How to Handle 5 Sticky Situations with Sources

By Susan Johnston April 15th, 2015

The right sources help bring stories to life. With expert commentary and real-world examples, they can be the difference between just another article and something to be proud of. And for certain publications, the right sources can also help you get paid a better rate. After all, reported stories generally come with more compensation than web-sourced material.

But tracking sources down and getting them to open up isn’t always easy. Sooner or later, most journalists run into some pretty awkward situations with sources. Here are some of the most common (and frustrating) scenarios, along with some insight from fellow freelancers who have learned how to handle them.

1. Your editor has her heart set on a specific source and said source is not responding to interview requests.

Sometimes it takes more than one attempt to connect with a source, so Farah Joan Fard, a freelance writer in Boston, tries to work every possible angle—short of phoning the source’s grandmother.

“If the email address has been bouncing back, sometimes you have to get a little creative,” she said. “Somebody who doesn’t respond to email might respond to Twitter right away.”

She’ll also look for people on Instagram and other social networks or search for a wedding announcement in case the source is female and changed her name. If those avenues don’t bear fruit, it might be time to go to your editor and suggest alternatives.

2. You’ve arranged an interview time, but the source isn’t answering the phone. Your deadline is just a few days away.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis, an independent journalist in the Washington, D.C., area, typically completes about 15 percent more reporting than she thinks she’ll need for the final draft in case someone flakes or turns out to be less than helpful.

“If someone misses an interview and they’re responsive by email and we can reschedule it, I will,” she said. “But I’m not going to do more than one email exchange to try to nail that down. If you need people later in the fact-checking process, it’s better to have people who are going be responsive.”

3. After a source is interviewed, she demands to review the article before it’s published.

Sometimes an anxious source or publicist requests to see the final copy before it’s published. “It happens a lot, especially if they’re not familiar with the ethics of journalism,” said Michele Botwin Raphael, a journalist and National Press Foundation fellow based in Los Angeles. “I never show a source the story in full before publication.”

However, Raphael might verify quotes for accuracy if needed. In this situation, I tend to defer to my editor or the publication’s guidelines so the source knows I’m following protocol. You might ask about the source’s specific concerns so those can be addressed, or assure them that the fact-checker—if the publication has one—will reach out with any questions.

4. A source contacted by a fact-checker changes his tune.

Sometimes sources get skittish when fact-checkers ask questions or start to question their involvement in the piece.

Once when Lewis was writing a piece about Internet millionaires, she found a great information for her lead anecdote from a source, but that anecdote eventually became problematic. The source later realized that sharing details of his company’s sale would violate his non-disclosure agreement and he threatened legal action if she included him in the piece.

“The entire time I was interviewing him it was on the record,” she said. “I’m always very clear with sources so they really understand up front what they’re getting into. I would have been on ethically sound ground, but I took pity on him and did another two or three days of research to find a replacement lead anecdote. Editors were supportive.”

Letting sources know that they may hear from fact-checkers can help set expectations so there are no surprises. Raphael said she sometimes opts for email interviews because “it’s right there in black and white. You have a paper trail and you have a reflective answer.”

5. You need to find a Midwestern woman between the ages of 22 and 28 who works as a personal trainer and recently adopted identical twins. By tomorrow.

Lewis explained she’s developed a knack for finding the right sources by looking for people who have a vested interest in talking about their challenges. For instance, when she had trouble finding couples who would talk about how they improved their marriages, she turned to marriage groups and looked for success stories.

That said, sometimes editors have expectations that don’t always align with reality. If you’ve done your prospecting for sources and come up empty, offer options that fit some of your editor’s criteria. Maybe you found an adoptive mom and personal trainer in her thirties, or someone who checks all the other boxes but lives on the West Coast.

The right move in these situations depends on how much time you have before deadline and how crucial your source is. But starting interviews as early as possible and keeping your editor in the loop as problems arise can help you stay on track.

Image by Sarita Dawn
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