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We do better by our sources when we take the time to consider their humanity

We do better by our sources when we take the time to consider their humanity

Picture of William Heisel

Before the end of the year, I will stop writing regularly for Antidote. When Adam Bryant quit the Corner Office in The New York Times, I shed a little tear because it had been my favorite Times feature almost from the beginning of his 10-year run. He did his readers a service by distilling his 10 years of knowledge into a wonderful final piece. Taking inspiration from him, I’d like to leave readers with two main thoughts over the last two columns. First, I will write about our responsibilities as journalists to our sources. Then I will write about our responsibility as writers to our audiences.

It’s difficult to estimate, but I would conservatively say that I have interviewed between 9,000 and 12,000 people during the course of my career in journalism. So anywhere from the population of Anaconda, Montana — where I thought I had died and gone to heaven as a reporter — to that of Woodinville, Washington, a short jaunt north from where I now live in Seattle.

If you were a mayor of one of those towns, you would have an obligation to your constituents. And yet we rarely think of that kind of obligation when we embark on reporting a story. If we are being high-minded, we think of our primary obligation as one owed to our audience. But often we think of our obligation being first and foremost to the story, to what kind of attention the story can get — first with our editors and then with the people who are going to drive up clicks online.

So let’s step back and think about our sources for a minute, because I think our relationship to them has an influence on where we are today in the eyes of much of the world as a profession and where we could go. We suffer from a number of perception problems, many of them well documented in journalism newsletters and conference panels. Among them is that our jobs have little value because everybody can be their own reporter on any topic of their choosing via Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. Another is that we are arrogant and don’t really have anything at stake when we are writing about matters that are great weight — life and death — to our subjects.

You can think about the source with just a little more mental effort than you typically expend. Why are they talking to you? What are they hoping to achieve? The answers to those questions don’t need to dictate how you write your story, but even by taking them into consideration, you will put together a better piece. 

To begin to alter that perception and to simply just be better at our jobs, I think that reporters would do well to just care a little more. Stop approaching sources with a transactional mentality, seeking to extract information and a good quote with minimum friction and maximum expedience.

Why not consider your interaction with sources the same way you might consider an interaction with a constituent were you the mayor of a town? Going up to the counter and ordering a coffee is not just a small retail transaction, it’s also a chance to influence a voter.

This is what you might want someone to say about the interaction later: “She came into my shop and ordered an extra-hot mocha, and she was really nice. She saw I was wearing a pink ribbon and asked me about it, so we actually had a conversation about my mom being in remission from breast cancer for the past eight years. And she’s come in every morning after that and been just as friendly.”

Here is what most sources would say about most reporters, including me.

“He called me up, hammered me with a bunch of questions, and then took about 1 percent of what I said and made a big deal out of it.”

That’s the job, right? You can’t quote everything everyone says, and sometimes they even beg you not to. You can not — nor should you — become best friends with everyone in the course of reporting a story, no matter how long it takes you.

But you can think about the source with just a little more mental effort than you typically expend. Why are they talking to you? What are they hoping to achieve? The answers to those questions don’t need to dictate how you write your story, but even by taking them into consideration, you will put together a better piece. You will make it more likely that the source will talk to you in the future. And the source will tell others — people in your community — that you and your outlet are professional and, dare I say, care about doing things the right way.

There are two other important questions to ask. First, is there something happening in the source’s life that might make them more likely to talk with you than under different circumstances? With health stories, people are often vulnerable. They are sick. They have a family member who is sick. They have lost someone. They feel they have been wronged by the health care system in some way. You need to consider that they are talking with you because they think you may have the power to make their lives better, or at least that by talking with you they will give more meaning to their suffering. To my mind, this means you need to treat your interactions with them as not just a conversation but a dialogue, one that will continue after your piece is published. You can’t possibly solve each person’s health care crises, nor can you be their long-term emotional support system, but you are entering their lives at a time when they feel like they’ve lost control. You are providing some stability — even a distraction. And you need to consider what will happen to them when you stop calling. While you move on to the next story, they are often still grappling with a crisis.

Marshall Allen at ProPublica is one of the most thoughtful and truly caring reporters I have ever met. He recognized this same dilemma with reporting on the harm caused by the health care system. And so he did something about it. He created a community on Facebook, the ProPublica Patient Safety Community. It now has 5,461 members (including me). People there share stories and tips. They give each other comfort and encouragement. They challenge each other, too. Marshall has tapped this community as a source, and then he returns back to the same community to say, in essence, “Here’s what I found out. What do you think?” As a result, his work has been incredibly effective and extraordinarily compassionate at the same time. It would be well worth the effort for other journalists to create such communities the way Allen has.

The second question to consider is whether the story you are doing will ultimately hurt the source in some way. I have struggled with this one many times. You have two truths that you are trying to hold in your head. The first truth is what you are trying to reveal to your readers. There’s a big, societal problem that you have found, but in order to properly document it, you need sources. By helping you reveal this information, the sources could be putting themselves in jeopardy. That’s the other truth: They might get fired. They might turn their family against them. They might face criminal action or deportation.

You have an obligation during your reporting to prepare them for the harms that they may face. We can’t hide behind the idea that they are adults capable of making choices and should understand the consequences of those choices. There’s a power differential in many of these cases. As a reporter, you have the power, and the source may feel as though they didn’t freely choose to talk with you. I have often urged reporters to dress up when they are cold calling on someone because it makes you feel official. People are more likely to talk to someone who seems official. In turn, that feeling of officialdom should also remind reporters of their responsibility. Given the perch our profession affords, we have an obligation, like that small town mayor, to treat our sources with respect and concern for their well being.

Next: Knowing what you don’t know and informing your audience as best you can.


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