Is Anyone Out There? Sourcing News Stories

An old-fashioned black telephone with a white dial.
Mike Bitzenhofer/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


If you’ve ever written a news story on a tight deadline, you’ve probably had some version of this thought: Please, will someone—anyone—call or email me back?

The gap between getting a news assignment and pinning down sources can feel daunting. You have little time to seek out suitable sources, and once you find them, the pressure is on to make the most of the interviews. But there are ways to make the news-reporting experience less stressful.


Finding Sources

You’ve got the assignment—let’s say, a 700-word news piece, due tomorrow, about a new study in a scientific journal—and you’ve done your background research, including reading the study and related material. Now it’s time to find credible sources, and fast. For a news story, you want at least two, preferably three (sometimes more). If you’re reporting on a new study, your first source is pretty much set: either the first author or the corresponding author.

Identifying a good second source can be trickier. Ideally, it’s someone who’s not directly involved in the research but is familiar with it—or at least with the field—and who can offer a different perspective. The primary source can help point you in the right direction. But as Andrew Grant, a physics writer at Science News, cautions, “You have to watch out, because they’re more likely to suggest somebody who would think that their work is awesome.” To avoid this trap, Michael Lemonick, a writer at Climate Central and former senior writer at Time, sometimes asks a study author for the name of someone whom the author respects but who might not agree with her or him.

A study’s references section can point to good secondary sources, as can other past news coverage of the topic. Google Scholar can also turn up review papers in the relevant area whose authors might make good sources. Eventually, as you become more familiar with a particular scientific discipline, “you get an idea of experts in different sub-areas of your beat” and develop a “Rolodex” of sorts, says Grant.

It’s usually best to contact sources by email to schedule interviews, but as Grant notes, there are circumstances when he phones instead—for instance, if his deadline is extra tight or if he’s writing about a major paper that’s under embargo until its publication, in which case the study’s authors probably expect a lot of media calls.

To secure a second source, sending out multiple requests at once can keep you from having to wait on one person who may or may not respond. If they all respond, that’s more material to work with. “If I have to talk to more people than I need, that’s not bad,” says Lemonick. Some sources provide more helpful comments than others, says Becky Oskin, a senior writer at LiveScience. Plus, says Grant, extra interviews give you a chance to make new connections and sniff out other story ideas.

Casting a wide net is also useful for those times when you discover that a source has an agenda. If someone is overly negative about a study or its author—or a little too positive—then you’ll be glad to have an additional interview lined up.


Getting a Response

Crafting a subject line that will get a busy scientist to open your email right away, rather than after your deadline, is as important as what you put in the email itself. If you’re like Lemonick and you write for widely known publications like National Geographic News and The New Yorker’s website, sticking the publication name in the subject line gives you an advantage. “People who are inundated with requests for interviews might well prioritize publications they think are well-known,” he says. Otherwise, writing “media request” or “journalist request” is a good way to make sure a researcher knows the inquiry is from a reporter who needs a quick response, says Oskin.

The email itself should be short and sweet, adds Oskin. “I tell them who I am, I tell them what I want, which is usually a phone interview, and I tell them when I want it. And that’s it—get in and get out.” She also finds that if she mentions that she’s read the paper in question, scientists are more likely to respond.

But even if you’re writing for a marquee publication and your email is direct and to the point, some sources may not respond as quickly as you’d like. When that happens, Lemonick sends a follow-up email, sometimes including a few questions in case the source can quickly fire off some answers. Remember also that you’re not limited to email and phone: Oskin says she once messaged someone via Twitter when he didn’t respond to emails or answer his phone.


On the Phone

Once you do get a source on the phone, you may not get a second chance to speak with him or her, so it’s important to make the most of the conversation. If you’re covering a new study, make sure you’ve read the whole thing before the interview so you can clarify anything you don’t understand. And having a list of specific questions or points to go over before the call can help ensure you don’t miss anything crucial. For many pieces, Oskin uses a standard set of questions that she can tweak and tailor to the particular study or topic: How did you get involved in this project? How might I sum up these results in just one or two sentences? Can you provide some context for me to understand these findings?

When you’re talking with a source, pay close attention, listening particularly for eloquent explanations, appealing turns of phrase, or arresting ideas. “You can hear a good quote go by,” Oskin says. Be sure to get those gems down right away.

With a tight deadline looming, it might be tempting to keep the conversation as brief as possible. But Oskin notes that cutting a source off too early can mean missing a nice quote that sums up their thinking. “Usually, people say the most interesting stuff when they’re finishing up their thoughts,” she says. “They’ve finally organized themselves into getting out the most pithy sentence, or the thing that actually summarizes everything that they’ve just said.” At the same time, Lemonick says that if a source has already given you good, interesting quotes, “the idea that they might say yet one more interesting thing is not so crucial.” He typically wraps up the interview when he has what he needs, with the requisite final question of any interview: “Any last things to add?”



From Notes to Quotes

After an interview, Grant immediately goes through his notes to mark the “money quotes” and important explanations. He’ll also flesh out any thoughts he had or notes he made during the call. Both Grant and Oskin say they rarely record calls for news articles, instead relying on their notes.

Oskin says she’s gotten her science writing down to a science. “It’s a lot of work,” she admits, but her previous experience working at a daily newspaper helps her turn around well-written pieces at a blistering pace—she writes up to two news stories per day. Grant, who moved from the monthly Discover to the daily, online Science News two years ago, says he feels the challenge of being among the first to report a topic and make sure he covers the whole story. But, he says, “It is really rewarding when somebody highlights it or you read Discover or something and see that they built off your writing.”

Of course, after the interviews are done, you have to actually write the piece. But that’s a discussion for another day.


Geoffrey Giller
Geoffrey Giller Courtesy of Geoffrey Giller

Geoffrey Giller is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He is a freelance writer and photographer and a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science, where he studied frogs and water contamination. He has written for Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications. A lover of all amphibians, Geoffrey especially adores salamanders and hopes one day to meet a hellbender in the wild. You can follow him on Twitter @GeoffreyGiller and see some of his photography at his website.

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