Make it a mantra: ‘Get one more source’

Better Writing with Bart Pfankuch


I think as journalists we can all agree that there is no such thing as an “over-sourced” story.

Readers will never complain that a reporter talked to too many people, read too many reports or examined too many documents.

A well-sourced article or feature story is easy to identify.

Most, if not all, of the critical questions are answered. The range of voices is wide. The piece has details, specifics, numbers and examples that deepen understanding.

Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch

Readers feel complete after reading a highly sourced article, and journalists gain a big advantage as reporters and writers if they go beyond the obvious or easy-to-get.

Interviewing enough people and examining enough documents allows for improved writing and storytelling. A writer can be more authoritative. A point can be made, expanded upon and extended into deeper discussions in the piece.

With extensive sourcing, a story can go beyond explanation and branch into “solutions journalism” where the writer reveals what has worked elsewhere or examines options to make things better. Not all sources need to be quoted in the piece, but going deeper will always broaden your understanding of a topic.

Here are some tips and tactics to quickly expand sourcing on quick-hit daily stories, deeper weekenders and long-range projects. I urge all reporters to hustle, be thoughtful and dive into their work as early as possible so they have the idea, energy and time to improve sourcing.

  • Use online public records to strengthen your reporting. I recently attended a seminar called “Quick-hit Investigations” by noted investigative reporter Dee Hall at the annual Wisconsin Newspaper Association convention. The major takeaway: Learn about documents and reports that state and federal agencies maintain online and then use those — even on daily stories — to seek out a few relevant data points, facts or financial figures that will broaden the depth of your piece, allow for historical context or help prove a point.
  • Scour the internet for studies or research papers related to your topic. This has never been easier. Writing about wind farms, flu symptoms, pesticides, railroads, cancer, beef processing, pipelines, restaurant cleanliness, sidewalk costs, weather patterns or the lifespan of a bridge? I bet you can search online and quickly find three reports or studies on any of those topics from reputable sources. Stay away from consumer or product sites and rely more on government reports and university studies. Search a bit longer to find one directly related to your topic. Tidbits from those reports will add depth to your piece and credibility to your reporting.
  • Do an online clip check to see what others have written. If you find other media outlets have already tackled your topic, feel free to re-interview their sources or in a pinch quote directly from their findings. Just be sure to double check facts and fully attribute the material.
  • Think beyond the obvious when seeking sources to call by phone or interview in person. Talk to your editor, colleagues and anyone who will lend an ear and ask them what they want to know about a story or who they would call if they were the reporter. Spend five quiet minutes just thinking about who would be great to interview for your piece, and then make a wish list. Spend a half hour more trying to reach one or two of those people. Even if your success rate shooting for an extra primo source is only 50 percent, your work will be better for it.
  • On breaking news, always shoot for one more witness, bystander, emergency responder or police officer. Feel free to interview the talky person everyone else is interviewing, but keep an eye out for the shy or hovering witness who often has more to tell but isn’t seeking attention. In a neighborhood, leave business cards with “Please call me” scribbled on them in the door jams of potential witnesses who aren’t home. Get to know police and first responders to build trust so they’ll speak to you when you need it most.
  • Seek out expert sources. These tend to fit nicely in longer pieces on more complex topics, but there’s no harm in having a conversation with an expert on breaking news or a daily story or in advance of a meeting. Always review an expert’s credentials and history to reduce the chance you encounter a zealot. Again, university and government researchers are the best, though thinktank analysts and industry experts can sometimes fill the bill.

Do this now: Take a sheet of paper, write “Get One More Source!” on it and tape it up in your cube or above your computer. Then, follow your own good advice.

Bart Pfankuch is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch, online at sdnewswatch.org. Write to him at bart.pfankuch@sdnewswatch.org.