Putting Community First: How to Protect Social Sources in High-Risk Scenarios

how to protect sources

Tragic events have to be covered.

The scene could be utter chaos, but a journalist still has a job to do: to inform the public. The recent attack in Nice, France is proof of that.

Whether on the ground, or reporting from afar, social media is a major part of the newsgathering process. But, are journalists doing everything they can to make sure they aren’t further exposing their social sources to danger?

At a First Draft Live workshop at AJ+ in San Francisco, Fergus Bell, founder of Dig Deeper Media, tackled this question.

An experienced journalist and editor, Bell is also a prominent advocate for higher industry standards relating to the ethical uses of user-generated content and social media.

“There aren’t industry standards,” says Bell, “But, we have to try to do better.”

Here are some best practices he shared on compassionate newsgathering and how to protect social sources when covering tragic events in progress.

1. Ask yourself some key questions. 

Take the extra steps to think through your process of outreach, says Bell. When reaching out to an individual on the scene of a live event, always ask yourself: Will you realistically get something from them? And at what cost? By amplifying someone’s social media presence through your comment or tweet, are you putting that person at risk of being pinpointed and targeted? For sources that are already engaging with you, find out for certain that they are safe when interacting with you. Assess the risk and ask: “Is it worth it?”

2. Do your due diligence. 

Bell says one of the common mistakes that journalists make is not taking the time to read through the existing thread of comments or tweets to a potential source. Taking this step confirms a few things: 1)  If the information is a hoax; 2) If the person sharing is actually on scene, and not just re-sharing; and 3) If the questions you want to ask have already been answered. Take the time to scroll through to see what conversation has already taken place. Acting in haste or being redundant will only promote anger and reluctance to talk.

3. Coordinate within your organization.

This is important. Bell shared examples of recent high-profile events where it was clear that multiple reporters from the same outlet were reaching out to the same source. When this happens, “you are exposing them to harassment,” says Bell. “You are not protecting them.” To prevent this, coordinate with your organization to ensure one person only reaches out. If it’s not yet known internally if someone has reached out, do what you can to find out on your own. Read back through the conversation. If you see your outlet’s name, it’s best to avoid further contact.

4. Have compassion in your outreach.

Put yourself in their shoes. “Remember, these people are not journalists,” says Bell. “They did not intend to be there.” Ask if they are out of danger. Provide your own contact information. Never ask them to share their exact location or contact information publicly. Know that it’s always OK to say you are sorry for what they are going through. And, if they say they can’t talk, don’t push them to respond. “If you are generally concerned about someone, ask at a better time,” says Bell.

5. Hear your impact.

Bell suggests thinking about what your communication might do in a stressful scenario. Try to hear the sounds of your outreach — and that of every other person trying to reach them, be it family, friends, or other journalists. While speaking to this point, Bell played a series of recognizable sounds: text message alerts, a cell phone ringing, and a host of back-to-back social notifications. It was stressful to listen to in this low-intensity learning session. Now, imagine your source hearing the same barrage of sounds while trying to get to safety, take care of loved ones, or trying to cope with the terrible things they are seeing. Be thoughtful about the role you play and if it will intensify the situation.


First Draft Live, a project by First Draft News, is “a series of free workshops in social newsgathering and verification, livestreamed from newsrooms around the world.” 
For video of this event and others with The New York Times and the Guardian, visit the site: https://firstdraftnews.com/live-workshops/. 

Do you need expert sources for your stories? Try ProfNet – it can help you find the subject-matter experts you need for your reporting. The best part? It’s easy and free to submit a query. Start your search now: Send a query.

Anna Jasinski is manager of audience relations at PR Newswire. Follow her on Twitter at @annamjasinski. You can also catch her sharing the latest news in journalism and blogging on @BeyondBylines.

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