“What’s often said is there are no good journalists, it’s just good sources,” comments Penelope Macrae, Editor – South Asia, AFPO. According to her, sometimes the best journalists were not very good writers, but they did know how to get their stories.
For Macrae, business journalism was not about writing, but about getting the facts, putting them together and knowing the right people and knowing where to get the facts. “And the last part of the job, which is sometimes done by the editors, is writing out the story and presenting it to the public in as lucid as fashion as possible,” she added.
Sourcing doesn’t come easy. It requires the journalist to get to know every relevant person in the beat that he/she cover and many others outside because one never knows who’s going to be useful. “Some people who join journalism think that they have to buy their source a lunch or a drink, but that’s really not necessary; it’s basically about schmoozing, about going and talking to people and the most important thing is getting to know as many people as possible and as you do that you will find out those who are the good sources you can use,” Macrae advised.
These people would share the facts and seen how the journalist reports them in the newspaper or on television. They will then understand how the journalist presents what the source shares with them and over time a bond of trust develops.
Macrae noted that there was a time when one met the source in person, but now a lot of work was done over the phone, sometimes because of laziness and sometimes out of necessity because the source might be far away. “Sometimes people talk for years to their sources without actually meeting them face to face, but as per my experience it is a good idea to go at some point and meet your source face to face. You get to put a face to the name and a connection is made,” she added.
Another major issue that always comes up is how far one should go to keep the source happy – should one present his or her view even if one knows it is blatantly partisan or has been given for a reason or profit to the person who is giving the news or his company, should one publish it the way it has been given or should one tone it down suitably. “I think everybody knows the answer – that you should tell the news without fear or favour and you should never forget that your test of credibility is your independence from the people you cover,” Macrae emphasised.
According to her, one of the biggest dangers that reporters often faced was that they lacked one great source who confided in them more than anyone else and very often came a temptation when journalists just picked up the phone and called their one big source. It soon gets around that the report is a little one-sided or biased. The only antidote, according to Macrae, was to seek out multiple sources and to establish the credibility of one’s story disclose as much as one could about the source without giving their identity away and try to get various sides for comments. “Just don’t go to one source, go to many sources, because these are all ways of getting to the truth. If you are just talking to one person, it doesn’t give the complete picture,” she advised. She also asked journalists to cultivate sources at all levels in a company right from the top level and below in order to get a fuller picture about the company.
She further said that one major changed that had taken place in the last decade or so was the proliferation of public relations firms, who acted as middlemen. “They have been hired by the companies to represent them in the best light and PR companies see themselves as gatekeepers. As a reporter, PR persons have to be treated with some amount of caution, because at one level they can be a resource and a source like anyone else, and at another level, they are someone you have to get around because they are not going to want you to talk to the company directly, they always want to be the interface. They always want to set up the call, listen in on the call,” Macrae remarked.
“So you got to find your way around the gatekeepers, climb over the gates,” she added. To do that, at company events the journalist must everyone from the company, collect their cards, get their mobile numbers. “Usually, PR people are not the great resource in terms of information, you have to go to the company to get the actual facts. When you are on deadline, PR people can be incredibly slow, so you need those company telephone numbers,” she added.
Penelope Macrae was speaking at the day-long work shop on ‘Reporting on Business in a Global World’ for business journalists, held in Delhi on February 23, 2012. The workshop was organised by the High Commission of Canada, in collaboration with exchange4media.