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9 ways journalists can build trust with their sources


International Journalists' Network (IJNet)

Journalism today is more necessary than ever, as countries’ politics become increasingly polarized, the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on, and the global climate crisis intensifies. Telling the stories of the communities affected by these global developments is vital.

These factors are a tricky landscape to navigate. We need to take our job of protecting our sources seriously. Along with ensuring the safety of interviewees, we must give their stories a platform, put them into context, and respect them. The element that binds all this together is trust. If we as journalists can encourage sources to trust us, then that will translate into better information, which means better stories.

I have worked in the media industry for 12 years (nine of those at the BBC), navigated its highs and lows, and collaborated with a variety of contributors along the way. From my experience, these are the ways to build trust with your sources.

Be upfront about your publication's political slant

For some, the publication and its leanings won’t matter, but for others it will affect their decision to speak with you, to the point where they may not want to contribute to your story. Some publications are more political than others so it may not be obvious what the readership is to the contributor at first, and they may want to know.

Share your portfolio

It’s hard to control what stories come up when someone searches for your name online. Usually what you’ve written for popular websites appears first, but these articles aren’t necessarily your best work. This is why it can be helpful to share your portfolio with your sources, so you can highlight similar stories to theirs and the way that you handled them. I amend my portfolio like this to ensure that my best work is at the top.

Address concerns

People think of reporters as typically the ones asking the questions, but that doesn’t mean that we are above answering them ourselves. Some sources may not consider sharing their concerns; if they are hesitant then ask them to tell you their reasons why so that you can put their mind at ease.

Be patient

Just because someone won’t speak on the record right away doesn’t mean they never will. Spend time fostering the relationship so that they know that you will be there if they change their minds and decide to share in the future. By waiting, you show that you are willing to do justice to their story and that the piece will have real weight instead of being quick turnaround “churnalism.”

Communicate the angle of your story

This might sound obvious but giving only a vague description of your article may mean that they later get a shock if they read it and find that the angle is not what they expect. As Aiden White wrote in Ethics at Source: “Journalists have to assess the vulnerability of sources as well as their value as providers of information. They must explain the process of their journalism and why they are covering the story.”

Avoid working for clickbait publications

While publications that use clickbait tactics may pay the bills for many media professionals, they aren’t the right places to use vulnerable sources. If you work for these websites, use sources who want publicity and know what they’re getting into.

If a small publication conducts its journalism in an ethical fashion and has a good reputation then that can put a source’s mind at ease. Sometimes this can be better than a bigger publication that is known for bad behavior, like phone-hacking, in terms of winning trust.

Reflect their opinion

While you can’t use every quote that you are given by a source, you can ensure that the quotes you select are an accurate representation of their opinion. “A lot of it is about building relationships that establish trust. Indicate that you're not going to screw people over or misrepresent their comments. That requires showing up, asking good questions, being personable, responsive, honest and consistent,” said Nat. M. Zorach, a writer for Handbuilt City.

Remain professional yet empathetic

You may not always agree with a contributor, and it could jeopardize your integrity to agree with something that threatens your impartiality. However, you should strive to stay open and empathetic.

Journalism lecturer Antje Glück wrote in the European Journalism Observatory that empathy is essential for “emotional capital” as it can help with “understanding the mental and emotional state of others.” It’s important to ask open questions and actively listen to your sources so that they feel like they’ve really been heard.

Remember your duty of aftercare

There are several things you should do before publishing your article to ensure that your sources do not feel abandoned or blindsided when the story comes out.

  • If the angle of the story changes then inform your contributor so that they’re aware before they see it.

  • When the story is ongoing, or if there are any developments, check in on your sources to see how they are doing.

  • Let your sources know that they can speak with you about developments so that they are more likely to trust you.

  • Be aware of reputable organizations that your sources can use to access help or advice.

It’s oft-cited by journalists, but worth reiterating here: It’s essential to protect your sources. Ultimately, you can’t tell a person’s story without them. Even though you have creative control, it’s important to realize that if a story affects their life they may be making themselves vulnerable by speaking to you. They are helping you and it’s important to remember that. The more genuine and authentic you are in your intentions, the more likely they are to trust you.



This article first appeared on the International Journalists' Network (IJNet) website. IJNet, like the Global Business Journalism program, is a project of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

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