The Story Never Really Ends: How to Handle Lasting Relationships With Sources

By Danielle Elliot March 19th, 2015

On a mundane day in October, I was sorting through emails when one in particular caught my attention. A woman from Colorado was writing to tell me something horrible had happened to her son at his school, but no one there seemed to care enough to take action. Please call me, she wrote, ending the email with her phone number.

As a high school sports reporter, I get a ton of emails. I want to answer every single one, but there just aren’t enough hours in the day. For a reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, this one seemed different, so I picked up the phone.

“Oh my god, you called, you called,” she said when I introduced myself. She explained that her son had been attacked in the locker room at his high school. “I know you’re not a doctor or a lawyer or a therapist,” she said. “But I’m just hoping you can tell me what we should do.”

I didn’t know if I could write a story about her son, or if I could even in help, but I could hear the desperation in her voice. I called back the next day, and we started speaking regularly.

Eventually our calls and messages turned into a feature article for Vice Sports. I wrote about the attack, the school administration’s failure to do right by her son, and the larger issue of same-sex sexual abuse and hazing in America. I also developed a lasting relationship with the source and her family. (I’ve removed their names for the sake of privacy; their names were never revealed in the Vice article.)

Over the four months it took to complete the reporting, I spoke to the woman more than I spoke to my own mother. She texted me before I woke up and kept going throughout the day. Most of the conversation related to the story: She’d call to tell me the school still wasn’t helping or that her son had a meltdown over the weekend. I called if I heard about a similar situation, wanting her to know her son wasn’t alone. But plenty of other calls had nothing to do with reporting. For example, after she learned I was single, she tried to convince me to go on a date with her “hunky” lawyer, then tried to tell me about other guys. She knows what type of recipes I like, and I know her taste in wine.

The first few times I wrote longform features, I wasn’t sure how much to tell my subjects about my personal life. I was supposed to be the reporter. I was supposed to be getting to know them, not the other way around. That one-sided relationship works well for daily reporting, but the beauty of longform comes from intimacy and getting to know your subjects on a personal level. For me, longform articles require a different approach than just showing up and asking questions.

The thing is, once you build that relationship, it’s exactly that—a relationship. It becomes more than just a job. I truly cared what happened to this woman’s son and how he continued to heal. And the more longform you write, the more relationships you have to maintain. There have been days when I spend so much time speaking to the subjects of past pieces that I don’t get any new work done.

When communicating with past sources started limiting up my productivity, I had to institute certain rules for myself. Unless I am actively reporting on a subject, or sources are reaching out to tell me about a new story or a follow-up, I don’t take or make calls with them during the “work day.” Of course, the freelance workday is fluid—but once I decide I’m working, I treat past subjects just like I treat my friends and family, promising to get back to them in my free time.

Now I explain these rules to them shortly after a piece goes live so they realize why I have to set these boundaries. I want them to know that I’m not faking interest just to get a story; I just need to continue doing my job. Sometimes I’ve had to explain it a few times, but my sources have always understood.

I don’t speak to the woman from Colorado nearly as often as I used to, but we still catch up about once a week. I’m continuing to call because I care about her son’s well-being. I’m doing it because I know the woman needs somewhere to turn since few people in her community have been willing to listen to her thus far.

I’ve lost touch with other former subjects, but never immediately. And with all of them, I know I could call anytime to talk. It’d be just like calling an old friend.

Image by DVARG/Shutterstock
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