Tips for gathering the tough news
Publishers’ Auxiliary/March 2009
Developing policies for tackling tough and sensitive issues is no easy task. It requires thorough and conscientious consultation with people within and outside newspaper offices.
Once guidelines are drawn, however, the hardest work still may lie ahead. Getting facts to report sensitive stories often is challenging, even if information is deemed public under state and federal laws.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that simply because data or meetings are classified as public, authorities will readily answer questions and automatically turn over information. Many editors can attest to the immense time required to educate public officials on data they are required to release. Even when reporters are armed with laws, attorneys and government agencies are likely to balk and take exception.
The challenge in getting the facts is even greater when pursuing stories in the private arena.
Many small-town news staffs have neither the expertise, nor time and ability to become educated, on the laws in order to challenge government bodies. As a result, important facts and even entire stories go unreported. Newspapers get accused of covering up a story, and residents are left uninformed.
Editors do not have to be legal experts, however. Several avenues are available to pursue a story if “official sources” present roadblocks. Following are suggestions for getting information that’s often integral to reporting sensitive stories:
- Ask the question. Reporters often grumble about public officials who are not forthcoming with bad news. But how many reporters have failed to simply ask the question?
- Ask officials to cite the law. Officials may refuse to release information because “they don’t have to” or because “they are unsure” of what state law dictates. Neither response passes muster.
- Present your case based on the spirit of the law as well as the letter of the law. Reporters have the best chance of flushing out information from public officials when they can cite the chapter and verse of the law. An even more compelling argument is to press for information based on the spirit of the law – specifically, in the spirit of open government. For example, the closing of an elementary school may not be on a school board’s official agenda for a few weeks, but administration will win higher marks if it informs residents of its intentions when first put on the table.
- Do the same with nongovernmental entities. Pressing private organizations and businesses for information under the spirit of openness can be more difficult. Open-records laws do not apply to them. Editors and reporters should advance the same arguments nonetheless. A manufacturer reduced staff by 50 employees. A health care center settled a nursing contract after protracted negotiations. A chamber of commerce dismissed its director. All of these events, though occurring in the private sector, may be bigger news than local elections. More often than not, this kind of news travels quickly by word of mouth.
- Develop informal networks. All communities have hot spots of conversation. One small-town publisher refers to the five Bs – bars, beauticians, barbers, butchers and bakeries. Reporters should make just as much effort to drop in regularly these places as they do at the city hall, cop shop or courthouse.
- Lay the groundwork. Newsrooms are quick to demand information when a crisis hits. But how many reporters make regular contacts with news sources? Editors must develop relationships with public officials if they expect cooperation on getting bad news as well as good news.
- Use confidential sources. Sometimes confidential sources cannot be avoided, but they should be used only as a last resort. And their use demands accuracy. Confidential information should be confirmed by at least one other source, and preferably two.
Two underlying principles are especially important when pursuing stories that deal with sensitive and challenging circumstances.
Be prepared. Reporters may be armed with all the right questions, but are they ready for uncooperative interviewees – no matter what the reason? There’s only one opportunity to get an interview.
In that regard, treat all people with respect and sensitivity. Individuals who expect to be drilled with tough questions immediately raise their radars when reporters approach. Yet they still need to be treated with respect.
The challenge is greater when the subjects are not accustomed to being in the public eye. Reporters will wind up with a better story if they ease into interviews and respect individuals’ requests. Overaggressive reporters who badger individuals in challenging circumstances are likely to wind up with no story. Worse yet, they have probably poisoned the reputation of the newspaper.