Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘confidential sources’

I’m leading a workshop today for the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference on using unnamed sources.

I’ll discuss points made in posts about using unnamed sources, including one on persuading people to talk for the record about difficult topics (and my 20-years-later CJR piece about one of the sources) and another on using information from unnamed sources to persuade other sources to talk for the record. I also will talk about the importance of power and eagerness in granting confidentiality, and suggest we should not quote spokespeople for powerful people and organizations without using their names.

I also mention a couple of posts by others about email encryption for journalists.

Here are my slides for the workshop:

And here are some tweets from the session:

Read Full Post »

Eric Nalder adviceIn last week’s post on interviewing reluctant sources, I cited Eric Nalder‘s advice on “ratcheting” to gradually get some or all of a source’s information on the record:

At the end of the interview, pick out a good quote in your notes that isn’t too damning and say: ‘Now what about this thing you said here? Why can’t you say that on the record?’ If they agree to put that comment on the record, go to another one in your notes and say: ‘Well, if you can say that on the record, why can’t you say this?’ And so on. I have gotten an entire notebook on the record this way. If they insist on anonymity, however, you must honor it.

Eric, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, responded on Facebook with more advice for dealing with reluctant sources (I added a link):

  1. If you already possess information the source would be curious about, use that to your advantage in approaching them. Former colleague Pete Carey approached a crucial source in New Orleans – post Katrina – and said, as the man was closing the door, “I didn’t come here to ask you questions, I just wanted to let you know what I know.” The door opened and the rest is history.
  2. Finish every initial encounter with the suggestion that the source will want to know – as time goes on – what you have discovered and what you plan to publish. Of course, you’ll need extensive personal information to re-contact them: cell phone number, home phone number, email address, home address, office address and, perhaps, some additional info (DOB, SSN) in case you lose track. I’ve gotten the whole nine yards that way. In one case, we were able to track a man’s criminal activity using what he gave me.
  3. Deeply background every source you approach, preferably ahead of time, and I mean scorched earth, without spooking the more sensitive ones.
  4. Sometimes my most aggressive backgrounding activities – including contacting neighbors, colleagues, etc. – have caused a reluctant source to contact me, instead of the other way around. People who contact you – rather than you contacting them – tend to be more supplicant, which can be an advantage to a reporter.
  5. Always ask sources for a list of their friends and enemies (sometimes this line of questioning requires subtlety). Then ask what each enemy would say about them.
  6. Never argue with a person about their reluctances. Simply interview those fears. You’ll be amazed at the results of that approach.
  7. In extreme cases – where sources must remain anonymous – get them to sign sworn affidavits. An added benefit — your readers will find these affiants more believe-able (see our Brock Adams investigation).
  8. Final point – the vast majority of sources should be on the record and all methods, including ratcheting, should be employed to assure that.

Thanks to Eric for adding this advice to what I offered in last week’s post. I also recommend reading his “Loosening Lips” handout, from the best workshop I ever attended on interviewing.

Read Full Post »

In a couple of different contexts recently, I’ve had interesting discussions with journalists about the differences between dealing with confidential sources who are feeding you tips and using confidentiality to even start a conversation with a source who doesn’t want to talk to you.

However you handle confidential sources (as a reporter, an editor or a news organization), this is a fundamental difference that changes nearly everything about the situation and how you address it.

One simple example: My friend Dan Gillmor argues that journalists should reveal the identities of unnamed sources who lie to them. He makes some excellent points, and I think that could and perhaps should be part of the agreement with an eager source who contacts a reporter and wants to leak information to you. But I think the consequence of breaking your promise of confidentiality gives you no chance to persuade a reluctant source to tell you anything. Beyond the issue of intentional lying, part of the source’s reluctance might be that he or she has incomplete knowledge, or only second-hand information. If errors on the source’s part will be treated as lies to be publicly rebuked, you’re not getting that interview. The source doesn’t want to talk to you anyway; confidentiality is the only way to start a conversation.

The dynamics are entirely different depending on the source’s willingness to talk. The reporter’s position shifts from demanding to pleading. (more…)

Read Full Post »

This is an updated version of a handout for a reporting workshop I used to present more than a decade ago. I have updated it for my Advanced News Gathering class this semester at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

Finding sources


Find new “suspects.” Seek out sources beyond the “usual suspects” on your beat. If you always find yourself talking to white men, find some women and minorities who might bring a different perspective to your stories and steer you toward different ideas. If you find yourself always talking to the professionals and bosses, spend some time talking to the folks in the trenches. If you spend most of your time talking to liberals, seek out some conservatives. If you spend most of your time talking to people your age, seek out some younger or older sources. These people with different perspectives will point you to different stories. Look around the agency you cover for the people or offices that attract the least attention. Spend some time there to see if you’ll hear some different tips. Ask yourself each week whether you made meaningful contact with a new source. If you didn’t, could you have?

Talk to consumers. If you are assigned to a government or commercial entity, make sure that your circle of sources is wider than the officials of that organization. Talk to citizens who deal with that agency or business and use its services or products. If some of these consumers or citizens are organized, you should deal regularly with leaders of those organizations. You also may need to deal with some self-appointed crusaders and gadflies. Make a point of dealing with some average, unaffiliated consumers.

Identify “gatekeepers.” Develop rapport with assistants and other “gatekeepers” who control access to important sources. These people can be important sources themselves. At the least, good relations with them are essential at times to contacting the sources.

Go prospecting. Take time to go “prospecting” for sources and stories. Take a trip or set up an interview with no particular story in mind. Visit a source you haven’t seen for a while or a community or agency you haven’t covered for a while. Go just to familiarize yourself, to take someone to lunch or chat in the office or home a while. Maybe you’ll come back with a terrific story you never would have known enough to pursue. Maybe you’ll come back without a particular story, but with some tips to pursue. Maybe you’ll just come back with a valuable source to contact in future stories. At the least, you’ll gain a greater understanding of your community and your beat. Prospecting almost always yields stories and is always time well spent. You just can’t tell the editor or news director in advance what it’s going to produce.

Learn where records are. Familiarize yourself with the paper and electronic record-keeping practices of the offices you cover. Learn which records are clearly public, which are legally confidential and which might present access disagreements. Learn which records and databases you can access online without asking for them. For records kept by someone at the agency, ask to see them frequently, whether you are using them or not. This lets sources know of your interests. Seeking records in routine stories establishes precedents when you are seeking similar records in sensitive stories. Ask for records in electronic format whenever possible. Learn who has access to the confidential records (not just in the office, but clients or members of the public who might have them).

Find experts. Learn what academic institutions, think tanks or non-profit groups might study or monitor activities in your beat. Develop them as sources, so they will notify you of reports or rumors and they will know who you are when you call for their analysis of issues and events. Learn what attachments, if any, your experts have. Biases don’t render an expert’s research useless, but you must know them and note them.

Develop national sources. Contact national associations, academic experts and government agencies to develop sources with expertise in the subject you cover. They may provide valuable perspective for a local story. Or they may know something happening locally. They may alert you to a national trend. You can search for experts by topic at Profnet and Help a Reporter Out.

Relations with sources

Be available. Let people on your beat know you’re interested in hearing tips, suggestions, complaints, whatever. Make sure they have your cellphone number and e-mail. Make rounds frequently in person and by telephone.

Be honest. Never mislead a source. Be honest about the direction a story is taking. If it’s going to be a “negative” story, don’t bill it as something else. If you’re not going to write a story about a tip, don’t indicate that you will. This doesn’t mean you have to offend or worry sources needlessly. If a source is worried about a negative story, assure him you intend to make the story fair and accurate and that you want to hear his side.

Be annoyingly insistent on accuracy. If someone gives you figures off the top of her head, ask where she got those figures, then check the original source. Call back sources to confirm spellings, figures, chronologies, etc. Ask for reports, documents, business cards, personnel directories, calendars, databases and spreadsheets that can confirm spellings, numbers and other facts. This not only ensures the accuracy of your stories, it wins respect with sources (and good will that you’ll need if an error does slip through). It puts sources on notice that they can’t slip bogus figures past you. And the materials you gather for one story often will be helpful in other stories.

Become an expert. The more you learn about the complicated issues, technology and economics of your beat, the more your sources will respect you, the harder it will be for them to BS you, and the easier it will be for you to spot good stories. Read books, articles, reports. Research online. Ask lots of questions.

Admit you’re not an expert. If you don’t know or understand something, ask. Sources will respect your honesty, and you will learn. Also, if you fake understanding, they will catch on quickly and you will lose credibility. Repeat your understanding back to the source for confirmation.

Show interest. Sources may want to bend your ear about a matter other than what you want to talk about. Listen. You may get a good news tip. Even if the source thinks it’s a story and you don’t, show interest. However boring or annoying a source may be, however uninteresting you find this alleged tip, you don’t know when a little bit of knowledge might be helpful. Even if the information is completely useless, the source will appreciate your interest and may someday tell you something that is important or interesting.

Tell sources of your interests. Tell good sources about stories you’re working on, even the ones that may not involve them directly. You may know that a source isn’t directly involved with an issue, but if you tell him about the stories you’re working on, he may steer you toward other sources who might be helpful, or he may tell you something helpful that he’s heard around the office.

Regard your sources as characters. You’re not going to profile everyone on your beat. But you might profile anyone on your beat someday. So regard them all as characters you must develop fully. Learn about their families, hobbies, backgrounds, favorite sports teams, watering holes. Note their mannerisms. Follow them on social media if they use it (and if they don’t, ask why). Even if you never write that profile, learning these things will bring some tips your way, as the character will tell you about something she heard from her husband or an interesting thing happening in a social group to which she belongs.

Establish a connection. Don’t be afraid to show your human side. If you have children the same age as the source, commiserate about car seats or car pools or car insurance, whatever stage the children are. If he hates your favorite sports team, engage in some good-natured trash talk. If she has an illness in the family, show genuine compassion. Don’t fake a connection or stretch for one, but be alert for genuine ways to make a connection. If you have little in common with the person, connect by showing genuine interest in the character beyond the narrow focus of today’s story.

Share control. Even if a source spends a lot of time with reporters, he probably doesn’t feel completely comfortable facing you and your notebook. Occasionally in an interview, give him some control. Sure, you’re asking the questions, but answer his questions if he asks any. Listen politely as he wanders off the subject occasionally. The source will feel more comfortable answering your questions if the relationship doesn’t feel one-sided.

Take control. Ask your questions directly. If the source ducks a question, ask again. Whatever niceties you engage in to establish rapport, the source should understand that your interest in the relationship is receiving information and understanding.

Track your sources. Use a spreadsheet or program such as Google Contacts or Outlook to keep track of information about your sources. Get their office phone, direct office phone, cellphone, home phone, vacation home phone. Get their e-mail addresses. Record names of secretaries, spouses, children, hometowns, former jobs, alma maters, anything you learn that might later be handy to know.

Ask for documentation. Always ask for documentation of what your sources tell you. You don’t have to do this in a challenging way (unless you’re challenging). Present it as part of your quest for accuracy. Or if the source was uneasy about discussing something for the record, say you can attribute something to a document rather than to him. Documents provide verification. They may provide details that your source can’t recall or did not know. They may lead you to other sources. In addition, they provide precedent. If a source gives you a document when it’s in her interest, it may be difficult for her to claim later that the same sort of document is not a public record.

Know public-records laws. Sources won’t always give you what you want willingly. You should know what records are public and know both the Federal Freedom of Information Act as well as state public-records laws. But use FOIA requests as a last resort. Ask sources to give you records that should be public (or some that shouldn’t). Sometimes a direct request gets you information quickly that can take months if you file an FOIA request. You might be asked to file a request for their records, but get the records quickly in a matter of minutes, hours or days, depending on your request. Always ask informally first, especially if you have good relations with the source. Formal public-records demands are an important reporting tool, but they can be slow.

Addressing and avoiding trouble

Stay on the record. As much as possible, keep your interactions on the record, especially when you’re talking about information your sources know first-hand. Your sources should always understand that this is a business relationship and your business is gathering and reporting information. When you have to go off the record, make sure it is for a good reason. For instance, if a source is telling you something he doesn’t know first-hand, you wouldn’t quote him about that anyway, but the tip may lead you to first-hand sources. If you go off the record, make sure both of you understand the terms: Is the information for publication but not for attribution? If so, try to get agreement on a description of the source that’s as precise as possible. Is the discussion not for publication (if so, make sure the source knows you will try to publish it using other sources)? Before you go off the record in any fashion, tell the source you might try to get her on the record later if she says anything you want to use. And if she does, go back later with just the information or quotes you want to use, and try to get her on the record. I discussed confidential sources more extensively in a 2013 post, and will focus on the topic in a separate class.

Face the music. When you write a story that might make someone angry, show up at her office after the story runs, or call, either to ask directly about the story, to follow up or on some other pretense. Give the person a chance to sound off. If you made mistakes, admit them. If you didn’t, hold your ground but listen respectfully. Many sources (politicians, lawyers, coaches, athletes) are used to respectful adversary relationships and they will respect you and keep working well with you if you show the respect and courage to face the music when you’ve nailed them. This also is a good time for getting news tips. If someone is upset about a negative story, ask about more positive news happening in his territory. If he says the situation in his office isn’t nearly as bad as in another office, ask for details about the other office.

Admit your mistakes. If you make an error (or if your organization makes an error on your turf), admit the mistake, correct it and apologize personally to those affected. People understand that mistakes happen and they respect people who take responsibility. If you weren’t mistaken or if it’s not clear whether you’re mistaken (such as a disagreement over emphasis, rather than a factual error), listen sincerely to the complaint. Even if you disagree, give the source her say and discuss why you told the story the way you did. Consider whether a follow-up story is warranted. If not, suggest a letter to the editor, a comment on the online story or a response in social media. Brief your editor or news director on the disagreement and how you handled it. If the source complains to the editor, you’ll be glad it wasn’t a surprise.

Beware of getting too close. If your relationship with a source moves beyond friendly to friendship, you may need to adjust the relationship. You might need to ask some tough questions that remind him of the nature of your job. You can’t and shouldn’t withdraw from community life. But if you encounter sources at church and in children’s sports and the like, you may need to establish some boundaries. If you’re unsure whether a relationship is getting too cozy, discuss it with an editor. Maybe you should discuss it with the source. The source might feel a little uncomfortable, too, and might appreciate hearing that you can cheer together at your kids’ basketball game Tuesday and still argue Wednesday over news coverage or access to records.

Social media relationships. You should seek appropriate social-media relationships with sources. Follow them on Twitter if they use either personal or agency accounts professionally. Facebook is a little trickier because of language such as “like” and “friend.” If you use your personal Facebook account professionally and your source does, too, it should not be a problem to be “friends,” especially if you are friends with people on different sides of an issue, or different political parties or sports teams. If they have a Facebook page that you have to “like,” you can do that and note in an update on your page that you have done so not because of any particular fondness, but for the professional interest of following news from the page. Of course, if a person’s individual page is public, or usually public, you can just check in occasionally, as you can do with a page if you’d prefer not to “like” it (Facebook will tell some of your friends that you “like” the page, and you might prefer not to do that). It’s always a good idea to discuss your social media relationships with sources with an editor or news director, so you are on the same page.

Read Full Post »

SullivanI’m disappointed that the New York Times screwed up again in its over-reliance on unnamed sources. But I’m pleased that this screwup finally appears to have prompted a Times examination of this biggest weakness in our nation’s most important news organization.

Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who has been a more persistent and effective critic than I of the Times’ promiscuity with unnamed sources, reported today that mistakes in the Times reporting on the visa screening of terror-attack suspect Tashfeen Malik finally drew a commitment to act:

I talked on Friday to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; to one of his chief deputies, Matt Purdy; and to the Washington editor, Bill Hamilton, who edited the article. All described what happened as deeply troubling. Mr. Baquet said that some new procedures need to be put in place, especially for dealing with anonymous sources, and he said he would begin working on that immediately.

“This was a really big mistake,” Mr. Baquet said, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”

First I’ll note that Baquet visited LSU this month and addressed the use of unnamed sources in his Q&A with students and faculty after an address in the Holliday Forum.

Of course, that tweet oversimplifies what Baquet said in response to the question, but it was not a detailed response. He cited national security reporting as an area where using confidential sources is essential to the excellent reporting the Times has done through the years.

This was an important national security story, but those stories demand not only greater use of unnamed sources but greater insistence on documentation and verification from those sources and others.

I’m in the hospital and don’t have the strength to say much new about this. Sullivan covers it better than I would if I were at full speed. I’ll just quote Sullivan again (but you should read her full post), then link to previous posts about this persistent problem at the Times (followed by a late-Friday update and some Twitter response):

The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.

Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.

If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.

Previous posts on NYT use of sources

Dean Baquet needs to get mad about NY Times’ use of unnamed sources

New York Times story based on unnamed sources: 2 big corrections

New York Times frequently violates its attribution standards

Again: journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories

Applause to the New York Times for effective use of an on-the-record source

Judith Miller still blames sources for her false reporting

Jonathan Landay elaborates on Judith Miller’s flawed Iraq reporting

Do I despair for the New York Times? No, but I’m often disappointed and pleased

Eric Nalder responds

About the same time that I was posting this, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder replied on Facebook to my post about Sullivan’s original post (I hadn’t yet shared this post there). His advice on vetting investigative stories is helpful and important as the Times reassesses its use of unnamed sources and its verification of what they tell you. With Eric’s permission, I am adding his comment to this post:

Nalder

Nalder absolutely nails the Times’ failure here. The reporters should have been demanding of the sources and the editors should have been demanding of the reporters: Show me a tweet. Show me a screen grab. If we’re reporting that our visa screening process missed her open embrace of jihad, we need to show that threat, even if it’s in a foreign language. We’re the New York Times, we can find translators.

Nalder, by the way, far surpasses my own journalistic credentials and those of the vast majority of New York Times reporters. He won Pulitzers for investigative reporting on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and on corruption in a federal housing program for Native Americans. He knows how to nail down facts on important stories.

I have cited Nalder before on his effective use of “ratcheting” to persuade reluctant sources to go on the record. It’s a technique that probably wouldn’t work on a national-security story like this, but it illustrates the sophistication of his experience and technique in this area.

If I were Dean Baquet, I might start addressing this topic by asking Nalder if he’s available to do an investigation of Times’ reporters dealings with unnamed sources and the vetting by Times reporters and editors of the information that sources provide.

Twitter responses

End notes

Margaret Sullivan: Sullivan also told Poynter today that she will complete her run as public editor when her second two-year contract expires this September. On this issue and more, she has been far and away the best public editor the Times has had (and the others were all good). We first met nearly 10 years ago when she was editor of the Buffalo News. I don’t know what her next step would be, but if I were hiring a newsroom leader, journalism dean (or endowed chair), media critic, columnist, media organization executive or almost any other journalism job, she’d be at the top of my list of people to talk to. I’ll be interested to see where she goes next and wish her well in whatever lies ahead.

My hospital stay. This is my first blog post here in 13 days. I’m not sure if that’s a record hiatus since I started this blog, but if not, I bet it’s close. My stem-cell transplant has been a rough experience, with more than a week where I could barely muster the energy for a few emails or social media posts a day, if that. But the cells are making new, healthy blood. I may be home next week, and I’ll definitely be blogging again before the end of the year.

Read Full Post »

Don’t take my word that mass killers seek media attention through violence. Take the word of the mass killer who attacked this week in Roseburg, Ore.:

Seems the more people you kill, the more your’re in the limelight.

That’s what this week’s killer du jour wrote about the August killer du jour in Virginia, who sought the limelight by doing his killing on live television and boasting about it on social media.

I don’t think that media cause mass killings any more than guns cause mass killings or violent entertainment causes mass killings or mental illness causes mass killings. Our nation’s violence sprees have complex causes and require complex, multiple solutions that will involve legislation, regulation, voluntary action and effective enforcement.

I don’t blog about all of the segments of society that contribute to the causes and might contributed to solutions. But I do blog about journalism, and it’s undeniable that the limelight that journalism provides is an incentive that appeals to mass killers. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »