Reporting Challenges: Reluctant Sources

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In journalism, some sources take interviewing in stride. For public figures, some experts, celebrities, and politicians, being pestered by the press is all part of the business. But for everyone else, speaking with a reporter can be nerve-wracking, unpleasant, or even scary. Some people have very understandable reasons for wanting to avoid journalists.

I’ve come face to face with that challenge in reporting for my thesis project. How do you cultivate trust with folks reluctant to speak with you on the record?

First, understand where they’re coming from. My thesis is about the ways that Pagans in the United States have used the internet to grow and flourish, despite being a small, new minority religion that’s faced a great deal of discrimination.

One of my sources explained the ways that Pagans have been misrepresented and maligned by many, many media outlets. Furthermore, scholars have also been hurtful to many Pagan communities, studying and then dismissing them as silly or faddish.

As a journalist and a scholar, that’s two strikes against me right there. Add to that the fact the media likes to trot out a Wiccan or two every Halloween to explain again that Pagans aren’t into Satan worship. I just so happen to be writing my thesis around Halloween… Strike three.

But, once I learned this, I knew that I had to slowly build trust with potential sources, look for personal connections, and prove that I wouldn’t make a mockery (intentionally or unintentionally) of anyone’s religious beliefs or communities.

Here are a few of my tips:

-Do your research before you speak with people. Get to know them and their organization. Learn about what they care about.

-Cast a wide net. Leave no stone unturned, and reach out to people politely even if you think you may get turned down.

-Follow up with people, but understand their boundaries and limits.

-Reach out to your friends and family. Friends of friends can be great sources.

-Put yourself in the shoes of someone seeking the communities or services you’re looking for. Check out specialty shops, restaurants, services, Facebook pages, hangouts, and social circles. Show up, be friendly and respectful, and be open to some new experiences.

-Get your foot in the door. Once you get one or two interviews with people respected by your potential sources, you can better demonstrate your trustworthiness.

-Don’t destroy the trust you’ve built. Update people on your publication status. Be fair, conscientious, respectful, and always, always be honest.

PS: If you know any Pagans, Wiccans, Heathens, Goddess worshipers, or Druids who’d like to chat with me about their faith and the internet, let me know!