They say a journalist is only as good as their sources. But how do you establish trust without overstepping the mark? How do you protect them without losing sight of ethics, guidelines and objectivity? Here’s what might happen when you get too close…
As the seventh text message of the morning pinged on my phone, I realised my relationship with my source, post-publication, wasn’t quite as it should be. It was day three after her story hit global newsstands, and the questions kept coming in.
Should she get a lawyer? How would her case study fee affect her benefits? Could I chase her payment? When would I chase a copyright infringement on behalf of her sister? And, finally, could I speak to a TV company for her?
I realised that I had inadvertently become her personal assistant and was no longer in control of the relationship. This is just one example of how an experienced journalist can end up crossing boundaries with a source, offering them support or even becoming friends with them on social media. But just how does a journalist decide where the ethical boundaries lie, particularly when they are starting out?
Drawing A Clear Line With Sources
In the UK, newspaper and magazine journalists are guided by the IPSO Editors’ Code of Practice and the National Union of Journalists’ Code of Conduct. Broadcast journalists follow ethical guidelines set out in Ofcom Broadcasting Code. Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists has a Global Charter of Ethics for Journalists, and the Ethical Journalism Network has five key principles.
These guides generally cover the same broad areas of accuracy, independence, fairness, and transparency, as well as protection of confidential sources. But there is no clear guidance over relationships with sources.
The Ethical Journalism Network advocates humanity whilst simultaneously calling on journalists to be independent. However, it is not too difficult to imagine a scenario in which these may clash. The important thing is to declare a conflict of interest. For example, a reporter may describe how they dropped their notepad to help flood victims escape rising waters.
“I realised that I had inadvertently become her personal assistant and was no longer in control of the relationship.”
“Most people only interact with journalists at times of peak emotion – good or bad – and we need be honest with them, telling them what will happen to their story,” he told Journo Resources.
“We are there to tell their story fairly and accurately but it does expose them to the public gaze. We are not their friend, although that can happen, and we are not a confidant. Our aim is to publish the story to tell the world what they think whilst treating them with respect.”
Is It Ever Ethical To Cross Boundaries?
The relationship you have with a source can depend on the type of journalism that you do, but every journalist needs to think about ethics. Long gone are the days when trainee reporters were encouraged by editors to cosy up to police officers in the pub, or pop round to the local fire station for a cup of tea and an off-the-record chat.
Current affairs journalists may have sources they are in regular contact with, but there is no reason why this cannot remain a professional working relationship. However, It becomes more tricky for real life journalists who spend a lot of time interviewing people face-to-face. This is usually during times of heightened emotions, often when a case study has been through a personal trauma or tragedy.
“Most people only interact with journalists at times of peak emotion – good or bad – and we need be honest with them, telling them what will happen to their story.”
During her time as a real life specialist, journalist Michelle Rawlins has befriended interviewees and has been happy to support them following a story. But she said the level of life experience that you have dictates how you deal with these relationships.
“It is increasingly difficult to draw the line between the professional and the personal,” she explained to Journo Resources. “I am friends with sources on Facebook and I have offered financial advice to sources or been a shoulder to cry on.”
‘Talking At Length To A Journalist Can Feel Like A Counselling Session’
Michelle said the most important thing is to be aware of the emotional state of an interviewee and know how to handle them in the short and long term.
“I am in touch with the most vulnerable people in society and talking at length to a journalist can be like a counselling session. One of my sources went through a harrowing experience when she lost her children and I covered it for the national newspapers.
“We used to meet regularly for a coffee in the early days when she really needed that level of support, but over time she didn’t need me as much. Now we just message each other occasionally.”
But it is crucial to recognise when you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position and to step away immediately, added Michelle.
“I got invited for Christmas dinner by a bloke who had lost his children. I had to put a stop to that quickly. I said, ‘That is really lovely but I am a journalist and I can’t.'”
“I got invited for Christmas dinner by a bloke who had lost his children. I had to put a stop to that quickly”
When starting out as a trainee it can be difficult to know what is appropriate, especially when people readily befriend you. To a certain extent, you have to find your own way and learn from your experiences because there isn’t a visible line. Lisa Bradley, director of Learning and Teaching at The University of Sheffield, teaches her journalism students to consider how their actions would look to the outside world.
“I learned the hard way. When I was a young reporter, I did a story about an asylum seeker and his family and campaigned for him to stay in the country. They invited me to their house for dinner and I felt I couldn’t say no. We had shared this big experience together and gone through something awful and torturous together, and then to suddenly say goodbye was really difficult. I then helped them move house and someone complained to the paper to say I had been biased.”
Don’t Be Misguided In The Way You Can Help People
Lisa said at that point, she realised she had to put more barriers up. Otherwise, she would open herself up to criticism. “It is really hard to make these calls when you don’t understand the consequences of what you are doing. But you are compromising your integrity. You want to help, but you are misguided in the ways you can help people.
“Students tell me they have started volunteering for organisations they have done stories on, and I have to say, ‘No — you are there to help them recruit volunteers, not to become volunteers yourself.'”
Extra caution should be taken if you use a friend or family member as a story source. This is one relationship you cannot afford to permanently damage. You must make it clear from the beginning what the consequence of them speaking to you could be.
If you are too close to the source or story, consider passing it onto someone else to save yourself unnecessary drama or accusations of conflict of interest.
“You are there to help them recruit volunteers, not to become volunteers yourself.”
Equally though, it’s vital to keep your own mental wellbeing and physical safety at the forefront of your mind. Whenever you leave the house to meet a source make sure a colleague, close friend or family member knows where you are going and how they can contact you. Think of it as being similar to going on a first date.
Meet in a public place whenever possible, and only conduct an interview at someone’s home if you feel comfortable doing so and have given the address to someone who will check up on you. The golden rule is to never assume that just because you feel close to a source that they are trustworthy. You should never put yourself in a vulnerable position.
The psychological impact of dealing with a source with an emotional or traumatic story can be a heavy weight to carry, particularly when you lack experience. Having a mentor, colleague or loved one to discuss an interview with afterwards is really important. Don’t be afraid to talk to someone about how you are feeling and how a story has impacted you, or raked up forgotten memories.
Think – How Does This Look To Other People?
In short, wherever possible keep relationships with sources professional and always ask yourself, how does this look to other people?
If you are in danger of becoming friends with sources on social media because this is your only means of communicating with them, then set up a separate professional account. That way you have one for finding sources and accepting message
requests, and a separate personal one for friends and family.
Always do your due diligence and never trust information from a source without corroborating it first, no matter how well you know them.
Don’t be afraid to turn down requests to help people or socialise with them if it is something that is not directly relevant. Be polite and professional, but also be firm when necessary.
Seek advice from your peers, line manager or close confidants if you are ever uncomfortable with where a relationship with a source is heading, or if you need to unload after an emotional interview.