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dancing with sources

February 28, 2009

“Friend? A good reporter has no friends, only sources!”

I always come early to the cinema. I like to find my seat before everyone else, to sit there and watch the commercials and trailers, waiting for my movie to start. It is always a good feeling when the light in the ceiling is replaced by the light from the screen, when the adventure begins.

Anyway.

I was at the cinema yesterday, early, as always, watched the trailers, as always. And there she was, the editor yelling to her reporter that a good reporter does not have friends, only sources. I can’t remember the name of the film, but I remember the editor’s words.

When I worked as a journalist for a local newspaper in Norway, I used to think a lot about me, my friends and my sources.I thought it was a difficult issue, even if the rules are clear.

New York Times, for example, they know how to put it. In their ethical handbook (pdf) it says:

Relationships with sources require the utmost in sound judgment and self discipline to prevent the fact or appearance of partiality. (…) staff members, especially those assigned to beats, must be sensitive that personal relationships with news sources can erode into favoritism, in fact or appearance. And conversely staff members must be aware that sources are eager to win our good will for reasons of their own.

I can assure you, in a city with only 6.000 people, it is a very difficult issue to handle, it is. But I tried.

I tried to avoid using my friends as sources. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t think I could be professional and treat my friends as I would treat every other source – ask critical questions, ask for documentation. I knew I would, but what I didn’t know was what my readers would think.

And that is all that matters.

If the readers stop trusting me as a journalist, it is over.

All this is quite easy to say, to write, to understand. But out there, in the reality, in the small communities, it is more complex and complicated. Really. It is always difficult to know where the line goes, what is OK to do, what is not.

New York Times tries to make it easier:

Staff members may see sources informally over a meal or drinks, but they must keep in mind the difference between legitimate business and personal friendship. A City Hall reporter who enjoys a weekly round of golf with a City Council member, for example, risks creating an appearance of coziness, even if they sometimes discuss business on the course. So does a reporter who joins a regular card game or is a familiar face in a corporation’s box seats or who spends weekends in the company of people he or she covers.

Scrupulous practice requires that periodically we step back and take a hard look at whether we have drifted too close to sources we deal with regularly. The acid test of freedom from favoritism is the ability to maintain good working relationships with all parties to a dispute.

I guess my question is: Do we take that step back often enough?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Lars permalink
    February 28, 2009 11:44 pm

    Nice. But where is the line between people you know, and friends? Are people you go out with to have a drink, necessarily your friends?
    Anyway, it is difficult in the real world. I don’t know if I like it there.

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