Great sources make or break a story. There is no better way to avoid inaccuracies and deliver grounded, convincing perspectives than a strategic interview from a primary source. We know how challenging it can be to identify and connect with key contacts, so we had YR contributor and current writer for the Fort Worth Star Telegram Haley Samsel walk us through it. This DIY tool, based on a live webinar from Haley Samsel, focuses on leveraging digital media to get what you need for your story. Here’s the full webinar video, with our highlights below.
What camp is your story in?
There are two general camps that stories fall into:
- A story with a set cast of characters – this story will involve several specific, informal and formal groups
- A “broad issue” story – this story doesn’t have a particular news peg that requires you to interview specific people
You need to know which camp your story fits into because that will dictate the types of groups you will be interviewing. Once you know which general camp your story falls into, Samsel says you can identify the following:
- Who has a direct stake in this story?
- What types of groups am I thinking about interviewing?
- Whose perspective is not typically included in stories about this topic?
- What types of experts might I need to consult to get better context on the issue?
- Where should I look to find those sources?
Looking for the right perspectives online
When you’re covering a story, you want to look for geographical, racial, gender and ideological diversity as well as someone who can give you useful information or an interesting angle for your story. You usually don’t want to just reach out to the first person you find on your Google search about a topic because chances are they’ve been interviewed before. You also don’t want to just interview your friends or people in your immediate community. We invite you to dig a little deeper than your initial search with these three methods for finding a good source online:
(1) Social Profiles
Social profiles are a great way to find people who are talking about a specific topic. Follow up with people whose posts contain thoughtful perspectives. Some questions to ask yourself before initiating an interview:
- Is there evidence that they'll be able to talk about their take on an issue for more than a few minutes?
- Can they give me a deeper perspective on the direct experiences that have led them to feel the way they do?
If you decide you’d like to interview this person, make sure they aren’t a bot by searching for their name, location, school and employer together. If you find another profile of theirs or they show up on their university’s website, they’re probably a real person. Social media accounts with very few followers or posts probably aren’t legit.
Working backwards from popular posts:
If you find a popular Tweet, take the Tweet link and paste it in the search bar to see who has quote-Tweeted it (you’ll need to delete the part of the link after the “?” when you repaste it in your search bar).
You can also look at who has favorited or commented on a Tweet and go to profiles from there.
Another option is to go to closed or private groups. Samsel recommends being transparent with the group administrators. Say you’re working on a story, mention the outlet you’re working with and that you’d like to interview people in the group. If the group administrators aren’t comfortable with your joining, ask them to share your email with the group so members can get in touch with you if they are willing to talk.
Using public materials:
If you’re working on a story with a set cast of characters, you can use the headline or keywords in any public material like a flyer about an event to search on Facebook or Twitter to see who is sharing the information.
(2) The Approach
Once you find a person you want to interview, your approach should include three things:
- Make sure you introduce yourself as a journalist
- Say you’re working on a story about the topic
- Explain how you found them and why they are a good source for the story
Being upfront helps people not get freaked out about the fact that you’ve randomly reached out to them. Don't be afraid of not getting a response when you reach out for an interview and don’t be afraid to follow up (this advice applies to journalism, but also works for dating).
When you’re using this method to look for digital sources, it can be hard to retrace your steps, so keep record of where you find key sources using a spreadsheet or notebook.
(3) Time Management and Sources That Get Spooked
Finding sources can be very time consuming depending on the type of story you are focusing on, but it will be worth it. Make sure to manage your time so you don't get overwhelmed.
Some people can be scared to talk to you because they are afraid of retaliation or giving up their privacy. It varies from situation to situation and it’s up to you to determine how much time you’re willing to devote to finding a middle ground where your source feels protected and you have enough useful information for the story. It helps for people to hear that while their story might be publicly accessible, sharing their experience allows others to empathize and learn from their experience.
Time to dive in
When you decide to dive into a juicy story, you have your work cut out for you: “I don't think you'll find any journalist who says that finding sources is the easiest part of the job, but practicing and challenging yourself to find sources from people with unfamiliar backgrounds will make your stories a lot better and make you more valuable to editors.”
The good news is that finding good sources benefits you in the long run as a journalist because you develop a source base that you can continue to return to for more information and connections.