Develop sources to get great tips

February 23, 2015 01:30

By Al Sunshine, RTDNA Contributor

I’ve had whistleblowers tell me about nuclear plant guards standing watch with rifles that could never fire because defective firing pins were removed and never replaced. I’ve received calls about alleged expense report padding by assistant U.S. Attorneys. One time I drove up to a highway toll plaza and the attendant yelled out, ”Hey Al, why don't you do a story on...”

Tips come in from everywhere. Our station had a "Shame on You” hotline, which kept interns, staffers and me very busy keeping up with it all. As a local reporter, I got tips and calls for help from all over the country. In some cases, I could turn those tips into stories. In others, I never could because it was impossible to confirm with a second source.

As we’ve all heard many times, “Your story is only as good as your sources.” After 40 years of working the investigative/consumer beat based out of Miami, I've had a lot of tips and developed a lot of sources. But how do you nurture those sources, get their respect and earn their trust, so they risk tipping off a reporter to something they believe needs to be exposed? And how do you protect yourself from being used by unscrupulous sources who may have a personal grudge against their workplace or a political axe to grind by spreading disinformation?
Nurture your sources
How do you earn the trust of people to leave you tips they shouldn't be talking about? Building trust takes time. You have to be patient.
  • Be honest with them about your interest in their story and their need to trust you with their disclosures.
  • If they have any hesitation, don't push too hard for the information. Let them call back or contact your after thinking about it a while.
  • Be a good listener and know how to draw a story out of the person you’re listening to.
  • Know when to push for details and when to just shut up and listen.
  • Stay in touch. Let them know you haven't forgotten about them, and check to see if anything in their story has changed.
Protect yourself and your station
Dramatic claims can be exciting to hear. I once had a former Watergate burglar tease me, promising he’d tell me the “real story” about the JFK Assassination. For years afterward, I asked him if he was ready to talk about it. He always just smiled and winked at me. If he had a secret to tell, he went to his grave with it.
What’s my point? You’ll get a lot of tips and offers of great inside information fairly often, if you're lucky. But don’t ever forget, you probably don't really know who’s leaking information to you or their agenda.
  • A single tip is the start of an investigation, not the mid-point or end.
  • You have to not only investigate the tip, but your source as well.
  • Work with your managers to make sure you get the time to fully check out a story, work up second sources and get it right before scheduling the story for air or promoting it.
  • When dealing with sources, be very cautious about promising confidentiality. It’s a binding contract your news director, station lawyer and station ownership that your manager may not be willing to offer.
  • Website links to "official" statments and raw video of interviews posted online can help mitigate claims you intentionally chopped down or overly edited a company or politician's responses to your questions.
Remember, we are not prosecutors, we're reporters. Our investigations have to include reasonable time for a response and your station has to support not only the time for you to work your story, but also commit to the extended air-time it may take to get it right.

Do tips from sources really pay off?
I never did anything more with the alleged padded expense report out of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. There was a lot of political in-fighting there at the time and I suspected it could be politically motivated. After a while, there was a regime change anyway. How could I second source an anonymous allegation out of the Justice Department without stepping into the sticky issue of disclosing who tipped me off?

Since I couldn't confirm/second source the claim the guards were protecting our local nuclear plant with rifles that could never fire, I put the story on the back burner. But a short time later, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission got the same tip and opened a formal investigation. When it all came out publically, we had the whole story.

It always pays to listen. Sometimes a tip will pay dividends years down the road. Take the time to understand your sources and their motivation, and you'll come up with stories that matter.

Al Sunshine is a 40-year veteran journalist who recently retired as an investigative reporter at WFOR-TV in Miami, FL.