the matter at hand — the NGOs, political groups, unions, politicians, officials, companies, etc.? Any of these may have a real and legitimate interest in the issue, and can often articulate the problem quite clearly.
3. What people are affected by the problem — the victims, users, members, mothers, prisoners etc.? These sources can be considered as experts on the potential impact or consequences of a development; they give the story a human face.
1.1. When dealing with experts:
Use them for facts. Translate their jargon into language you think everybody will be able to understand, summarizing their points with laymen’s language and asking sources if your summation is correct. Try making a headline out of their statement(s).
Keep the expert focused on the particular problem.
Always ask who is paying for his or her research.
2.1. When dealing with parties involved:
Use them for opinion. Don’t let them manipulate the facts; confront them with your knowledge.
Take the opposite stand. Confront them with good arguments that run contrary to their interests (especially important when you agree with the interviewee).
3.1. When dealing with those affected by the problem:
Use them for their personal experience. Don’t let them elaborate on something they don’t really know.
Treat sources critically and carefully
* Prepare the interview. Always ask the sources all the relevant questions – the 5 W’s and the H: What did actually happen, who is affected and who is to blame (or, in some cases, deserves credit), when and how did it happen, where did it happen, and — very important — why did it happen and how could it be changed?
* Always ask about the motives of your source. Does he or she have a particular personal or political interest in the matter at hand? Check the source’s motives elsewhere as well.
* When it is not possible to confirm a fact, you should hesitate to use it – and if you do use it, tell frankly that the information is not confirmed.
* In order to raise the credibility of your story, attribute controversial, new or surprising information with the sources, when it is needed.
* Some sources are reluctant to provide information. Try to convince them that it is in their own interest to give their side of the story or at least to be able to straighten out the facts.
* But protect your sources. Make sure you have a clear arrangement with them: What is for quotation? What is for background only? Your sources might lose their job – or even their life. Don’t even reveal your secret sources.
* Be considerate and, if necessary, protective of the weak sources, e.g. victims and common people; they might not be able to anticipate all the consequences of their participation in a story, and they seldom realize or understand the impact of exposure to the press.
* Don’t let the strong sources manipulate you by tying you up in agreements on “off-the-record”-information. Tell them, when you want to report the story anyway – and they now have the chance to participate.
* If you, however, have to use “of-the-record” or “not-for-attribution” sources, you should have some supporting evidence in your story before you include information in it from this type of an interview.
* Try to negotiate, in such cases, a form of attribution. It is better to quote “a senior Mines Department official” or maybe “a senior government official” or perhaps just “a senior government official knowledgeable about the case”, that just to quote “a reliable source”. Try to persuade your source to let you use as specific and detailed a description of him or her as possible. This serves the readers, listeners and viewers better, by allowing them to assess the credibility of a story.
* Some powerful or even corrupt sources will see your work as a threat to them, their positions, their wealth, their social standing, their business or whatever. You might be tempted to fool or trick them to get your information.
* Work undercover only when you can’t get reliable information any other way and after carefully considering the risks involved — because cheating your sources can jeopardize your reputation as a trustworthy journalist, even among your audience.
* Be loyal to your sources. Even your enemies should be able to confirm the accuracy of their quotes. Just before publication, you might sometimes want to double-check informally with a source to verify that you have interpreted his or her expertise or account correctly. Remember, you might need him or her as a source another time. However, be aware of showing any of your sources a complete version of the piece before publication, since this can give one party to a story an unfair upper hand.