If you’re a consumer of journalism or a new journalist yourself, you’ve likely found yourself wondering how some reporters get a “scoop” ahead of others, letting them break a story or be the first to report it.
Being the first to a story certainly gives you a level of bragging rights as a journalist. Reporting the story well can catch the attention of not only consumers, but other media outlets as well, ultimately garnering more attention to your story and possibly effecting change.
But—and more importantly, I’ll argue—what it also often means is that someone looked at the journalists they know of and decided that you were the best candidate to tell their story.
That’s a responsibility that journalists shouldn’t take lightly, especially in the case of sensitive stories. If a source has bared their soul to you, or put personal or professional relationships in jeopardy, they likely thought long and hard about what they were doing before they made the decision to reach out.
In cases like that, what’s most important is that you constantly treat your source with respect. Take a look at some resources on how to conduct trauma-informed reporting and interviewing.
Being respectful in a sensitive interview may seem like an obvious answer to approaching tough stories, but it actually requires a paradigm shift in the way we think as journalists. We’re used to getting things done in a certain way—’tell me your full name for the record, spare no details in your story, let’s get this done quickly so I can meet my deadline’.
But we need to think about these stories less as a one-way transactional activity, and more of a two-way agreement between source and journalist to trust each other.
As journalist Bruce Shapiro told the CBC, "[trauma-informed reporting has] changed us on interviewing. It's challenged us ethically [on] how we think about showing respect, not inflicting unnecessary pain on folks while fulfilling our traditional and important journalistic need for verification, for detail, for information."
"It may require shifting some of the permissions and powers that are traditionally the journalist's prerogative to the source," he added.
It might take longer, but you’ll walk away with a better understanding of the true impact of what happened to your source. Your journalism will benefit, and your source won’t feel as if they were exploited for your story.
When they have an update, or a related tip, or a friend with a story to tell, you’ve built a relationship based on mutual trust and respect that’ll make it easier for them to continue reaching out to you.
The other obvious benefit is that other people with stories to tell will see your work, and feel that you’re a journalist they can trust with their own stories.
In the examples above, we’ve looked at individual sources and stories, but you can and should apply the general lens to other beats too. If you’re garnering a reputation as someone who can report on sensitive topics like the toxic drug poisoning crisis, for example, with respect and compassion, that’s only a good thing.
It means you’re contributing to a more thoughtful conversation around those issues, and it means that the next time someone has a tip, you’ll be top of the list for them to reach out.