Up To Speed Journalism Careers Advice Tip #9 Earn Your Contacts’ Trust

Last Updated on July 21, 2023, 6:59 am

By Tom Hill, Course Director and Founder, Up To Speed Journalism.

In this series of articles on reporting skills I am dealing with some of the important inter-personal skills you need to develop to be a good reporter. Today my tip is to find ways to Earn Your Contacts’ trust.

Tip #9 Earn Your Contacts’ Trust

There are few phrases in the English language that are likely to inspire less confidence than, “Trust me, I’m a journalist”.But, trust me, at some point or other you are going to have to ask your informants to take a calculated risk and confide in you.

The relationship between journalists and their sources is often a complicated one and particularly when those contacts are professional spin doctors, or media-savvy people in public life.

As a reporter you have to have your wits about you. Dealing with contacts can be like a game of cat and mouse and you have to know whether you are playing the cat or the mouse in any given situation.

So, you might have a contact who feeds you several small snippets of information to keep your attention away from the bigger story involving her organisation. Spin doctors notoriously pick news days dominated by big stories, to “bury” unpalatable announcements.

Similarly, it may be in a company’s best commercial interests to issue a “no comment” statement or to say, “we can neither confirm nor deny that we have received a buy-out offer at this stage”. This keeps interest in the story alive and rumour can fuel financial speculation and so have an influence on the price of the company’s shares.  A foreign exchange dealer in the City once confided to me that his motto was, “buy on the rumour, sell on the news”.

However, a canny journalist will also play this game to her advantage. One way to keep one step ahead of the rest of the pack is to demonstrate that your source can rely on you. So, if you are ever told something, no matter how small, in confidence by a source, you have to make a calculation about what is more important, your source or the story. You don’t have to enter into a conspiracy of silence, but by demonstrating discretion and tact over some issues you can gradually build up a rapport and if you have read the person and the situation properly, you may become a favoured conduit for more important stories and snippets of information.

If you watch, or read, All The President’s Men, you will see that the story, which gradually gained momentum, ultimately leading to President Nixon’s impeachment, was fed by tip-offs from an anonymous source nicknamed ‘Deep Throat’. That contact put himself at considerable risk to pass on the information, but why did he choose Bob Woodward, a relatively junior general reporter on the Washington Post, rather than one of the paper’s top political correspondents?

The answer is that Woodward was not a reporter straight out of college. He had spent five years working as an officer in the US Navy, and on the staff at the White House, before turning to journalism. At the White House, Woodward met a man who would be in charge of the day-to-day running of the FBI three years later when the Watergate case was being investigated.  That man’s identity remained secret until 2005, when Deep Throat was finally identified as W.Mark Felt.  Felt died last year, aged 95, and speculation about his motives for disclosing the information will no doubt continue for many years. However, it seems likely that Felt decided to give Bob Woodward the information because he believed that the former White House aide was someone who understood the rules of the game, someone who would protect his identity and someone he could trust.

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