Here’s a New Year’s resolution for American journalism in 2024: more stories featuring the voices of people with something to lose.
The most pressing issues of the upcoming year — immigration, economic opportunity, racial disparities, abortion, public education, gun violence, the United States’ role in foreign wars — will be in the spotlight more than ever during the election cycle.
Our audiences need deeply reported, insightful stories to make these big issues resonate. Focusing on vulnerable voices should be the status quo for any story that attempts to get at the heart of an issue. This is how underreported issues can be illuminated, and institutions held accountable. Treating vulnerable sources with respect and integrity is a reporting skill that can be developed intentionally in a newsroom as part of its duty and commitment to serving its audience.
Newsroom leaders commonly ask reporters to get out in the field and “personalize” their stories, to find people who are living the issue at hand and willing to open up and share their story with the audience. But reporters aren’t consistently offered training on how to navigate these interviews and stories in their newsrooms.
A vulnerable source has less power than the reporter, and should be interviewed with clarity and care. Here’s how two journalists gained the trust of vulnerable sources while telling their stories.
Start ‘off the record’
Shoshana Walter, an investigative reporter with The Marshall Project, was working on a book about the U.S. addiction treatment system. She interviewed many mothers who were the subjects of child welfare investigations. She learned that some women who were taking Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid addiction, were reported to Child Protective Services and investigated, even if they were currently sober.
“I had become a member in all these Facebook groups, like support groups of moms in medication and treatments,” Walter said. “And I was searching those groups just to see if anyone had been reported to CPS due to the prescribed medication. And that’s how I found Jade.”
Walter learned that while Suboxone patients are most commonly white, people of color more often faced scrutiny, including drug tests at birth. Walter took care when working with Jade Dass, whose story she told in her investigation.
“When we first started talking, the understanding I had with her was that our conversation was off the record,” Walter said. “And then I asked her to think about whether or not she wanted to go on record and told her a little bit about what that would entail.”
Shoshana’s reporting exposed a systemic problem and painted a well-researched, complex picture of her vulnerable source. The ability to tap into the most personal areas of Dass’ life story was a key to the piece.
“I knew that I wanted to write a more narrative story. And I knew that with CPS cases, it’s never a black and white story,” Walter said.
Walter said she spoke to Dass about the risks associated with being interviewed about her CPS case and her daughter. In some states, sharing confidential information from a CPS file can result in criminal charges or extra scrutiny from caseworkers and judges.
“And so we talked about that, the potential risks in talking and also the potential risks of retaliation involving her CPS case.”
Walter explained the potential ramifications of the article. Dass took that information and made an informed decision, ultimately agreeing to participate in Walter’s reporting.
More sources may need anonymity
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, María Méndez, then a reporter with The Dallas Morning News, wrote about unauthorized workers who were omitted from government aid programs due to their legal status. Méndez found Juan, who only wanted to use his first name in the story and was initially hesitant to talk at all. She spent time with Juan to make him more at ease.
“I ended up sharing how I knew this was a big issue affecting people. I listened to his concerns and told him that ‘I understood why you’re concerned, and I’m going to do everything possible to convey that to my editors,’” Méndez said. “‘I’m going to try to make the best case possible for you. I’ll try to protect your identity and safety.’”
She reassured him multiple times and was transparent about the reporting process. She wrote the story, and it was an example of both caring for a source and the power of diversity within the newsroom itself.
“I think part of the issue is sometimes we only go to reporters of color or from vulnerable communities whenever there’s a problem,” Méndez said. “Whereas, if you allow a reporter to report on other stories they care about — not like a sad or tragic story but like an interesting story about the community — I think allowing them to do that story helps because then they feel like, ‘oh, I can cover my community If I want to and I can contribute.’”
A fully developed ethical approach
Here’s how news organizations can lay the groundwork when speaking to vulnerable sources:
- Recognize the power imbalance: A vulnerable source has far less power than the reporter. That could stem from a source’s economic, legal or social status, and age, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion and other factors.
- Assume the responsibility of describing the reporting process: A reporter not communicating with a source about how to request talking off-the-record, or not noting that they will want to speak to many other people with different perspectives, puts that source at a disadvantage. It’s on the journalist to describe every step of the process.
- Give sources time to decide: If they might face retribution for speaking publicly, or are asked to recount traumatic experiences during an interview, sources may need time to decide how they want to proceed.
- Continually discuss how sources will be identified: If a source has a lot to lose and little to gain in publicly telling their story, they are likely to need some degree of anonymity. In addition to asking to use their full names, offer a range of newsroom-approved alternatives — whether that’s using initials, first or middle names, or no names if necessary.
- Alert sources to the publication schedule: As a story is prepared for publication, journalists often stop talking to sources and focus on production. That lack of communication leaves a source feeling even more vulnerable.
Poynter has developed a course to assist newsroom leaders and reporters with developing an ethical approach to working with vulnerable sources. Highlights include a process for ethical decision-making, interviewing techniques and case studies to serve as guides. Reach out via email to request more information.