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Today's trust tip: Explain how you tried to reach a source

Hi there. Joy here.

"Not available for comment."

It's a phrase journalists often insert into stories without much thought. Sometimes it means we left messages every day for a week. And sometimes it means we texted 30 minutes before deadline. How is our audience to know the difference?

Remember these two things that we at Trusting News like to tell you repeatedly: 

  1. Your audience is not giving you the benefit of the doubt. People won't naturally assume you worked hard to reach sources and gave them ample opportunity to respond. 
  2. Journalists are not always responsible and fair. People's perceptions of "the media" are based on your work and also on the work of less responsible outlets. If you want to earn trust, you need to explain why you're worthy.
Avoid saying someone wasn't available for comment. Picture a skeptical reader saying, "Oh yeah? How hard did you work to reach them?"

More information and less generic explanations are better. Provide evidence. What's fair will, of course, vary by story.

When covering breaking news, try saying, "We reached out to Mr. Smith 30 minutes ago but have yet to hear back from him. We're going to keep trying to reach him and will update the story when we get his response." 

WUSA story
When doing longer-term work, make it clear how many opportunities someone had to go on the record. When WUSA, one of our newsroom partners, investigated police practices, reporter Eric Flack walked viewers through each step of how they tried to get in touch with the D.C. police chief. They described how they worked over four months to get him on the record. They showed the emails and texts they sent requesting an interview, and in the end showed up in person, on camera, to talk to the chief. Here's a post about their efforts, which includes a link to the story. 

Bottom line: assume people will be skeptical of you, and actively work to prove yourself credible. 

TRY THIS:  In a story, when you need to indicate that you couldn't reach a source, list the ways you attempted to reach that person for yourself. Think about methods (phone, text, email, in-person) the number of opportunities you gave them to respond and the duration of the attempts. Then put yourself in the shoes of a suspicious community member. What is the best way to include all of this information in your story? Summarize the attempts — in text stories, on-air, in social posts, in comments — anywhere people will come into contact with or give feedback on the story. 

Related Trust Tips: Explain anonymous sources

Trusting News training updates: 
  • We have selected 20 participants for our inaugural Trust 101 course. We received almost 70 applications and hope to offer it again. If we do, we will let you know in a future newsletter. 
  • We have three free or really cheap half-day workshops coming up. The first will be at #EIJ19 in San Antonio, Texas, on Sept. 7. The second will be in New Orleans on Sept. 8. The third will be in New Orleans the afternoon of Sept. 11, with registration coming soon through ONA
  • A free five-webinar series through The Poynter Institute kicks off in August and will continue over several months. Anyone can register here.
  • We're still offering free one-on-one advice sessions for journalists? Find out what we can help you with and sign up here.  
— Joy Mayer, Trusting News director
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Trusting News aims to demystify trust in news and empower journalists to take responsibility for actively demonstrating credibility and earning trust. It is a project of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute

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