THERE ARE FOUR TYPES OF SOURCES:
- Institutional sources. These are all the sources that hold public authority: the government, ministries, administrations, etc. They have the advantage of being listed and structured and they produce official news. It is essential that a journalist’s address book includes the personal details of all of the people authorised to speak on behalf of these authorities (spokesperson, press officer, etc.). Make a list and contact them as soon as they take up office, while they still feel honoured to be recognised by the press (direct phone lines, personal addresses, etc.).
- Intermediary sources.These are all the sources with social legitimacy: associations, professional organisations, political parties, trade unions, etc. They have the advantage of often functioning as a force of opposition providing unofficial news. If the journalist takes the time to build honest relationships with these natural allies, he or she will benefit from additional information and valuable insights. Draw up a list of potential spokespersons and approach them in an attempt to “tame” them.
AN EFFECTIVE FORMULA: ACCREDITATION
When dealing with institutional and intermediary sources, it is in the journalist’s best interest to clarify his or her own role. In the case of institutional sources, journalists can request official accreditation for themselves or their colleagues. All public authorities and social bodies prefer to have named contacts when dealing with the press. Engaging in this mutual role-playing game encourages daily contact.
Typical accreditation letter: “Dear Minister, it is my pleasure to inform you that, in the interests of further improving our professional relationship with your department, with effect from today we are entrusting our esteemed colleague A..R.. with the task of paying constant and particular attention to all your ministerial activities as part of our mission to provide information in the service of public opinion…”
In the case of intermediary sources, the journalist does not usually require accreditation. What is important is fostering relationships built on mutual respect, agreeing upon a method of communication that guarantees anonymity for the source, and coming to an agreement with regard to the way in which the information provided to you without the knowledge of the public or professional authorities should be handled.
- Personal sources.These are discreet or even secret sources that journalists have within powerful and professional circles. They gather such contacts by means of their work and ethics, gaining the trust of people in possession of unknown or hidden information. Journalists never reveal the identity of these contacts to anybody, including their own supervisors; it goes without saying that the journalist is responsible for the contributions of his/her contacts.
Institutional sources + intermediate sources + personal sources = a good network of informants.
- One-off sources.These are spontaneous sources, witness testimonies offered or requested as a result of the circumstances.Precautions to take: identify the source; verify their motives; delve deeper into the assertions made; make them say more than they want to say; cross-reference their statements with other, independent sources. If in doubt, ask your colleagues for their collective and critical opinion as to whether the statements should be published. Be wary of sources that give the information you want to hear too readily.
MASTERING THE BALANCE OF POWER
There is always a balance of power between the journalist and his/her sources. There is a “dominant” party – the one that is providing the information, and a “dominated” party – the one that needs the information. It is supply and demand… Managing this balance of power demands skill and expertise. There is always a desire on the part of a source to benefit, either personally or professionally, from providing information, so there is always a risk that the journalist will be manipulated. There is often little room for manoeuvre, but it is there. It is a question of conscience. Do not be fooled. A balance needs to be struck.
Sometimes “back-scratching” is honourable, other times less so. An argumentative source is better than a duped reader.