What’s a “source” and how do we choose?

Who are our sources and how do find and choose them?

By Caitlin Kelly

Every time you consume media — in any form — you’re also at the end point of a lot of editorial decisions made while invisible to you, the end user.

We know that a wooden table was once a tree.

We know that a cooked meal was once a pile of ingredients.

But most non-journalists don’t know, and some of course don’t care, how their information arrives to them in the final state that it does.

I’ve been a journalist for decades, staff and freelance, writing often for national magazines and for The New York Times.

It may come as a surprise to you — or not! — that we’re not told by our bosses who to quote or to interview. Maybe interns or those very new to reporting, but, apart from a friendly suggestion, I’ve never been ordered to speak to anyone specifically as a source for a story.

This is good and bad.

It’s good because it assumes we bring sufficient intelligence to the work. It assumes we know how to do our jobs without micro-management and supervision — editors and producers are busy!

It’s good because it lets us just get on with our work without endlessly seeking and getting some official approval or green light to proceed. (Our bosses are busy!)

Despite the very persistent belief that we are told what to do and what to write at the behest of our (pick one! left/right-wing managers and corporate owners) we’re usually not.

But it’s bad in a few specific ways:

It allows laziness

We will reach for the sources most easily found, certainly on a tight deadline, and those are often people we know or people who have already gained plenty of public attention. Just because someone is well-known doesn’t mean they’re smart, credible or the best person to explain a specific story. It often means they have the money, or their organization does, to hire a public relations firm ($5,000 to $10,000 a month retainer normal) to make sure their voice is loud(er/est.)

Pre-Internet, we had to work a hell of a lot harder to find and build networks of sources: no email, no texts and no instant results from Google or Bing. Now it’s the quickest option to return to someone already much-quoted.

— It allows persistent, if unconscious, bias

We tend to choose to work with/hang out with/consult people who make us comfortable. They look like us and sound like us and went to the same schools or live in the same sort of place. That means automatically and unconsciously screening out many good possibilities. Every time I start to report a story, I try to seek out BIPOC and LGBTQA voices and people living in very different ways/places from me.

How often do we even hear, on radio or TV, someone speaking English with a very heavy accent (probably sub-titled) — while we keep choosing and privileging people easier to listen to?

How often, if ever, do you see someone with a visible disability, like a wheelchair, being interviewed for a story totally unrelated to health?

— It can be a real problem if our editors push back

It’s only happened to me once and cost me an editorial relationship at The New York Times (i.e. income.) I was writing a story about what life is like when one half of a couple is ready to retire but the other is not. Instead of the usual anodyne tale I knew they wanted (he golfs, etc.) I found a gay couple whose affluent life was suddenly up-ended when one of them suffered serious health issues and the younger partner had to get a government job for the health benefits. I found and offered a real story of real struggle and real adaptation. Not wanted.

We automatically self-censor and choose sources our bosses will like

We know who our employer’s ideal market/audience/demographic is and it’s our role to speak most directly to them. At The New York Times, as with some others, there’s too often a default to affluent voices, if not the wealthy.

This also means that women over 40, let alone 60 or 70, remain basically invisible and inaudible because women’s magazine’s demo’s (the very narrow demographic appealing to its advertisers) is 18-35. You heard that right. There have been very, very few magazines that acknowledge and feature older women (36 is older?!) and they’re long gone, like Mirabella and MORE. If you read AARP magazine or its tabloid bulletin, all older women and men (50+) are presumed to care about are money scams, Medicare and aging celebrities. UGH.

— It’s a problem when we’re not paying close attention

One way a lot of reporters now find sources is through a service called Help A Reporter Out, or HARO. I’ve used it many many times. It’s a request list sent out three times a day to PR firms, universities, government, agencies and individuals.

It boasts one million sources — and 75,000 journalists and bloggers use it.

At best, you might get 100 replies. But, at its noisy and narcissistic worst, many replies are also demands for links to people’s books, websites, products and services — pay to play. When you need to produce many stories quickly, (and luckily I rarely do, as a freelancer), you don’t have the luxury of a lot of time to make sure your sources are diverse, even if you know you should, and even as diversity and inclusion are now a hiring and management focus for many employers.

Most of my stories are 1,000 to 1,200 words, leaving only so much room to choose who to include — while aiming for a mix of gender, race, age, expertise and geography. My recent Times Styles story included nine sources; I would normally include maybe six at that length.

And I was taken to the woodshed in a furious Tweet for not interviewing a person of color beyond an Iranian woman.

Point taken.

What if you were a reporter here who didn’t speak fluent French?

It de facto privileges people who dominate social media (TikTok, Insta, YouTube, FB, Twitter, etc.)

Many people, for lack of Internet access or savvy or language skills or confidence or time — or fear for their personal safety — can’t just promote the hell out of themselves all the time. Those who can will therefore more easily command the lion’s share of our distracted and divided attention.

That includes overworked reporters, editors and producers. Easy access to a source who’s readily available often beats the 5th or 8th or 15th un-returned text, email or call (if anyone has the time and persistence to even do it.)

It really (further) alienates and pisses off our diverse audiences who still don’t see themselves represented in our work

This is a big one.

If you’re not a cisgender white man or white woman, nor someone with a platform/organization/PR firm/ready access to journalists, it’s less likely you’ll ever get quoted or interviewed.

This creates lousy and lazy journalism. And ongoing deep frustration for every BIPOC or LBGTQA reporter or producer wanting to include voices that are quieter or less-consulted. Too often, a journalist turns to a known/respected/trusted Big Name policy analyst, think tank or academic voice to explain an issue, when someone whose own lived experience remains silent and invisible.

— The voices we hear from most also bring their own strong biases and opinions

It’s often too easy to defer to the demands for audience from the powerful and wealthy, always happy to sue and bringing threats of retaliation. Not a good idea.

6 thoughts on “What’s a “source” and how do we choose?

  1. Great post! Any time I can learn something, I didn’t know before…I feel lucky. Verifiable information, especially in the field of journalism, is a valuable thing today. The bloated airways and web sources are filled with opinions that most times lack source driven validity. I really enjoy your posts Ms. Kelly!

  2. sthrendyle

    Haven’t checked in to the ol’ Broad(side) blog in awhile and… this is definitely one of your best pieces. Years ago, an editor I worked with (and who was a business partner) said, “I think we talk to experts way too much…”, to which I replied “I hadn’t thought of that before.” Lots to think about here as I embark on a couple of feature stories myself.

  3. excellent points, all. so important to have a variety of reliable sources. I’m sure it’s much easier to fall into the familiar source trap, but in the long run, it’s not offering anything other than what is expected. great post.

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