Sources 101: How to Find and Work with Interviewees for Your Articles
By Linda Formichelli
A potential expert for your article asks to see a copy before it goes to print. A second one requests copies of the magazine once the article is published. And another one — gasp — asks to be paid for the interview.
We have over 30 posts about finding and interviewing sources, but when it comes to actually dealing with those sources before, during, and after the writing process, many writers feel lost and confused.
Here, answers to your most pressing questions about sources.
Should I send the draft of my article to the source? What if he asks to see it?
Journalism ethics says that you should not show an article to the source before it’s published. If you do, this opens up a door for your source to try to revise what he said based on what other sources in the article say, for example to argue with a point stated by another source he doesn’t agree with.
But some magazines do allow you — or even require you, in the case of a few trade magazines and custom publications — to show the source your article. So I always say to the source, “Generally you’re not supposed to do that, but I’ll check with my editor on their policies and get back to you.” Then I do it.
If you can’t or don’t want to let the source read your article, you can offer call him before turning in your article and fact check the piece with him. During the call, you would say, for example, “I have you saying that 2006 was the best year your business ever had. Is that correct?”
Your editor may also let you send the source just his quotes with the surrounding context.
Do I need to send a copy of the article to my source when it’s out?
I’m not a clipping service! Often I don’t even get a copy of the magazine my article is in, so I’m certainly not buying and sending one to each source.
However, I do let my sources know when an article they’re quoted in has been published. If the article appears online, I include a link. If the magazine is available on newsstands, I mention that, and let the source buy his own copy. If it’s a trade magazine and therefore not available on the newsstand and it’s also not online, I ask my editor to send copies, and she typically does.
(By the way, that’s why I ask my sources for their mailing addresses, and include those in the source list at the end of the article.)
Should I tell my source if I’m selling a reprint of the article she was quoted in?
I don’t think you need to ask permission as long as you’re selling to another magazine that’s not far from the scope of the original one; but it is always nice to give the source a heads-up so she can say, “I’ve been quoted in American Noodle Fortnightly Magazine.”
What if I tell the source I’m pitching Family Circle, but I actually end up selling the idea to Woman’s Day? Do I need to ask his permission?
In most cases I’ve pre-interviewed the source for my pitch and will need to do a more in-depth interview for the actual article, so of course I’d let her know who I’m writing for when I request this second interview.
But what if you don’t need to interview the source again? I think it’s only fair that you let the source know you sold the article to a different magazine. If it’s the difference between Family Circle and Woman’s Day, it typically won’t be a problem.
But sometimes, you may end up selling the idea to a magazine whose viewpoint the source opposes for whatever reason, and if she had known you were to sell there, she wouldn’t have done the interview in the first place. In that case, she may want to withdraw from the article.
I’m not sure what your ethical duties are here, but I would never want to be the writer who says she’s pitching a family magazine and then ends up selling the story to a racy magazine or a publication with a political slant — and doesn’t alert the source.
What if a source asks if I can write for her company? Am I allowed to write for the magazine and the source I quoted?
Generally you’re not supposed to do this for ethical reasons — but I find that if you’re in doubt, asking your editor can clear things up quickly. I did this a while back and the editor had no problem with my writing for one of my sources, and I ended up making a couple thousand from this source over the next few months.
How should I respond if a potential source asks who else I’m interviewing?
Many times the source is just displaying harmless professional curiosity, and in that case I often spill the beans if I don’t see any harm coming from it. I mostly write service pieces; if I were writing an investigative article, that would be different. (More on that below.)
Other times, the source wants to gauge how big-time your article will be so he can decide whether to take part. If you’re interviewing big shots, he’ll want to play. If you’re interviewing small potatoes, he may get the idea that your article is small potatoes too, and he’ll take a pass. So if you get the feeling this is what’s happening, let the source know you can’t reveal who the other sources are.
If you’re writing an investigative piece or an article on a controversial topic, the source may want to know who else you’re interviewing so he can be sure to cut down any opponents’ positions. Bad! Again, in this case let the source know you can’t reveal your other sources.
What should I do if a source asks to be paid for the interview?
Run the other way! Let the source know it’s against journalism ethics to pay a source. If you offer a source money for an interview, she can’t be considered an unbiased source. After all, who’s to say she’s not simply giving you the answers you want to hear because you’re paying her?
If the source still insists on payment, dump her and find someone else. There are plenty of people out there who interview without expecting payment. In fact, though I’ve heard stories from other writers about sources wanting to be paid, it hasn’t happened to me even once in the 16 years I’ve been freelancing.
My source has asked me to include his website address in the article. What should I say?
I always let the source know that I’ll include the website address with his attribution, but I can’t control whether the editor will leave it in or not. That way I do my best to accommodate the source, but don’t make promises I can’t keep.
Usually the editor does take out the web address and that’s fine, but occasionally she leaves it in.
Do you have any questions about working with sources, or any tips you’d like to share? Post them in the Comments below!