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The art and skill of working with sources

• September 25, 2017

The work of finding, developing, engaging and quoting your sources is difficult — and it never stops. (PeskyMonkey/Getty Images)

It seems like the most straightforward part of journalism: You find people who have information and you ask them questions. Simple enough. But sourcing the news — meeting people; building relationships; working out the terms of engagement — is part skill, part art. And it’s getting harder all the time.

How do the best journalists go about building sources? To find out, we tapped the collective wisdom of three NPR correspondents whose combined reporting experience exceeds six decades. For national security reporter Mary Louise Kelly, Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman, and Justice Department reporter Carrie Johnson, the art of sourcing involves careful vetting, delicate negotiations and, every now and then, cigars.

Through interviews and an in-house conversation, we’ve pulled together their best tips for finding, developing, engaging and quoting sources.

Finding sources

Go where people are happy

Dinners, awards ceremonies, receptions, conferences, galas — that’s when people are feeling good and less guarded. When you chat with people, get to know them. Talk about things other than work. For sources who are sensitive about leaving an electronic trail connecting them to reporters, it’s a good moment to make contact and learn how they prefer to communicate.

“I like to go to after-parties for big trials,” Carrie Johnson says. “I try to go to the parties of both sides, the winners and the losers, though the winners tend to be in a better mood.”

Justice Department reporter Carrie Johnson, national security reporter Mary Louise Kelly and Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman recently shared their tips on sourcing at NPR. (Kasia Podbielski/NPR)

Find ‘formers’ and privates, and try ‘bank shots’

Sometimes, when you’re covering people who are reluctant to talk to the media, the indirect route might be better. Mary Louise Kelly looks for “formers,” people who used to hold key positions in the intelligence community but have since retired or changed jobs. They are more helpful when they don’t have to worry about being fired for talking to her.

Carrie says she will sometimes “try to do a bank shot,” calling the friends and family of a source with the hope that they’ll get word to the person she’s trying to reach. Tom Bowman says he can often get better, more reliable information from the lowest ranking soldiers — preferring privates, not generals.

“The guys on the bottom who are seeing what’s going on day in and day out, they’ll tell you exactly what they think,” he says

Hang out and do nothing

When Tom spends time with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he likes to go with no agenda. Just talking. He starts conversations off by looking for a personal connection.

“You don’t open up your notebook or turn on the recorder and start asking questions,” Tom says. “You meet them on a personal level. … Every time I go to Afghanistan, when I meet a soldier, it’s like:

“‘Where’re you from?’
“‘Oh, I’m from Boston.’
“‘Get outta here! I’m from Boston. You a Sox fan?’
“‘Of course I’m a Sox fan.
“You go to Cape Cod?’
“My parents grew up on Cape Cod.’

“Five minutes in, we’re best friends.”

And with soldiers, Tom says, Cuban cigars help. He brings some with him every time he goes to Afghanistan.

“You have nothing to do; you can’t have a beer,” he says. “Everyone smokes cigars. … Before you know it, their guard is down and they’re starting to tell you something.”

Developing Sources

Give a little, get a little

Carrie and Tom emphasize the importance of a two-way relationship with sources, where you have something to offer. This strategy applies whether you’re working on a long-term beat relationship or a daily story. If you can share new information about matters important to them, it can create a more balanced relationship.

“If you’re looking to start a source relationship with somebody, you cannot be knocking on their door constantly (saying) ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme,’” Carrie says. “Sometimes you have useful information to give to them. … You should not always be asking for things.”

Play the long game

Tom brings cigars. Carrie might send a book to someone who’s expressed interest in a particular author, or flowers to someone who’s lost a loved one. It isn’t about currying favor, they say. It’s about being human. Over time, Carrie says, you create a trusting relationship that’s not just transactional.

“You just need to know what people are interested in,” she says. “For some people, it’s dogs; for someone else, it’s a novel they’ve wanted to read.”

The important thing, Tom says, is to stay in touch. He checks in with sources, asking himself, “who haven’t I talked to” lately? He calls it checking the traps. It pays off in the long game.

“The benefit of going to Afghanistan,” Tom says, “is I have known these people since they were colonels or one-stars (generals). Now they’re three- and four-stars, so I can waltz into their office.”

Balance the cigars, books and flowers with strong, candid, ethical reporting over the long haul, the correspondents say, and you avoid the trap of getting too close to sources. (The NPR ethics handbook offers guidance on how to maintain your independence while reporting.)

Tell stories to build sources (but be willing to whack them)

The stories you report can help improve relationships with sources by building trust and credibility. But the correspondents add two qualifiers:

  1. Always do rigorous journalism.
  2. Set expectations early.

Doing a profile on a source, Tom and Mary Louise say, is a good way to expand your contact list as you seek out people who know the subject of the profile. Just be sure you’re doing strong reporting and telling valid stories.

Sources “know what a puff piece is, and they like it if they’re the subject of it,” Mary Louise says. “But it’s not going to get you a return engagement because they don’t respect you.”

You build respect, the correspondents say, by showing you’re willing to tell harsh truths about your sources.

“I did a piece several years ago with … a guy who was awaiting Senate confirmation, and I had an off-the-record meeting with him in his law firm office,” Carrie says. “And I said, ‘Listen, I have known you for a while, I know your friends. Everybody says you’re qualified. If you get this job, I hope you’ll talk to me a lot. But if you do something really stupid, I’m going to whack you. In public. And I just want you to know that. …’

“And then he got the job and he did something stupid and I did a story about it. And I called him and I said, ‘Well, you know, Jim. I told you this was going to happen.’”

Be up front. All three correspondents say it’s best not to surprise your sources.

“Before you punch somebody in the face, you’ve got to tell them you’re going to punch them in the face,” Carrie says.

Engaging Sources

What’s ‘off the record’ and what’s not?

Nobody understands what “off the record” means, Tom says. The definition varies from journalist to journalist, even among the three correspondents we talked to. (Again, the NPR ethics handbook provides a good starting point if you’re unsure.)

It’s best to start with a clear definition of terms, no matter how touchy the source or topic.

Mary Louise says she often takes sources from “just talking” to “on tape,” being explicit about where things stand each step of the way.

“You’re trying to get as specific as possible; they’re trying to make it as vague as possible to minimize the risk,” she says. So, she lays out her process for her sources. When speaking with someone who is leery, she starts the conversation with, “‘Let’s just talk. We are off the record.’

“‘I’m taking notes but I have just marked ‘off the record,’ which to me means this is going to inform my thinking. I’m going to use this information as I ask questions going forward, but I will not use it on air; I will not attribute it to anyone; you will be identified in no way, shape or form. Let’s talk.’”

As the conversation unfolds, she says, she works to get things on the record. Somewhere in the conversation, she might say something like this:

“‘You know what? That’s a really interesting point you made. Might I be able to use that one piece, and could I attribute it to a ‘senior U.S. intelligence official?’ … And we’ll start negotiating from there. If they agree to it, then I say, ‘You know what? It’ll mean a lot more to hear this in your voice. … That one piece, can we put (it) on the record? Yes? Ok. How about that one piece, can we put it on tape?’ And here we go. You’re negotiating, but you start by getting them to talk, and you’re clear about what you’re doing.”

Meet sources without leaving a trail

With leaks and investigations aplenty in government, journalists may find it harder and harder to use traditional means — a telephone, for example — to contact sources. That’s especially true for those covering matters of national security, but it extends to local governments, police and other institutions.

“Five years ago, if I wanted to talk to somebody at the CIA, I would call them,” Mary Louise says. “They would pick up the phone. Sometimes they’d give me something, sometimes they wouldn’t, but they would take the call. That really just doesn’t happen anymore.”

Now, people are afraid of leaving behind evidence on email or phone records that they’ve been in contact with a reporter. So even setting up a meeting over coffee can be complicated. One source told Tom to leave a note in a mailbox if he wanted to talk. Mary Louise and Carrie have used encrypted messaging apps like Whatsapp, Signal and Telegram to connect with sources.

Even that can be tricky, Mary Louise says.

“It also puts people on edge,” she says. “If you’re trying to reach somebody who knows that they shouldn’t be talking to you; who maybe is risking their job; if you reach out on Telegram, it feels sneaky.”

Carrie has used her own technique at the Justice Department, lingering outside the building and waiting for the right time to approach a source.

“When I saw the security detail start up the SUVs, I would know that somebody I wanted would probably come down the stairs pretty soon,” she says. “And I would stand at that door and just say, like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a question for you.’”

Vetting Sources

The most important questions

How do you judge the veracity of a source? Mary Louise has two questions she finds invaluable, “whether you’re talking to someone trying to spin you or someone who just wants to share what he’s heard.”

When assessing what she hears from sources, she asks:

  1. How do you know that?
  2. Why are you telling me this?

Both can help strengthen your confidence in reporting what you’re told, and both can reveal holes in the information you’re getting.

“It is amazing how many four-star generals you will reach … and you say, ‘How do you know that?’ And they’ll say, ‘I just read it in the (Washington) Post,’” Mary Louise says.

Some people, Carrie says, talk because they can’t help themselves. Some, like the military retirees Tom likes to talk to, are away from the limelight and want to talk because they miss it.

Mary Louise goes at the question head-on when her sources tell her something interesting (that they probably weren’t supposed to share).

“I say, ‘I’m curious. Why do want me to know that?” she says. “Why are you telling me?’ And it’s amazing what they’ll sometimes tell you.”

Like any of us, she says, sources have their motives. They might hate their boss, have an ax to grind or think they’re a “whistleblower saving the world,” she says. Others have been instructed by their bosses to share the information. “That happens. A lot,” Mary Louise says.

It’s important to work on expanding your sources, Tom says, because the knowledge and motives of sources can vary so greatly.

“A lot of people are trying to spin something or give you information for an agenda,” he says.

“This is the benefit of having a wide number of sources. You can take that information and (ask), first of all, ‘Is it true? Is it significant?’ And then you bounce it off other people.”

And, Mary Louise says, the work of sourcing never stops.

“Every single person you talk to changes your perspective a little bit or helps you fact check,” she says. “You keep reporting.”


Keith Woods is VP of Newsroom Training & Diversity at NPR. He is the former Dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, FL, and editorial writer for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

NPR reporters:

Carrie Johnson has been NPR’s justice correspondent since 2010 and has made a career over 20-plus years of covering some of the country’s biggest legal issues, including a game-changing revision of the voting rights law. She appears on PBS and major cable news channels and is a regular moderator of legal discussions for organizations like the American Bar Association.

Tom Bowman has covered the Pentagon for two decades, dating back to his years at the Baltimore Sun. His career has also included coverage of Congress, the U.S. Naval Academy, the National Security Agency and state government. He has embedded with U.S. Marines and soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mary Louise Kelly covers national security, which includes the country’s spy organizations, terrorism and war. It’s the stuff of novels, and Mary Louise has written two of those. She’s traveled around the world and has created a college course on covering national security. She also guest hosts NPR shows.