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Investigative Reporting: Good sources are key

Investigative Reporting: Good sources are key

Picture of Angilee Shah

Investigative reporting on a deadline is all about having a great Rolodex.

ABC News' Lisa Stark says, "The key thing about sources is that you need them as much, if not more when you do daily news."

Echoing NBC's Robert Bazell in the keynote speech of the seminar, Stark and Michael Berens of the Seattle Times say that there is no shortcut to cultivating good sources. Having strong relationships with a large base of people who will provide you with information takes time and persistence.

Berens, an investigative reporter and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, says that, "there are no secrets." Dealing with people individually is key; in order to do that, you need to understand what kind of source you are talking to.

When talking to a bureaucratic source such as politicians or law enforcement, for example, Berens says to "be relentlessly cordial." Stark adds, "These people do need you, and they will come back to you."

When sources are reluctant or afraid to speak out, empathy is important. "Absolute honesty is key with sources," says Berens. Stark says that she lets these kinds of sources know the downside of talking to her. After the February plane crash that killed almost 50 people in Buffalo, Stark interviewed pilots for a story about regional airlines. One pilot was trying to get back into the business and Stark was forthright that speaking about working conditions might hurt his chances of getting a job. "I think that my one story is not worth ruining one person's life's work," she said.

The key to interviewing people whom Berens calls "ivory tower sources" -- professors and doctors, for example -- is "research, research research." Stark adds that sources don't want to feel used; call on occasion just to check up on them, she says. Persistence, persistence, persistence is key to talking to "barricaded sources." Berens said that he called Bridgeport Hospital every week to get official comment for a story about hospital infections.

"Journalists have a bad reputation among some segments of society," Berens says. He says that one of the best way to talk to sources is to show your humanity, or, more directly, "Get a personality."


The Center for Health Journalism’s two-day symposium on domestic violence will provide reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The first day will take place on the USC campus on Friday, March 17. The Center has a limited number of $300 travel stipends for California journalists coming from outside Southern California and a limited number of $500 travel stipends for those coming from out of state. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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