Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V.
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Chapter 4 – Sources and spindoctors

Three problems with accepting favours from news sources.

1. The first is the power-balance. Once you are in any way in someone’s debt, they are in a position to pressure you and weaken your independence.

2. The second is conflict of interest. If you are beholden to someone, you have something to lose (even if it’s only friendship or good gossip) if you ever exercise your journalistic skills against them.

3. The third is reputation. Even if you think you would never bow to pressure or be swayed by gifts, once it is known you took the gifts, the public might believe you were influenced. And your source will undoubtedly develop all kinds of expectations about what his ‘friend’ the journalist will do for him – and may talk about these.

  • The usefulness of sources depends not only on the sources themselves, but how skillfully you use them.
  • Start with your subject, and then ‘map’ witnesses, people currently or previously involved, experts and relevant official and organisational contacts. Make your selection from these.
  • Select and evaluate experts carefully, and find a way of dealing with differences in expert views without distorting arguments.
  • Pay particular attention to organisational contacts who act as gate-keepers, surveyors and door-openers.
  • Use covert techniques only after careful decision-making on important, public-interest stories.
  • Evaluate sources and documents methodically. Use the two-source rule to try to ensure that each of your findings has independent back-up.
  • Beware of spin. Question the origins and motives of everything.
  • Encourage reluctant sources to go on the record. If they will not, take every possible precaution to protect their
    identity.
  • Avoid making any payments to sources that can be misinterpreted as payment for the story.
  • Protect yourself by accurate record-keeping, careful guarding of your story materials and, where possible, getting signed affidavits from important sources.
  • There is a wealth of documentary source material in the public record. Look here first.
  • Also check work done in your field by previous writers and researchers, to avoid re-inventing the wheel.
  • The most important principle is that your relationship with your sources is sacred. Do not make promises you cannot keep. If you have made promises, you must be prepared to put your own liberty or life on the line to see they are kept.

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