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A larger discussion on value of good sources

Hello from the bunker (my couch),

Reporters pursue a variety of sources when looking for more information for a story. Getting creative isn’t out of the question, but they usually fall into one of the following categories.

Newsmakers – These are the people who take part directly in whatever the news is. Firefighters and other first responders are excellent examples. They took part in the story and can speak firsthand about what they saw or did. Athletes in games, performers at shows, anyone directly involved in something newsworthy is a newsmaker and is a perfect candidate for an interview.

Experts – Often this is an academic or professional with years of experience or study on the topic your story addresses, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be someone with credentials. If the topic is fishing, for example, a well-known local fisherman might be just as good as a DNR officer, as long as their knowledge is reliable and relevant.

I like newsmaker and expert interviews because the quotes, metaphors and insights you can get from an interview often make a story richer and easier to read. Sometimes, however, these people aren’t available, or are unwilling to give an interview for another reason. In those cases, reporters will turn to a few other options.

Government Records – Sometimes available online or at request, or through Freedom of Information Act request, official documents and records can provide a variety of things for articles. Police reports about crimes or other incidents, court documents, emails between agency officials, research databases, and more. No matter what the story is, I always try to consider what relevant documents the government might have, and give the corresponding agency a call. I’ll cover more about government records in another column.

Reference Material – Dictionaries, encyclopedias and other well-regarded reference material make solid sources. Government websites (the Centers for Disease Control website is popular right now) and research organizations and associations are newer, but still solid sources. Sources in good articles will be named, so stories with coronavirus information from cdc.gov are probably more credible than a story with information from doctorcoronavirus.com (currently unclaimed, buy the domain at godaddy.com now).

There are two other common places to get content for a story from. They aren’t my favorite, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful and important.

Spokespeople – If I contact a larger organization like a private school or a corporation, I’ll likely end up getting referred to their media or communications department. Government agencies like the EPA, DNR and FBI also have spokespeople. On the bright side, these people are usually informed and don’t get nervous talking to reporters, but it also means they’re better at spinning an interview and dodging questions. I don’t avoid interviews with spokespeople, but they’re usually not the interview that was really hoping to get, either.

Person on the street – Interviewing regular people used to be done by literally standing on the sidewalk and talking to people passing by. It can still be done that way, but more often contacts are made on social media or where people are gathered for an event of some kind. It’s good to include reactions to events from ordinary people in stories sometimes. For some stories it’s more appropriate than others, but ordinary people can offer reactions and exemplify trends in a way that adds to an article. Bystanders to crimes, concert-goers and parade-watchers are all people who can add another perspective and a little flavor to stories, even if they aren’t a newsmaker or expert.

A well-rounded, in-depth story might include a little of each of these types of sources, but depending on the story, it might rely on just one kind. I try to at least consider sources of multiple types for my stories in the planning stages.

Email me with questions you have about the reporting process. I love answering questions.

Joshua Vissers holds a B.A. in multimedia journalism and is associate editor at the Daily Mining Gazette. Send questions to jvissers@mininggazette.com.

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