Working Your Sources InSmall Town U.S.A.
Asking The Tough Questions Without Getting Locked Out
Those of you who have worked in a small market may be able
to relate. For those who havent, I hope this helps.
In Small Town U.S.A. if you get locked out of
information, you can often kiss your big scoop good-bye. Sometimes,
you can even forget about getting the basic facts. What youre
about to read is far from law. Its far from the text
books of journalism school. Its simply one lesson learned
from a year or so in a small market, so read with that in
mind. The dilemma is this: How do you ask the tough questions
without getting locked out of the information?
In my Small Town U.S.A. there were a few key sources
that controlled most of the facts. The District Attorney then
controlled those key sources. He went as far as to approve
all press releases on major crimes from the sheriffs
department and the city police department. Without him, you
were out of luck.
When I arrived, I was just another young kid cutting his teeth
in a small market. Hed seen hundreds like me. Hell,
he was the District Attorney when I was in first grade. He
held the keys to my nightly crime headline. If you got on
his bad side, you got nothing. If you kept him happy, he gave
you what seemed to be tons of off the record dish.
All the reporters in town knew this. So, the problem begins.
More than not, hed always agree to talk on camera about
anything. But, through the years he had become king of the
pre-interview. As you, the one-man band, started to set up
your camera, he started to talk casually. The first words
out of his mouth: so off the record
attack all your toughest questions before the interview ever
began. Hed also do it under the caveat of so off
What you were left with was a choice:
ask the tough questions with the tape rolling and lose a notch
on his approval rating or lob softballs and keep him happy.
Those who immediately tried the former often found themselves
quickly locked out. Those who chose the latter often became
his mouthpiece. You see all that off the record
information usually wasnt all that juicy. It was simply
answers to questions he didnt want to answer. But being
young, sometimes you dont recognize the difference.
Im not going to lie, as an intimidated kid, I lobbed
softballs at first. Remember this guy controlled all information
about all major crime in town. I treaded lightly, but after
a while I came up with a plan. After a few interviews had
passed, I started playing his game. As I set up the camera,
I began casually asking the tough questions before he had
a chance to answer them off the record. To my
surprise, he answered some of them. No caveat issued. I now
had the information on the record. I then followed
by asking the question on camera and hed answer.
Now there were times during set-up where he would say, I
cant tell you that and Id respect it. I
wouldnt ask him on camera and put him on the spot. I
came to discover what he wasnt telling me was the real
juice I wanted to know. We played this game over several interviews
until he surprisingly began to tell me some of that juice
off camera. This time off the record applied,
but it was worth it. I dont know why he took to this
game as he did. Maybe it was his test to gain respect. Maybe
it was just to prove he was boss and I was still at his mercy
for information. But, by the time I left, he was answering
most of the hard questions on camera with no caveat and giving
me the juice when the tape wasnt rolling.
Some may look at this example and argue that you have to ask
the tough questions from the start if youre going to
be a true journalist. I think a true journalist learns to
work a source any way he can to get the information he needs.
This while, of course, keeping ethics in mind.
Today in Las Vegas, miles from Small Town U.S.A.
the battle continues. You dont have to be quite as sensitive
all the time to get information. There are plenty of sources
willing to talk without the game. You dont need to constantly
fear being locked out. But earning peoples trust is
still there. And Ive found, even still, some key sources
play the game. Although, their game is often different Theyll
give you juicy off the record information and
watch to see if you air it. Those who dont, get more.
Those who do, get cut off. If you hold off the record
information close to your vest, you also find out when to
be in certain places at certain times to get great video of
a sting or a raid.
You learn a lot in Small Town U.S.A.. You learn
lessons that you can apply later. Each source will be different.
But the predicament is often the same. How do you ask the
tough questions without getting locked out of the information?