Friday night, as the news director stood at the microphone about to start the 6 o’clock news, I came into the studio and told him that the police were outside 2179 Clifford Avenue, surrounding a home where they believed the gunman in a triple homicide earlier in the week was holed up.
Three minutes later, I got another text.
“Target male is in custody.”
I went back into the studio and told the news director, and he included the information at the end of his newscast.
A killer was off the street.
Later, as I drove home, I got a call from a local newsperson I tremendously admire. This person wanted to know how to get more information about the Clifford Avenue incident. Rochester police were saying it had been just a drug arrest, and this person’s news organization had promised a report on the triple slaying, and somehow I felt like they felt it was my fault that they came up short.
But it’s not.
Not to be rude, but it’s not my fault you don’t have sources. The goal of reporting is not to be standing in a crowd at the command of some government mouthpiece, being spoon fed the day’s talking points. The goal of reporting is to get it first and to get it right, and to remember that official spokesmen control what they say, but they don’t control the truth or the story, or what reporters report.
In the last couple of months, there have been a few stories I’ve been able to get information on that other reporters haven’t. Most notable was the situation in January involving the gentleman who was then the driver for Mayor Lovely Warren. Days before others, I was able to report that the mayor’s vehicle had been stopped twice – contrary to what the mayor had said – and that it had been stopped going 92 and 97 miles an hour – again, contrary to what the mayor had said.
When I reported this, not only was there push back from City Hall, but also from reporters in town.
How could I know this? they wanted to know. It was clear that the fact they could not find a source for this information led them to believe that there was no way that I could find a source for this information.
But it really wasn’t that hard. I simply thought of the specific individuals who might be privy to the information, or able to get the information, and I privately approached most of them.
I asked questions and, on guarantee of anonymity, they answered. As City Hall stonewalled, that angered some sources, and more information was forthcoming. In the face of public denials of what I was reporting, I told my most senior boss the identity of my most significant source – as is common journalistic practice – and went about my business.
But in the wake of these last couple of months, prompted by the events of Friday night, I’d like to give my thoughts on sources.
Sources are the people who tell reporters things. Sometimes they are public and can be identified, sometimes they are private and can’t.
In large part, I work with private sources who want to remain anonymous.
The first thing I want to say is that I am by no means some great reporter who can get any information on any subject. I used to be, but that was some 20 years ago. My role for a long time has been as a broadcast commentator, not as a front-line reporter. As part of that, I’ve thought that I can best reflect community thought if I learn things the way the community learns them – by listening to, watching and reading the news.
For a number of years, I went to sources only when the reporting of others was inadequate or inaccurate. I seldom called sources, but when I did, there was usually a gravity to it that led them to be very cooperative.
I was always grateful for that.
Then, a couple of years ago, as the recession led to great cutbacks in the radio business, my station had layoffs in the newsroom. It occurred to me that I needed to pick up the slack.
So I specifically started soliciting news tips, and I began to reach out privately to various people, to establish relationships that might be fruitful.
Those efforts have been successful, and I hope similar and expanded efforts will be even more successful in the future.
None of this makes me a good reporter or anything, it just demonstrates that I am a lucky man, blessed by the kindness and trust of others.
Because that’s what it really is.
Yes, some sources give you information trying to spin a story to their advantage, or to embarrass a rival.
But most information comes from conscientious people who want the truth told, and who believe that I will tell it. That is a humbling trust which I will not violate.
It is very hard to describe who these people are, or what type of people they are. Sometimes they are the lowest-ranking members of an organization. Other times they are the highest. I have had situations where I have received information privately from a high official who has then turned around and, for a variety of reasons, denied that same information publicly.
I one time needed information from an organization that was being very closed to the press. This organization had three members in its command group, and while the organization was working hard to clamp down on leaks, all three members of the command group – unbeknownst to one another – were feeding me information.
Oft times, the information that comes is an explanation of how an organization works, or who is in charge of what. People who are insiders recognize I am an outsider and want to save me from my ignorance.
Sometimes it’s secretaries and recruits, other times it’s chiefs and deputy mayors. Sometimes it’s people in personnel offices who are about to implement a layoff, other times it’s folks who see something on their street or are read an announcement at work.
Sometimes, it’s even prominent people who I pound the snot out of on the air.
Mostly anymore these tips come initially by e-mail – Bob@Lonsberry.com. If it seems appropriate, we will swap cell phone numbers and after that mostly use texts or phone calls. Several organizations screen calls and e-mails on official computers, so people will pass information through their spouses at home, or text me from their personal phones.
Usually, what I do is take a tip as a starting place. If somebody tells me something, I will contact someone else in turn and ask, “Hey, I just heard thus and such, is that true?” That can help either confirm or refute a tip. It also respects the fact that while some people might be uncomfortable giving you information, once you’ve gotten it they are OK with confirming or denying it.
I almost never deal with the official spokespeople or press contacts of an organization. In part, that’s because most of them hate me. But it’s more because I’ve long since drawn the cynical conclusion that their job is not to facilitate the flow of information, but to delay or stop it. They are not there to help the press, they are there to control the press. I don’t need to know the press person’s phone number, but an organization chart sure can come in handy. Publicly, people on that chart will refer you to the spokesperson; privately, they’ll usually tell you what you need to know.
One thing that helps in my particular situation is that a certain percentage of people have a generally good feeling toward me, and recognize that the show I work on is a good venue for a fair airing of their information or concern. They believe that I am their friend, and I am. And when they have something that people need to know, they know to come to me.
People also know my general attitudes. I am an admirer of those who work in law enforcement and the fire service, for example, and many who work or volunteer in those fields know that, and feel comfortable telling me things. I am grateful for that.
I think many people recognize that the show is something of a partnership in which we both work to set the record straight and keep the community informed.
Again, none of this makes me a good reporter, and certainly no better than so many who work elsewhere in town. But people are kind to me, and help me out, and I am honored and humbled by their assistance.
It’s an ongoing process of making friends and building trust. Those who remember me as the newspaper columnist have mostly retired and passed on. Cops who signed on when I started in Rochester radio are retiring this year. Very few remember that I used to be on TV. So each day is a new introduction and a new beginning.
And help from new friends.
The First Amendment guarantees a free press, and we in the news business have a daily obligation to pay the rent on that right. We have a duty to truly report and to empower people with information. That can be big or small.
It can be details about a crime or insights about a business or the backroom information on some politicians.
But whatever it is, it comes from sources – people who help me out. People who partner with me to get the whole story out.
I’m grateful to sources, and I ask people in every walk of life to keep me in mind.
Because tomorrow is a new day, and a new story, and I’m going to need your help.