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How to dig up the best sources

By John D. Sutter, CNN
CNN.com's John D. Sutter interviews Suncor's Anne Marie Toutant in Canada's "oil sands" region, where companies mine for oil.
CNN.com's John D. Sutter interviews Suncor's Anne Marie Toutant in Canada's "oil sands" region, where companies mine for oil.
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Editor's note: This piece is part of a CNN.com series about storytelling and reporting skills called iReport Boot Camp. In this edition, CNN.com technology writer John D. Sutter shares his advice on finding great sources. Read up, then give Sutter's advice a try in this week's iReport Boot Camp challenge.

(CNN) -- Characters make or break stories.

If you're writing about -- or photographing -- a unique, knowledgeable or quirky person, then readers are sure to remember your work.

If the people you interview are boring and uninformed, you run the risk of telling a story that is, at best, forgettable and, at worst, wrongheaded.

But don't fret, boot campers. Finding fascinating sources isn't as hard as it sounds. (Choosing a story topic, which was your assignment last week, is actually the hardest part, I think. So congrats on making it to week two.)

Here are a few tips on how to approach the source selection process. If you have any questions, feel free to holler in the comments section, or join us for a roundtable discussion of this iReport Bootcamp topic on August 25.

Read about the topic

It's not an awesome idea to go hunting for sources until you understand generally what kind of people are out there and what issues are at stake. Read other news coverage, government reports, books and scholarly articles to figure out who the experts are in this field. Who do other reporters quote? What kinds of people are missing from these stories? Then reach out to them directly. It can be scary to cold-call a professor or a corporation, but don't let that stop you. The hardest part is usually picking up the phone.

If calling the person directly doesn't work, you can ask for the public relations office. It may be able to help.

'Normal' people are the most important

When many young reporters get an assignment, they make the mistake of only interviewing people with five-word titles from big and official-seeming organizations. Those people are important, but don't forget the little guy (or gal).

To find him or her, think about your topic and imagine the type of person who is most affected by the issue -- who has the most intimate knowledge of it, or who has the most at stake. If it's about the economy and foreclosures, find a person whose house has been foreclosed upon. If it's about homelessness in your town, talk to homeless people. When I got assigned a story about the mysteries of the deep ocean after the 2010 BP oil spill, I found the guy who manufacturers robots that work at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Date around, but don't fear commitment

It's often a good idea to find one super-interesting person who most represents the topic you're researching and then center the story on him or her.

Picking that person, however, can be pretty stressful. I remember an early assignment when I was writing about a softball team in Florida for people over the age of 75. I wanted to do a profile of a player, but couldn't decide which one to pick. Eventually, an editor told me sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith: Use your gut to determine who is most interesting and then talk to that person at length. In this case, I found Kenny Marsh, who was the basis for my story about the softball team, by attending the games and talking to players.

Crowdsource with social media

Don't be afraid of the Internets. Use Facebook, Twitter and Google+ to find friends of friends or other random online types who can be your sources. Sometimes the best way to do this is to put out a solicitation.

Something such as: "Hi, I'm working on a story for CNN iReport about people who get married after they meet on 'World of Warcraft.' Know anyone like that? If so, please send me a note at (your e-mail address here)."

Be sure not to use contact information you don't want to be public.

And vet these sources when you do talk to them to make sure they are who they say they are. In the "World of Warcraft" example, you could double-check the story by asking who else was around when the couple met. Or ask to talk to their friends and family members about the situation.

I found the main guy featured in this story about "smartphone obsession" using the @cnntech Twitter feed. I talked to his friends and family members -- even a guy at his church -- to make sure his story lined up.

Troll the message boards and blogs

Some subcultures and professions have lively message boards and blogs online. Read through some of these and contact people if they have something interesting to say, or if they fit with your story.

Play off of people's connections

When you find one source, they can lead you to several others. Always end your first interview with these two questions: "Is there anything else you'd like to tell me that I didn't ask about?" and "Do you know anyone else whom I should speak with about this topic?" If you reach out to a couple of people with inside knowledge of your subject, they can connect you with other sources of interest.

This is particularly useful if you're working on an emotionally sensitive story. It's easier to get an interview with crime victims, for example, if someone they know and trust can vouch for you and your reasons for wanting to talk with them.

Wandering isn't a waste of time

If your story is rooted in a place, spend some time wandering around there, talking to people and "taking the pulse" of the situation.

Say you're doing a video about cuts to your local parks department's budget. Go to a few of the parks and talk to people about their thoughts. You may have to explain the situation to them before they'll offer an opinion, so go prepared.

If you're writing about life in a particular community, go to the places where people naturally hang out -- coffee shops or popular restaurants are a good place to start since people are already killing time there -- and talk your way around. Tell them who you are and why you want to chat.

These so-called "man-on-the-street" interviews can result in great sources; they also give you more authority on your topic since you can survey a range of opinions and get a sense of what's really going on in a place.

Tell the sources what to expect

A lot of journalists talk about access -- and when they do, they mean, to what degree can you actually talk to and/or hang out with this person. If someone is too busy for you, or doesn't seem interested in your story, they may not be the absolute best person to hang your whole project on. Tell your sources what you expect of them upfront and then see if they agree to the terms. Usually, I say that I'd like to use the person's real name; that I want to hang out with them while they're going about their normal routine; and I give a time range. If it's a phone interview, about 20 to 40 minutes is reasonable. In-person interviews tend to last longer and are always preferable when it's possible.

Think through all of the angles

Finally, a note on fairness: It's smart to think through all of the potential angles of your story and make sure that you understand them all.

One way to do this is to make a "stakeholder wheel." Think of all of the types of people who have stake in your topic. If you're writing about a new power plant in your town, a short list of stakeholders might include people who live nearby, power company officials, workers at the plant, environmental regulators, competing businesses and local government officials. Your topic is the hub of the wheel, and all these people branch off from it as spokes.

You don't have time to talk to every potential stakeholder, of course, but charting this out helps you see what your options are and ensures you're talking to people on all sides of an issue.

 
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