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Sourcing Stories: Getting Beyond the ‘Usual Suspects’

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Tired of interviewing the same people?

Keith Woods, the vice president of newsroom training and diversity at NPR, has an antidote for you: Reach out beyond the familiar faces to more diverse sources.

Woods spoke at an EWA National Seminar session called “Untold Stories: Broadening Your Source Base,” or, as moderator Dakarai Aarons, the vice president of strategic communications at the Data Quality Campaign, dubbed it, “Ditching the Usual Suspects.”

Aarons pinpointed the reasons journalists often use their go-to sources: They call back on deadline. They speak in complete sentences. They know something about the topic.

But Woods said diverse sources are vital to good journalism. He said they contribute to accuracy, context, completeness, fairness and perspective.

“These are things we cannot argue that we can live without,” Woods said. “I can’t live without context. I can’t live without completeness. These are journalistically at the core of what we do. If that’s your true north star in discussing diversity, I think you’re sitting clearly in a strong position.”

Yes, some say using diverse sources also helps to build the audience, but Woods said that’s the job of others in the organization, not the newsroom. “Not on this list is ‘because people will like us more.’ Not on this list is ‘correcting historical wrongs,’” he said.

NPR has taken a close look at the geographic, racial/ethnic and gender makeup of its sources.

‘Look and Sound Like America’ 

“One of the driving forces at NPR is this notion that we’ve had for a few years to look and sound like America,” Woods said. “Whether you’re in Detroit or Manchester, N.H., the question is the same question: Who are we reflecting in our work?”

In slide after slide during his presentation, Woods displayed NPR numbers that revealed the prevalent use of sources that are white, are male or live in limited geographic areas.

One slide was titled, “We Turn to People Like Us.” Using bylines, it compared the race and gender of journalists with the race and gender of sources in the bylined stories.

If the bylines were for white journalists, 78 percent of the sources in the stories were white. If the bylines were for Latino journalists, 56 percent of the sources were Latino. In stories by journalists who are not Latino, Latino sources accounted for 4 or 5 percent.

Asian and black journalists still relied on white sources more than 70 percent of the time. However, in stories with bylines of black journalists, black sources accounted for 20 percent, the highest use of black sources of any racial category.

Asian journalists used Asian sources 8 percent of the time – close to the 9 percent of white journalists using Asian sources – but stories with bylines of black and Latino journalists didn’t include any Asian sources.

On gender, both male and female journalists relied more on male sources than female, but women used more female sources than men did, 33 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

The topical area of coverage also makes a difference in the makeup of sources. In the category of education, for example, NPR found 80 percent of its sources were white, 13 percent black, 4 percent Latino and 2 percent Asian. Fifty-three percent of the education sources were male and 47 percent female.

Woods conducted surveys over three years with every team at NPR. He said the most common reaction by colleagues to the results was a gasp. “I work with people who want to do the work,” he said.

Outside the Box

So how can journalists do better?

“Most importantly, structurally, if you can understand what is structurally boxing you in the way we’ve been trying to do, at least you start to understand how you can create the strategy around it,” he said.

Perhaps the school system is preventing access. Or perhaps you are choosing sources from government, politics, think tanks and other places that are predominantly white and male.

Once the roadblocks are understood, then journalists can come up with creative work-arounds and other solutions.

Lists of diverse sources can be found on the internet, including NPR’s “Source of the Week,” a resource for journalists. EWA’s Source Search is another option.

Asking a white teacher to suggest a black teacher or a man to suggest a woman might feel uncomfortable, but Woods said a well-crafted question can make this an effective technique. His example: “Hey, you’ve been great. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I’m really looking now to add to the range of people I’m talking to. I have no female sources on my list who does this job. Who do you know you really think is good to talk to?”

Even so, journalists still have to cover who makes news, whatever the background. In the mostly white and male Congress, for example, he said, journalists have to cover the sponsor of a bill, but they can look at those affected to get more diversity.

“Turn around and look at the rest of the country and figure out what the stuff they’re doing over there is doing to the people over there, and then go and talk to these folks about it,” he said. “If we do that more often, we will find more experts, we will find more sources in general about all that we do.”

In 12-week experiments at NPR, he said, journalists reviewed their efforts to diversify sources at their regular meetings twice a week.

Playing the Long Game

He said they learned it’s hard and it takes time to diversify sources. “So you’ve got to play the long game in sourcing,” he said.

Woods suggested journalists take a look at their own work.

“Just go back and reconstruct a month of coverage to get a look at it,” he said. “I think there’s nothing better and more persuasive than having a sense of how you’re doing right now.”