Sources & interviews

A guide to help potential contributors develop their skills.

If you are considering contributing to Exeter Observer please see our contributors guide.

More contributor guides:

Potential sources

  • Professional colleagues/collaborators/contacts
  • Academics/experts, university departments/institutes
  • Personal contacts, people with lived experience
  • Bloggers/social media posters
  • Audiences/readers (via public call-outs inc. #journorequest)
  • Local authorities and wholly-owned subsidiaries - elected members/representatives, officers inc. designated spokespeople e.g. Devon County Council, Exeter City Council, Exeter City Group, Royal Albert Memorial Museum
  • Other public bodies - elected representatives, officers inc. designated spokespeople e.g. Met Office, Devon & Cornwall Police & Crime Commissioner, Devon & Cornwall Police, Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, Devon Partnership NHS Trust, NHS Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, Highways Agency SW, Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs SW, Environment Agency SW
  • Other publicly-funded organisations - employees inc. designated spokespeople e.g. Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, Healthwatch Devon, University of Exeter, Exeter College, Exeter Culture, Kaleider
  • Third sector organisations, often partly or wholly publicly-funded - employees inc. designated spokespeople e.g. Devon Communities Foundation, Devon Communities Together, CoLab Exeter
  • Private sector organisations, sometimes partly publicly-funded and/or acting in partnership with public bodies - elected members/representatives, employees inc. designated spokespeople e.g. South West Water (Pennon Group), Stagecoach SW, Chambers of Commerce, Exeter International Airport, InExeter/Exeter Business Improvement District, Exeter City Futures, Exeter Community Energy
  • Private sector organisations, entirely privately funded - board members, managers, employees inc. designated spokespeople e.g. EDF Energy, Persimmon Homes SW
  • Voluntary inc. campaigning organisations - steering group/board members, facilitators, members, spokespeople e.g. Exeter Cycling Campaign, Exeter Music & Sound Forum, Food Exeter, Open Data Institute Devon
  • Private sector public relations, communications and marketing agencies acting on behalf of others organisations
  • Political parties, politicians
  • Whistleblowers, document leaks.

NB this is not an exhaustive list!

cf. Media Protocol for Portfolio Holders and Scrutiny Chairs (ECC Constitution, June 2019)

Source management

Considerations:

  • Approaches & communications inc. social media, phone, IM/chat, email/letter, face to face
  • Explanation/clarification of circumstances/intentions & agreement over basis (inc. right to reply)
  • Anonymity and confidentiality inc. on/off record, Chatham House rule (aka on background), attribution (of quotes/opinions), briefings, protection of documents
  • Principle - anonymity only for those who need it, never for those who don’t?
  • There’s no such thing as retroactive off the record, so always make it clear you are a journalist at the outset
  • Preparation & questions - value of comprehensive research, advantage in already having good idea of (most) answers (if possible)
  • Verification & corroboration (identity & information) esp. online, secondary sources, triangulation
  • Importance of security - online encryption, meetings in public places.

cf. Protection of journalistic sources (ECHR 2019)

Q: How rigorous should the pursuit of a source be?

Q: Is this a personal choice or do individual approaches affect others communicating under the same masthead when they make contact with the same people later?

Interview techniques

  • Introductory chat to put subject at ease - professionally courteous not personally confrontational!
  • Lay out purpose and length of interview as well as where material will be published (to which audience)
  • Prepare questions as list of topics, not of carefully-worded questions
  • Organise into natural conversational progression if possible
  • Start with unchallenging questions (provided enough time is available)
  • Know what the story needs and pursue those answers (without obstructing possibility of discovering unexpected information)
  • Don’t save key questions until the end (in case time runs out or subject clams up)
  • Keep things on track, but don’t fall over need to stick to script
  • Listen more than talk, even when rapport suggests more typical conversational turn-taking, don’t fill gaps!
  • Ask open-ended questions (5W+H, explain etc.) without yes/no etc. answers to get richer responses
  • Ask questions whose answers you already know to test whether responses are truthful
  • Don’t ask questions whose answer you should already know from simple public domain background research
  • Ask for verification/explanation/clarification/comment
  • Don’t send questions in advance to professional gate-keepers (at most agree general sense of topics) or if recording video (prepared responses present unnaturally)
  • Only write questions when seeking written answers (may be unavoidable with e.g. local government officers)
  • Always record audio and keep recording safe (may be needed to substantiate legal defence)
  • Only make notes when necessary or to aid the interview (e.g. confirm spellings, capture follow-up question/research topic/idea), otherwise focus on conversation with subject
  • Ask for clarification if not enough material in first answer (repeat back your understanding of answer to check) … but don’t accept deletion of previous answer - any new material is in addition to existing material
  • Ask same question in different ways, but don’t ask more than one question at a time
  • Ask if there’s anything else subject would like to add
  • Ask if it’s OK to follow up with any further questions, get email/phone if not already
  • Ask if the subject can direct you to corroborating/relevant information/documents or sources
  • Check it’s OK to follow up to request access to any information/documents that may have been mentioned.

Issues

  • Ethics inc. journalist’s responsibility to determine public interest and appropriate way to proceed, duty of care, importance of honesty, children (and vulnerable people)
  • Source motivation - personal grudge, political advantage, intent to mislead/compromise/discredit journalist/publication?
  • Source value - (un)reliable (in)credible (un)believable NB beware if anonymity is gratuitous condition
  • Pre-interview conditions agreement? Possible benefits inc. value of information, risks inc. limiting scope of story
  • Pre-publication review/approval? Possible benefits inc. accuracy check, risks inc. edit demand esp. quotes, or belated use refusal
  • If quotes need confirmation, allow review of quotes alone and/or consider option of indirect quote/reported speech
  • Payment? Quid pro quo? Two-way mutually-beneficial information exchange?
  • Dangers of getting too close, losing objectivity, becoming advocate
  • Principle: without fear or favour.

Resources

Guides

Whistleblowing

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Net Zero Exeter logo

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Exeter City Council in session at Exeter Guildhall - Inauguration of Lord Mayor

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Electoral Commission ballot box graphic

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Met Office graph showing 2020 global mean temperature difference from 1850-1900

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Centre for Cities Exeter City Monitor graphic

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Featured stories
Centre for Cities Exeter City Monitor graphic

Comment  ⁄  Economy & enterprise

Selective use of statistics presents an unbalanced account of Exeter's economic & environmental status

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