Winter 1999 - Spring 2000

1999: Reporters’ Relationships With Sources

Watchdog Conference
[This article originally appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of Nieman Reports.]

No topic consumed as much of the conversation at the Watchdog Journalism Conference [May 15, 1999 at Harvard University] as that of reporters’ relationships with sources. How are these relationships established? How can and should they be maintained during the course of reporting a story? Where should reporters draw the line in terms of their interactions with sources? Can reporters get too close to their sources? How can a story not be compromised by a source’s own agenda? These and many other related questions were interwoven into each of the day’s four panel discussions.

Doug Frantz [national correspondent, The New York Times]: Frantz set forth three rules that he abides by in his relationship with sources.

1. “I never socialize with sources. I worked for five years in Washington and I never went to a party with sources.… Particularly for the five years I spent in Washington for the Los Angeles Times, it was vital to my independence that I not be on a first name basis with my sources, that I not go to parties with them. That was important.

2. “Transparency. We have to tell our readers where these sources are coming from. Even if you use their names, I think you need to provide some background.

3. “Don’t give advice to sources. People often call up and ask you, ‘What do I do now? Should I talk to the government? Should I talk to the prosecutor? Should I blow the whistle to the IRS?’ I just have a flat rule not to tell them anything.… You can’t be pure enough on that point.”

Loretta Tofani [reporter, The Philadelphia Inquirer. She won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting for her series on men gang-raped in jail.]: “In the end this relationship I had with the rapists came back to haunt me because there was an implicit understanding. I told them I am a reporter. It’s okay to talk with me, and they believed me. They talked. They admitted their crimes. So it was very chilling some months later when, after the series came out, the rapists were indicted for the rapes and I was given a subpoena to testify against them.… Maryland has a shield law, and reporters were protected from speaking against their sources only if the source was unnamed. But I had named them all, so I had to testify.…

“I really had to think a lot about what was my relationship with them [the sources who were rapists]. I knew this much: I was not going to testify against them. There was no way. I felt I could not continue doing work as a reporter, or at least the kind of work I found meaningful as a reporter, if I were to testify against my sources. For me it was really a matter of conscience.… I had an implicit understanding with these sources, the rapists, that I was not acting as an arm of the government. It would hurt the view of myself as a reporter to start testifying for the government against people I interview. I’m not sure how I could keep going on being a reporter doing that. It’s a role I don’t envision myself having as a reporter. I feel like my job is, you get the story, you put it in the newspaper, and then the chips fall where they may. But then you don’t keep sticking it to them. It didn’t matter to me whether the victims were men or women. I wouldn’t have testified.…

“People at the newspaper felt differently: Ben Bradlee [the Post’s Editor], surprisingly, was one of them. He felt I really should testify. At that time, he said reporters had good citizen responsibilities. We argued about it, but it was clear his mind was made up.… Bradlee was forceful, and he had other editors in the newsroom calling me and telling me I really should go along with it. But in the end, I didn’t testify. I stuck to my guns, and the paper really was forced to back me up.… So I ended up explaining in court why I wouldn’t testify, and then I was cited for contempt of court. The jail rapists were all indicted, and I’m sure they feel quite badly about me today. But I still feel I have some sense of honor because I didn’t testify against them.”

William Rashbaum [crime reporter, the New York Daily News]: “The relationship between reporter and source is a delicate one.… The same can certainly be said for the relationships between management and ownership of the newspaper in the subjects of the stories that appear or, sometimes more importantly, don’t appear in their publications. While many people argue that reporters have insufficient independent oversight, some might say there’s less scrutiny of owners and publishers.…

“New York City is a tough, incestuous town when it comes to reporting on police departments and law enforcement in general, and the beat reporters who write about the police department usually cover both crime in the city and the department as an agency. So one day you can be writing about management failures that preceded the recent [Amadou] Diallo shooting, corruption, or the Police Commissioner taking a freebie junket to the Oscars. The next day you are chasing desperately sought after details of a high-profile crime that’s captivated your editors, if not the city.

“Some could argue you’re not biting the hand that feeds but cannibalizing it. This is a town where one reporter at a major daily writes for the police union newsletter and sells T-shirts for a group that benefits the families of slain cops. Another was called ‘Bratton’s Boswell’ in print because a columnist felt that his relationship with the former Police Commissioner was too close. Another columnist deftly killed a young reporter’s story about a top police official’s drug-addicted daughter. She was a regular in Lower East Side shooting galleries and roamed around there in his department car, complete with police radios, phones and lights and sirens. The columnist and the official, needless to say, were good friends. At the other end of the spectrum is a man who wrote a laudatory column about the priest who baptized his son and later turned the cleric into column fodder when he felt he kept black youngsters off a local Little League team.

“But there’s a lot of room between, and that’s where most of us work.… I think a lot of beat reporters do a very good job holding the department’s feet to the fire.… We work in a highly competitive environment where we face the competing obligations to our readers on the one hand and our loyalties, professional and sometimes personal, to the people who provide us with information, sometimes very important information, on the other side.”

Alison Grant [reporter, The Plain Dealer. She spent one year investigating corruption in the awarding of city contracts in a Cleveland suburb.]: “Perhaps this is a simple idea, but one way to get closely held information yet not compromise yourself is to demonstrate your usefulness to the people that you want to have as sources. My relationship with the two detectives [in Beachwood, a suburb of Cleveland] was symbiotic. Over the course of the year it became more and more the case that the detectives and I appeared to be working toward the same end. At times we did trade information. Some people would say that you should never deal with law enforcement officials in this way, but I think some exchange of information is all right.… It was only in retrospect that I realized I had provided a shield for the police, to an extent, at least to get their investigation launched, too.… I think you can happen to provide that function to a source and yet not compromise yourself in dealing with that source. I also felt in Beachwood from the beginning that the cops were honest. So I didn’t feel like if we happened to fill that need for the cops that it was any kind of compromise on the part of the Plain Dealer.…

“I also had to be careful that the newspaper was not being used by my sources merely as a foil for their agenda.… Purists may not agree with this, but I think you sometimes have to deal with minor characters who did bad things in order to get to the people higher up who are orchestrating the corruption.… The prosecutor was also very talkative, and he was a friendly source, but the caveat with him was that he wanted to run for judge. He is a municipal judge now in Cleveland. That was one reason he sought publicity for the case, so it helped to be aware of his future ambitions. We traded some information. We gossiped about Cleveland politics and kept the relationship oiled.…

“It does help to understand the subtext and agendas as much as possible, because there are naturally many agendas underfoot. It helps, too, to be as candid as possible with sources on how you expect the story to play. Despite sources’ agendas, the reporter is writing for the reader and shaping a story that may not be what the sources expect, unless they are told.…

“Despite the sources’ agendas—the cops’ need for cover, the prosecutor’s political ambition, the city hall source’s anger over losing out on a promotion, the anger of Dominic Calabrese [her initial source] over his brother’s contract with the city—almost everything they told me was borne out by reporting.… [And] despite their individual grievances and aspirations, these sources were also interested in shedding light on the corruption.… This is one way for reporters to draw information from sources: by having a shared sense that an injustice is happening.”

Susan Kelleher [reporter, The Orange County (CA) Register. Her work about a fertility treatment clinic’s fraud won a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.]: “It was really telling their [patients who were inappropriately treated by infertility doctors] stories. I looked at them as sources as well, and yeah, I did get too close to those people. [And] I got very angry at the doctors.… I really did get attached to those people. I also felt a little too close to the whistle blowers, my initial sources. There were three of them, and they had settled a lawsuit for about a half-million dollars because they were fired, they said, for blowing the whistle on it before we had even written about it.…

“[When the story was published] I felt conflicted when the editor would use the words ‘hush money’ to describe the settlement [that the whistleblowers had received]. I would have preferred writing that ‘they signed a settlement with the confidentiality agreement.’… I did feel the need to argue [with my editor] that we should have used the longer explanation as opposed to the more sexy ‘hush money.’” [And each time “hush money” ran, Kelleher’s source would call and scream at her.] “I really felt for her, and I did feel bad because I think the words did mischaracterize [her actions].”

David Barstow [reporter, The New York Times. He investigated the National Baptist Convention for the St. Petersburg Times.]: “We penetrated closed entities through the use of sources, which immediately threatens to put the source, who has access to that closed entity, in the driver’s seat.… [But we focused on finding] ways of leveling the playing field when we dealt with these sources so that we were not constantly the supplicants to them and therefore susceptible to spin, to their agendas, and so forth.…

“[As a reporter] you have to be clear, constantly, every day, about what your agenda is and make absolutely clear to these people that your agenda has nothing to do with their agenda. If interests overlap, great. So be it. But never, ever, ever give anybody [who is a source] a name of a lawyer. You don’t give them advice. You don’t tell them what your next story’s going to be. You’ve just got to play it completely by the book, so that you are never in a position of feeling compromised.… You have to be willing to be beat on a story if it means that not getting beat is going to require you to make a decision with a source that could compromise that power relationship with them or, in other words, put you in debt to them in some way that is going to affect your subsequent coverage, and it’s a painful thing to do. I did it a few times in this story but I’m glad I did it. I think I slept better for it.…

“Sometimes we would call different members of the Convention and they would begin to ask our advice: ‘Do you think we should have a press conference?’ ‘Do you think we should mount a protest of some sort?’ ‘Should we have a petition campaign of some sort to get rid of this guy?’ I was, ‘I don’t care what you do. I just want to know, are you doing something?’.… Very early on I committed to myself [to the view of] I don’t care what happens. I don’t care if they don’t do a thing. I don’t care. The only thing I care about is telling this story. I do not have a horse in this race. Making that vow to myself very early on kind of relieved me of any expectation or pressure or anything of the sort. I think it’s also just a clearer way to go about your business as a reporter, not to have a horse in the race.”

Byron Acohido [aviation reporter, The Seattle Times. He won a Pulitzer for Beat Reporting.]: “[We had] to learn how to avoid getting sucked into this dynamic or this corporate force which is powerful and smart and very motivated to manipulate whatever it can. First of all, it manipulates the government agency that is supposed to be the public’s watchdog and, along the way, if we’re not vigilant, we get manipulated as well.…”

James McNair [reporter, The Miami Herald]: “I’d love to have the dilemma of being chummy with sources. We business writers don’t hear enough from sources other than corporate spokespeople or what moves on the news wires. It’s in part because corporations really have no obligation to reporters. You can’t walk into a corporation.… We’ve got no right to set foot in a corporation. They have pretty much put out the word to their executives and their employees that they’re not supposed to be talking to the press. CEOs have no obligation to talk to the press. How often do we get a CEO? Half of what you read from a CEO in the press, unless you’re The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, is a canned quote. You just can’t get the CEO to come to the phone. You can’t ask him tough questions. At annual meetings, the public relations people will head you off as you make your way to the CEO, so they play that little game.…

“If anything, business reporters need to thrust themselves more frequently into situations where getting too close to sources is a possibility. I’d love to hear from employees, but they’re so insulated; from the shareholders, but how do you find a shareholder? How do you find these people? At a time when many business sections have been dumbed down into how-to manuals for choosing a mutual fund, picking the right computer, and running a small business, American newspapers could stand business reporters who cover corporations to actually leave their offices and develop first name relationships with sources.…

“Some corporations, weary of being at the mercy of a reporter’s pen, try to steer reporters to analysts with favorable opinions. This is a new tactic. Not only that, they lean on analysts to return the phone call. They know that the reporters have a hard time getting the analyst to the phone.… [And] corporations browbeat reporters for calling analysts with negative points of view, and some reporters, eager to ensure their continuing access to the company, play along. This deprives readers of opposing viewpoints necessary to help people decide whether to invest in a company or not.”

Mark Thompson [Defense Department Correspondent, Time]: “It’s important also to realize that there isn’t a source. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and every year it’s like plowing a field: You’ve got to leave one field alone and let it grow back. It’s an ever-changing constellation of sources. If you get too wedded to one, you’ll run dry pretty soon.”

Lars-Erik Nelson [Washington columnist for the New York Daily News]: “There’s a way of making accusations now also using sources that troubles me, and I see this in the press frequently. A source will make an allegation, and the reporter takes it to the person who is being accused and he fumbles with it. Then a story is written saying, ‘So-and-so has been slow to respond to charges that.…’ And now you’ve got a new scandal. It doesn’t matter whether the charges are true or false. Look at the Whitewater coverage. The Clintons were accused of being slow to respond to allegations from sources that they were crooks in Whitewater. It turns out the charges were not true…but still it’s a stain on the Clintons that they were slow to respond to these baseless charges.…

“Now we [reporters] go with the allegation. We make the charge. We accuse the victim of being slow to respond or imply that there’s a cover-up. To me, that’s adopting an agenda from sources that we should be treating much more skeptically. I’m a columnist now. I’m out of the business [of reporting], and I’m watching it from afar. And I must say I’m watching it with great dismay.”

This was the second Watchdog Journalism Conference sponsored by Murrey Marder, a 1950 Nieman Fellow. His investigation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s claims about Communist infiltration led to hearings which destroyed McCarthy’s credibility; his reporting on the Johnson era manipulation of news regarding Vietnam led to accusations of the U.S. government’s “credibility gap.”

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