We’ve been talking about sourcing this past week, and I have to say that we could spend several weeks on this topic.
What have I said so far?
I said I have grown to dislike the word “source” because it implies that we simply take or demand what is freely given. Sometimes, sources don’t give. Sometimes, we shouldn’t just take. Sometimes, a “source” is a too-willing accomplice in a disinformation campaign, as we saw in “Merchants of Doubt” last week. (Let’s learn how to stay out of that business.)
Sourcing is sometimes better described as “finding collaborators” because in public service journalism, for example, you might well find yourself in a situation in which you’re trying to get more or less the same story out as a non-profit or a governmental entity. We found that out last week when we did our story on “date crime” (incapacitation) drugs. When we explained to police what we were up to with our story, their response was like, oh, really? Us, too!
Sometimes, the relationship is antagonistic because what we want to know as journalists, others don’t want us to know. Because they’re up to no good. Thank heavens for the Fourth Estate, a friend of mine often says to me. As my friend and colleague at IRE, Mark Horvit, says: No one is going to send you a news release about wrongdoing. And so this becomes our essential duty: Inquire. Investigate. Inform.
The story I’ve asked you to read for Tuesday is a masterpiece of inquiry into the complexities of “the source” — in this case, a trauma survivor. In many ways, it’s a companion piece to the awful, deservedly maligned Rolling Stone story about campus rape in which a reporter was disabled by her own confirmation bias. And in which her editors were too-willing accomplices.
I teach a class in trauma reporting because the subject is that complex and important. Trauma survivors aren’t always exactly like other folks. We do better journalism when we learn how to understand and navigate in the space they’re occupying.
And so, I ask you to read this amazing piece from Pro Publica and The Marshall Project. I had to take several walks while reading it. I don’t even know what to tell you was the most important lesson I took away from it because there are so many. But this — from a sexual assault investigator — stands out because it has such relevance for us in journalism:
“A lot of times people say, ‘Believe your victim, believe your victim,’” Galbraith said. “But I don’t think that that’s the right standpoint. I think it’s listen to your victim. And then corroborate or refute based on how things go.”
Is there a better way to describe our relationship to the people who tell us stories? If so, I can’t think of one right now.
Careful listening. Compassion. And process (of verification). The results do credit to everyone involved.