Four types of sources
1/ Officials. These are all the sources that hold public authority: the government, state departments, or administrations… Advantage: they are listed, easy to find and bring official news. The journalist MUST possess in his address book the contact info of all these spokespeople. Make a list of them and contact them as soon as they take up office… while they’re still honored to get recognition from the press (direct phone lines, home address…).
2/ Intermediaries. These are all the sources with social legitimacy: associations, professional organizations, political parties, syndicates, etc. They work as forces of opposition and bring officious news. If he takes the time to build honest links to these natural allies, the journalist gets complementary information and precious expertise. Write up a list of such interlocutors and start trying to “tame” them.
An efficient formula: the accreditation
When dealing with officials and intermediaries, it’s in the journalist’s best interest to clarify his own job. He can do so by asking officials for an accreditation, for himself or his coworkers. All governmental organizations and social bodies would rather deal with identified interlocutors among the press. Voluntarily engaging in this type of role-play helps day-to-day interaction.
Typical letter of accreditation: “To the Secretary of XXX, It is my pleasure to inform you that, starting today, so as to help facilitate our work relationship, we are entrusting our esteemed colleague A..R.. with the task to cover all your formal activities, within the framework of our mission of information towards the general public.”
When dealing with intermediaries, most of the time, the journalist doesn’t need an accreditation. What matters is building a relationship basted on mutual respect, to decide on a means to communicate that guarantees anonymity for the source, and to come to an agreement on the way the information the source brings you without the authorities’ knowledge should be treated.
3/ Personal sources. These are the discreet, or even secret, sources a journalist knows inside power and professional circles. He gains them through his work and ethics. He manages to build a relationship of trust with interlocutors that detain unknown or hidden information. The journalist should never reveal their identity to anyone, including his hierarchy. He can be held accountable for what they bring.
Official sources + intermediate sources + personal source = a good informant network
4/ Occasional sources. These are spontaneous sources, offered testimonies brought on by the circumstances. Be wary: identify the source, check its motives, dig into their indications, get them to talk beyond what they want to say, double check their statements thanks to independent sources. When in doubt, ask the newsroom whether it’s a good idea to publish such information. Be wary of sources that tell you what you want to hear straightaway.
Mastering the balance of powers
There’s always a balance of powers between the journalist and his sources. There’s a dominant, who gives the info to the one who needs it. On one side, stands the offer, on the other, the demand. Managing this power imbalance asks for savoir-faire and skill. Your source always wants to gain something – personally or professionally. You’re always at risk of being manipulated. Sometimes there’s little room for maneuver, but it’s still there. It’s a matter of conscience. Don’t be fooled. You need to find equilibrium. Sometimes it’s okay to return the favor; sometimes it’s not honorable. It’s less bad to fight with your source than to dupe your reader.