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May the Source Be With You

By John F. Kelly

Summer 1999

The second annual Watchdog Journalism Conference was, said conference sponsor Murrey Marder (Nieman Fellow, 1950), an opportunity to talk about "the verboten subject of sources." The conference, May 15, came on the heels of a year-long illustration of the shaky ground that the reporter-source relationship finds itself on, as sources in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair shaped coverage from the scandal's early days right up to its final hours. "The whole Lewinsky affair," said Nieman Curator Bill Kovach in his opening remarks, "has shown how news is manipulated, how power has shifted towards the source."

"The watchdog role," said Kovach, "is the central purpose of a free press." And the central character in a watchdog story is often the source, the bearer of the kernel of information that starts the journalistic ball rolling or helps speed it along.

In the daylong examination of the source/reporter relationship panelists in four sessions (state and local government, national security, nonprofit organizations, and business and economics) touched on developing sources, handling them and how to keep from becoming a hostage to them.

The Source Relationship

The Orange County Register doesn't allow anonymous sources to be quoted in its pages. For her Pulitzer Prize-winning story on a renegade fertility clinic that was stealing eggs from patients and implanting them in other women, The Register's Susan Kelleher went through the typical process she uses to develop sources: She said she wanted them to work "with" her, on the record, but that she would need to check them and their stories out. She asked what their concerns were, trying to allay any fears, and she made her concerns clear, chief among them that she wouldn't countenance being lied to. Besides cultivating whistleblowing nurses and administrators, she contacted patients whose eggs had unknowingly been used to create children. "I got too close to some of those people," Kelleher said.

The shortening of distance between reporter and source was on the minds of many conference panelists. Doug Frantz of The New York Times said he has three rules when dealing with sources that help keep the wall intact:

1. Never socialize with sources. "It's vital not to be on a first-name basis," Frantz said, lest the source attempt to play on your friendship when the story takes a turn he or she doesn't like.

2. Never give advice to sources. Sources often ask for guidance-trying to find lawyers, wondering if they should call a press conference-but Frantz said helping them can backfire, making them, or other subjects of the story they may encounter, question the reporter's motives.

3. Exercise transparency. "You must tell the readers where the sources are coming from," said Frantz, "even if you use [the sources'] names." Readers must be able to evaluate the information provided by sources, judge how reliable it is, understand why the source is willing to talk, and place their comments in a broader context.

In his 1997 5,000-word story on the Church of Scientology's 20-year war against the Internal Revenue Service Frantz said there was only one unnamed source.

Alison Grant's work on a corrupt city government in suburban Cleveland relied on a half dozen sources, starting with a "bitter and conspiratorial" contractor whose demeanor was such that Grant could easily have dismissed him. ("The point is," she noted, "don't dismiss tips when they come in.") Grant said she gossiped a lot with her sources. She traded information with police officers who suspected corruption. Grant felt that some information exchange was acceptable, but that she was careful that her newspaper, The Plain Dealer, wasn't being used. A talkative prosecutor was a prime source, but Grant knew he wanted to run for judge and that it "helped to be aware of his aspiration.….When a reporter is getting closely held information it does help to understand the subtext and agenda."

Sources in Low Places

While the best source may seem to be someone who is highly-placed, several panelists discussed how contacts far from officialdom can help produce more compelling journalism. An offhand comment from a county judge spurred Loretta Tofani-then with The Washington Post, now of The Philadelphia Inquirer-to investigate gang rapes in a suburban Washington jail. The Post's Metropolitan editor was interested in the story because of the judges' input, saying comments from such respected figures "would blow the lid off the story."

"But I wanted to keep it more personal, more victim focused," said Tofani. To that end, Tofani developed sources among prison guards, medical workers, rape victims and the rapists themselves. All were quoted on the record in her Pulitzer Prize-winning story.

The same ground-level source developing can enhance stories in as bureaucratic a setting as the Pentagon. Associated Press chief military correspondent Susanne M. Schafer said she fights for the ability to leave the brass behind and interview soldiers in the field. Noted Schafer, "That's the only way you're going to get a sense beyond what I call 'death by briefing.'"

Anatomy of a Source: Trust, but Verify

Different stories will, of course, require different kinds of sources. In business reporting, said James McNair of The Miami Herald, "Think of those with an ax to grind: people who've lost money or been laid off." In reporting on nonprofits or churches, sources will tend to be what The New York Times' Frantz described as "disgruntled true believers" and Jim Tharpe of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution dubbed "the disillusioned faithful."

Disenfranchised workers, disgruntled believers, disillusioned faithful-these descriptions don't engender much confidence. That's why, no matter the source, said Frantz, "you can't rely on a single word in a single sentence without checking it out."

But how to avoid allowing source-driven reporting to metamorphose into source-directed reporting? While at The St. Petersburg Times, David Barstow (now at The New York Times) investigated the financial misdeeds of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons of the National Baptist Convention USA. "It was a very closed group," said Barstow of the church. "We attempted to penetrate it but not in a way that would make us beholden to sources." St. Pete Times reporters did "an all-out assault" on every person connected with the church, from secretaries to deacons. They obtained all the documents they could, so "we wouldn't be the dumb reporter asking for the most basic information, but that we would become an authority. We wanted to come with questions from a position of strength."

Even that position didn't inoculate Barstow from sources who felt the paper was their ally. "Make crystal clear that your agenda has nothing to do with their agenda," said Barstow. While your interests may in the end overlap, he said, the reporter must be beholden to the reader.

As an example of how sources can steer the biggest, most rapidly developing stories, Byron Acohido of The Seattle Times presented a chronology of news coverage on the 1996 crash off Long Island of TWA Flight 800. From the start, two main streams of information developed, with the FBI apparently feeding trial balloons to The New York Times while the National Transportation Safety Board confided in The Washington Post. "Different agendas with different spins were driving the coverage," said Acohido.

"When you're trying to cover a complicated story on deadline the best thing to do is pause and think," said Acohido. He suggested preparing a chronology of all the articles and developments on a particular story, allowing a pattern to emerge that may reveal how sources are influencing coverage.

Shut Out but Not Shut Down

Important as good sources are, panelists said some of the finest watchdog journalism is done without them. William K. Rashbaum of The Daily News in New York ran into a brick wall when trying to get statistics on the success of NYPD's street crime unit, the officers involved in the Amadou Diallo shooting. Denied access, The Daily News launched its own review of court records, which revealed that nearly half of the unit's cases were dismissed because of bad searches or unconstitutional stops. "If the police department had answered our questions, we never would have gotten that far," said Rashbaum. "When you're shut out, you have to dig harder."

Sources: The Final Word

In its February 1998 study of the press coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal's first six days, the Committee of Concerned Journalists noted that 40 percent of all reporting based on anonymous sourcing was from a single source and that only one statement in a hundred was based on two or more named sources. In a follow-up study a month later, the Center wrote that 59 percent of all anonymously sourced reporting in the mainstream media was characterized in the vaguest terms (such as "sources said" or "sources told our news organization") and that less than two in 10 statements offered even the slightest hint of the source's allegiances.

It was this sort of context-free sourcing that panelists at the Watchdog Conference were most critical of. Said Lars-Erik Nelson, a columnist at The Daily News, "If you can't tell who the sources are at least you need to give the context of the issue. You have to show that the information didn't just come down from heaven." Warned Roy Gutman of Newsday: "People will stop believing us if we don't tell them where we get our stories." And, in the final analysis, said The Times' David Barstow, journalists must "be willing to be beat on a story if the choice is having to compromise your beliefs."

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