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Defining the Delicate and Often Difficult Relationship Between Reporters and Sources

Journalists stay in touch with the people who give them information and might even meet them for lunch or a drink. But there are boundaries.

At the beginning of the year, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about how we do our work. Thoughtful, challenging questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of columns. In this dispatch, Deputy Editor Steve Mills answers a question about how journalists deal with sources.

I would like to know how journalists manage their sources in an ethical and responsible way. What do you do if you have a quote from someone, or information, that they do not want published? — Liz Main

Like any relationship, a reporter’s relationship with a source — especially a long-term source — takes some work. Good reporters check in with sources regularly, not just when they’re working on a deadline story and need information. They might get to know a little about their source’s family or their interests, and ask after them. They’re transparent, too. Reporters don’t lie to sources.

But there are boundaries. Reporters might get information from a source over lunch or a drink — the tab paid for by the news organization or split in half — but they do not otherwise socialize with sources. They don’t give them advice. I’ve written a lot about wrongly convicted inmates, and they’ve often asked me to recommend lawyers. I’ve always told them I can’t.

Reporters also let sources know that they and their editors — and not sources — decide what a story is and when it’s ready for publication. Even when sources give reporters what appears to be blockbuster information, they have to trust reporters to find the story, even if it turns out altogether different from what they anticipated.

It can be delicate and difficult. The relationship between reporters and their sources, especially those who provide regular tips and story ideas, is symbiotic. Reporters need stories. Sources want their perspectives heard.

What’s more, tensions can arise between reporters and their sources. Many sources have an agenda. That means reporters must be aware of that agenda and not let it color how a story is reported. They must also be willing to follow the facts wherever they lead, even if that means angering a source with a story that’s tough on them — even if that makes getting information from the source in the future more difficult.

Of course, squishy areas abound, in part because reporters deal with different kinds of sources. There are those — government officials and their spokespeople, for instance — who deal with reporters on an almost daily basis and, as a result, are more experienced. They are, in many cases, on guard when they deal with reporters, who often are trying to get information from them.

Then there are those who don’t often have any interactions with reporters — people we come across covering a fire or a parade or a crime, including victims or witnesses. They’re more vulnerable.

A good journalist explains to that kind of source the risks of cooperating with a story — either by being a source of information or a subject of a story. Journalism can be a sort of hit-and-run business: get information from the source, write the story, never talk to the source again. That approach can be a bit unkind, I think, and shortsighted. I keep in touch with some sources who haven’t provided me with information that led to a story in several years. You never know when they’ll have a story for you.

So, to your question: A reporter typically would not allow government officials or spokespeople to take back information they provided, or to revise their quotes. But that reporter might be more forgiving of someone who had never dealt with the media and said something deeply personal or something that’s not crucial to the story.

It’s easy to feel empathy for a source, particularly someone telling you about their misfortunes. My colleague Melissa Sanchez, in her story about ticket debt in Chicago driving some people into bankruptcy, felt deeply for the people she wrote about and their struggles, which were often heartbreaking.

But it didn’t stop her from delving into their backgrounds to make sure what they told her was true. That’s another thing: We background our sources, running their names through criminal and civil court databases. We need to know as much as possible about people we include in stories, both to gauge their credibility and to ensure that there aren’t surprises following publication.

Not that every negative detail we uncover leads to a person’s removal from a story. In some cases, those facts aren’t pertinent to the issue and, in the end, don’t affect the person’s credibility.

When Melissa found that one of the people she had interviewed for her story had been arrested several times, including shortly before the story was scheduled to be published, we felt her credibility had been diminished. She was no longer a reliable source. We cut her out of the story.

Do you have a question about journalism? Send it to us at [email protected].

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