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Weekly Features
Life in the Small Market
A collaborative weekly feature, Life in the Small Market offers up thoughts and views from small town broadcasters across America.
Scott Burton is currently the senior night side reporter at KTNV-TV in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN Headline News, and ABC Newsone. Some of his noteworthy assignments include coverage in Washington, D.C. of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, coverage in Reno of the “Mail Box Bomber” arrest, and coverage in Arizona of a downed tourist helicopter over the Grand Canyon. Scott Burton can be reached at Sburton@KTNV.COM

Working Your Sources In“Small 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 haven’t, 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 you’re about to read is far from law. It’s far from the text books of journalism school. It’s 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 sheriff’s 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. He’d 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, he’d 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…” He would attack all your toughest questions before the interview ever began. He’d also do it under the caveat of “so off the record…” 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 wasn’t all that juicy. It was simply answers to questions he didn’t want to answer. But being young, sometimes you don’t recognize the difference.
I’m 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 he’d answer.
Now there were times during set-up where he would say, “I can’t tell you that” and I’d respect it. I wouldn’t ask him on camera and put him on the spot. I came to discover what he wasn’t 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 don’t 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 wasn’t rolling.
Some may look at this example and argue that you have to ask the tough questions from the start if you’re 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 don’t have to be quite as sensitive all the time to get information. There are plenty of sources willing to talk without the game. You don’t need to constantly fear being locked out. But earning people’s trust is still there. And I’ve found, even still, some key sources play the game. Although, their game is often different They’ll give you juicy “off the record” information and watch to see if you air it. Those who don’t, 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?