Sunday, March 2, 2008

Working With Sources on Your Beat

Rules for Working with Sources

Rule Number One:
Find out who cooperates and/or influences the agencies and organizations you cover. Make them part of your reporting network.

Rule Number Two:
Everyone and anyone is a source. Don’t consider anyone unworthy of your time and attention.

It should be mentioned that Rule Number Two includes those people who answer the phone for potential sources. Not only are they key to getting your message on someone’s desk or getting on their calendar, a lot of information goes over their desks as well. Trying to bully or bulldoze past someone’s assistant can work against you.

Rule Number Three:
Perhaps the most important rule of all. Sources are only as good as you make them. Once you’ve connected with a source, be ready to make the most of the time you have with them:

Create a biography of your subject with as much detail as possible.

Create an easy opening question that relates to their biography.

Whenever possible, plan your interview:

Write out your questions.
Rehearse your interview.
Organize any documents that you might be using.
Try to anticipate points in the interview where your subject might balk or try to change the subject. Consider reactions and plan a segue to the next topic.

Why do all this?
It lets you devote your full attention to what your source is saying rather than becoming distracted by finding a document or thinking of your next question.
It sets the tone for how your source will view you and your knowledge of the subject at hand.

When talking with a source:
Listen with your eyes. Body language can tell more than words, which is why electronic interviews should be a last resort. The best interviewers live close to the surface of their own skins and can sense face-to-face vibes.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Discomfort can indicate deception or announce that your questions are approaching territory the subject might not want to discuss. Playing it careful can lead to a disclosure.

Don’t be afraid to let silence hang. It can lead to fuller disclosure.

Don’t be dismissive of things your subject wants to talk about. It may well be important later, if only to help you understand your source's interests.

Never pretend to understand. If you have a question, ask it. If something is unclear, get clarification.

The Big Rule:
Rules are only guidelines. They’re made to be revised based on experience and broken based on circumstances.

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