Guest Column: Being Transparent With Sources Is Key to Building Trust

Guest columnist Dan Levine, a Reuters investigative reporter, explains the importance of sharing with sources how the editorial process works to earn their trust, minimize their exposure and protect their safety.

Dan Levine, Reuters Correspondent

Reporters often long remember the moments of making first contact with critical sources for stories. The people on the other end of the phone usually sound anxious about having been contacted.

And often with good reason. I remember once speaking with a potential source who had been physically attacked. A government program meant to help the person wasn’t working right, but by speaking out publicly, the source risked their livelihood. This person had never interacted with a reporter before and didn’t know what to expect. 

This isn’t an isolated experience. Current and former government workers, corporate employees and victims of violence often take significant legal or physical risks to reveal harm or wrongdoing. To earn sources’ trust, minimize their exposure and protect their safety, I always try to be as transparent as possible. This goes beyond conversations about on-the-record versus background. It involves a discussion about how the entire editorial process works. The back and forth not only benefits the source; it helps us maintain our own independence and credibility, and serves readers.

At Reuters, where I am an investigative reporter, we follow the “no surprises” rule, which means we share the details of pertinent parts of our reporting (not an actual story draft) ahead of publication with every organization or individual who might be named, so that they have an opportunity to comment on our findings that pertain to them and correct any mistakes. I make sure that the source knows how this process will work, and I try to explain it in a way that shows why it serves them, too. “No surprises” means the source will know what is coming, tell me additional information that they believe to be important and be able to flag any mistakes pre-publication. Explaining this process to the assault victim went a long way to assuage their initial anxiety. Additionally, if a source has concerns about how a subject might react to being contacted by a journalist, or what details might jeopardize their confidentiality, we can discuss it early. 

Many sources are understandably angry about what has happened to them and the problems they have witnessed. I empathize with them, and they know I mean it. At the same time, I make it clear that from the beginning that we are not out to “get” anybody. I talk about how our role as journalists is to report out facts as aggressively as possible, wherever they lead. Journalists meticulously verify the information sources are sharing, through corroborating documents and additional witnesses. Most sources quickly intuit why this impartiality enhances the story and protects them.

I also find it necessary to manage expectations about how long this kind of reporting can take.  Sources should know early on that this process might take weeks, or many months, to get right. I often joke that they should expect to get sick of us coming back over and over with more questions. Beyond the fact gathering, I also share that at large news organizations like mine, the most complicated stories undergo review by layers of editors. This also takes time, and sometimes results in facts being included, or dropped, from a draft. But it is necessary to ensure the strongest story possible. 

After gaining a source’s trust and talking with them over time, they invariably get more comfortable. I might know more about their situation than anyone else in the world, including their families. And as a former courtroom reporter, I sometimes find myself discussing legal concepts or similar situations I’ve witnessed in the course of my work. Sometimes this has led a source to ask for advice. At that point I make it clear that I absolutely cannot advise them on any course of action and that they could talk to a lawyer or some other kind of counselor.

Combined with all of the other tools we bring to bear, these transparency habits make me confident that I’ve done what I can to protect our source and minimize the risk of making a mistake that could lead to an attack on my story after publication. 

In the case of the assault victim, they chose to share their story in the end.