A professional journalist offers tips for finding just the right sources for a story.
Sources are the lifeblood of journalism, providing information, clarification, and context for stories. Luckily, they’re all around us; just about anyone can be a source. They can be eyewitnesses, participants, officials, or just average, everyday people affected by an event.
The trick to finding just the right sources for a story is creative searching. And with that in mind, here are a few ideas for source hunting:
If you’re covering an event, look at the people who have gathered to watch, since they might have seen something useful or important. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with them; you never know what you’ll discover. You’ll want to be careful to not believe everything eyewitnesses say, however, since they’re notoriously unreliable. Check with more than one eyewitness, and try to verify their statements or observations with other eyewitnesses and public officials whenever possible.
People participating in an event can provide an insider’s perspective, since they’ve been at the center of the action. Ask what they’ve seen, what they’ve experienced, and what they think.
They might not think of themselves as sources, but the people in a community who are affected by an ordinance, disaster, or other event or issue are valuable sources. Think creatively about these sources, looking for unexpected effects and impacts.
Every profession and trade has its own organization, and often these can be contacted to find representatives of that profession.
This is my favorite Web site for expert sources, including scientists, businesspeople, college professors, consultants, and many others. After registering, you can search the database using keywords related to your story, or you can request that a query detailing your specific needs be sent out to all experts on file. Within a day or two, you’ll generally receive several replies directly to your e-mail address.
Depending on your story, law enforcement, the fire department, or elected officials might be good sources. Their offices will also have a wealth of public documents, which can be invaluable, as well.
When conducting an interview, you can always ask one source for other source recommendations. Most people will have good ideas for other sources.
Use keywords related to your story, and you’ll many businesses, organizations, and people who might lead you to good sources. When you find a site that interests you, look for its “Press,” “PR,” or “Contact Us” page to find e-mail addresses and phone numbers. And remember, even if you’re writing a story for a local publication, your sources can be anywhere; they don’t need to be limited to your region.
Sometimes, you’re your own best source, particularly with first-person, participant, or immersion journalism. If you want an in-depth look at a place, event, activity, or issue that you’re involved with, you might consider throwing yourself into it and seeing what you discover. After all, there’s nothing like first-hand experience for writing colorful and realistic portraits of people and places. If you want to write about truckers, think about riding along with one or even becoming one. If you want to cover an underground group, you might want to get invited to few meetings. Just remember, this kind of reporting isn’t appropriate for every publication, and you’ll want to make sure you clear it with your editor before embarking on any immersion journalism project.