Jane Qiu officially started reporting her Science magazine cover article on glacier surging in 2016. In some ways, though, her dive into the story had begun nearly a decade prior, when she first met a team of researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research (ITPR).
Qiu, an independent journalist based in Beijing, had initially contacted the scientists in 2007, when she began writing a series of climate–centric stories on Tibet’s shifting landscape. The pieces turned out so well that Qiu began to reach out to the researchers regularly as she stumbled across related work. The scientists became “my go-to people,” she says, whenever she needed outside comments or a rapid fact-check; they, in turn, trusted her to tell each story well. In person and over the phone with Qiu, these sources spoke freely about their own work, as well as the latest findings in the field.
And so when Qiu heard one of the ITPR researchers, a glaciologist, mention the baffling event of a glacier gushing into a narrow valley like a tsunami surging onto a local coastline—killing livestock and nine human herders—she decided to chase the intriguing lead down. Qiu’s story was ultimately shortlisted for the American Geophysical Union’s 2018 best-feature award, a triumph that might not have transpired had her sources not ignited that initial spark. This close relationship, Qiu says, “gave me the advantage of being ahead of the curve.”
Ask any seasoned beat science reporter, and they’ll likely be able to rattle off Their List: a mental Filofax of researchers, public officials, patient advocates, activists, community organizers, and more, whom they turn to time and time again. These sources aren’t always categorizable, but some writers refer to them as their most “cultivated” contacts—the subset of people they trust not just to dispense reliable info, but to heed a call or text at odd hours, or simply go the extra mile. Lena Sun, a reporter focused on public health and infectious disease at The Washington Post, says a source once phoned her back while on vacation in Venice just so she could file on time. In the 24/7 news cycle, when outlets are often jostling to beat each other to publication by mere minutes, “you cannot put a price on it,” Sun says. Her regular sources have been key to keeping her reporting timely, accurate, and sharp.
The journalist-source relationship is, like any human relationship, nuanced and complex. Which means cultivating a roster of trusted sources won’t follow a simple instruction manual. But there are still ways to build relationships with sources purposefully and compassionately, while still maintaining the boundaries that keep reporting objective—even with sources that have been in journalists’ lives for years.
The Power of Go-Tos
Repeat sourcing doesn’t have to be an everyday practice. For many reporters, there are plenty of occasions in which it shouldn’t be, if only to ensure that breadth of coverage and diversity can take center stage. Umair Irfan, a reporter at Vox, where he covers climate change and COVID-19, tries to include one new source in every story, which often means starting over from interviewee scratch.
But when there’s a time crunch, or when the topic of the day gets niche, reporters may not have that flexibility. Having cultivated sources—already vetted, already credible, already media-savvy—“helps make the workflow faster, easier,” Irfan says. An interview can become as simple as a quick text to confirm availability, then a phone call that cuts immediately to the chase. That shortcut came in handy for Katie Thomas, an investigative reporter on The New York Times’ health and science desk, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. While covering then-president Trump’s nightly briefings, which often called for a skeptical fact-check, she needed speedy, reliable sources who wouldn’t mind an off-hours text. So she turned to the people she felt confident would respond. “I had people’s cell phones,” Thomas says. “And they knew my phone number.” Within minutes, she could have her recorder running, her software ready to transcribe.
Reporters shouldn’t try to force a source to be a go-to; they have to want to buy in, too. But writers can up their own appeal by establishing trustworthiness and transparency up front.
The benefits of source cultivation can go far beyond getting quick direct quotes. Sources can give reporters off-the-record, but still exclusive, scoops; they may offer gut checks on background. They’ll often ping writers before dropping new papers or preprints, or even offer up entire story ideas that they can’t pursue themselves. They can even, given enough time, orient writers to new concepts in a mini crash course: A source of mine once spent two hours with me on Zoom, condensing half a semester’s worth of epidemiology onto a two-by-three whiteboard. I’ve also found new sources via cultivated ones, eager to refer a colleague or friend.
For Qiu, who has had some sources in her roster for years, there can be more-subtle perks, too. Getting to know sources well, she says, has also given her insights into how scientists in a certain field work and how they treat each other. It’s an opportunity to vet their approach to their science, as well as the sometimes-biased judgments they might lay down on others’ research.
Making the First Move
Source cultivation is “the kind of stuff they don’t teach you in J-school,” says Dan Vergano, a science reporter at Grid News, “or at least not well.” No perfect playbook exists. But in some ways, it can help to think of it almost like professional dating, at extreme arm’s length.
First, there’s some element of chemistry. Not all sources may be cultivatable, or even worth cultivating; all that depends on the reporter and their beat (if they have one), as well as how available, personable, quotable, and knowledgeable the source in question might be. Ideally, sources and journalists will just click. I’m personally partial to people who, in addition to all of the aforementioned traits, are comfortable with jokes and texts, and are open to criticizing shoddy work. I also appreciate scientists who openly acknowledge the limits of their own expertise; a good litmus test is how often, and when, they’re willing to say, “I don’t know.”
When you find a promising connection, act on your instincts. Early in his coverage of the opioid crisis for Buzzfeed News, Vergano says, “I was frankly in over my head.” But after he connected with Dan Ciccarone, a leading drug-use expert at the University of California, San Francisco, his journalistic Spidey senses started tingling: “I could tell he was doing some of the really pioneering work in that area.” Vergano remembers thinking, “This is a person I need to hold on to as I keep working this beat and it develops.” So Vergano kept reaching out.
The key is to develop a sense of trust so sources feel comfortable divulging sensitive information and agreeing to multiple interviews.
Reporters shouldn’t try to force a source to be a go-to; they have to want to buy in, too. But writers can up their own appeal by establishing trustworthiness and transparency up front. When Aisha Abdool Karim, a freelance health and science reporter based in South Africa, gets the sense that a source might be worth returning to, she’ll try to make them feel similarly about her. She reassures her sources that she’s committed to getting the story right—and if she already has an inkling that follow-up calls might be in their future, she’ll set expectations for what a source-journalist relationship might be like. She invites questions and corrections, and defines relevant terms (on background, off the record); she gives them a sense, if asked, what the publication process can be like.
Some sources that reporters will need to return to repeatedly may need a more delicate hand. They might be chatting about a topic that’s deeply personal to them; they might be acting as a whistleblower, perhaps even risking their livelihood, to help a reporter deliver a scoop. The stakes can be high, so be compassionate and understanding. “I take such special care with those people,” Sun, of the Post, says, carefully spelling out how their information might be used.
The key is to develop a sense of trust so sources feel comfortable divulging sensitive information and agreeing to multiple interviews. In these cases, Sun will often send a tailored version of a “no surprises” email or call in advance of publication to explain the gist of the article, or, if relevant, offer reassurance that other sources have confirmed the intel or offered similar takes.
Follow-ups after publication can serve sort of like a post-first-date text, hinting that the relationship has the potential to last.
For expert sources deeply embedded in the world of academia, the currency of knowledge can get reporters off on the right foot. Abdool Karim reads extensively before hopping on a first phone call, so she can ask informed questions that both push the conversation further and make it memorable. “Once they see I’m taking the time to do that,” she says, “they’re much more likely to open up.” And it never hurts to just try and break the ice—to have a conversation, to offer up a bit of yourself. When the pandemic shifted millions of American kids to remote learning, Thomas would mention to her sources that she, too, was trying to manage a pair of kids at home. The detail humanized her, and gave her sources something to ask about in return.
Follow-ups after publication can serve sort of like a post-first-date text, hinting that the relationship has the potential to last. Sun always sends a link to the story, and thanks her source for their time; if the person ends up playing a relatively small (or nonexistent) role in the piece, she’ll apologize that she didn’t get to feature them more. She also solicits feedback, asking sources to alert her if they find any errors in the story. Irfan often tacks on a quick note about other topics he enjoys covering. “I let them know that they can be proactive and reach out to me,” he says. Good work also tends to speak for itself. Thomas says that if her reporting shows that she is committed to accuracy, fairness, and context, her sources will feel seen and represented—and won’t have any qualms about coming back.
Some sources will intuitively catch on to the fact that they’re now a reporter’s go-tos; others may need to have The Talk. Sun doesn’t mind being explicit: She’s asked more than one expert if she can keep them on her shortlist. Abdool Karim compares those asks to a kind of define-the-relationship chat. “It’s like, what are we to each other?” she says. She’ll ask if it’s okay for her to check in, send snippets for fact-checking, or if it’s appropriate to reach out via a new avenue, such as text. The earlier these conversations can happen, the better, so source and journalist can be on the same page.
Friendly, but Not Friends
Without proper expectation-setting, boundaries can get crossed. People who aren’t used to the media, especially, may mistake frequent, sometimes-personal conversations for personal friendships—making it easier for journalists to share those feelings, too. “You do worry about reporters getting too aligned with particular sources,” Vergano says. Chumminess can sometimes be an asset. But it can also nudge a reporter, consciously or not, toward over-favoring an expert at the expense of objectivity.
Try following this rule of thumb often shared among journalists: Once you feel you can’t write a story that reflects negatively on a source, you’ve gotten too close. There will be cases that feel gray; when they come up, Sun recommends consulting with an editor. “Maybe you team up with another reporter to play good cop, bad cop,” she says. In some cases, a story might even be best assigned to someone else. Ideally, though, journalists never even approach the border that delineates source from pal, because it can be pretty tough to backtrack once they do. Having to renege on what appears to be—or truly is—a friendship could ultimately jeopardize your relationship with them as a source, Abdool Karim says. “We can be friendly, but we can’t be friends.”
These relationships end up becoming a balancing act: It’s important for journalists to make their sources feel comfortable and listened to; it’s also essential for them to ensure that the needs of their readers, not their interviewees, come first.
That doesn’t mean journalists have to be cold or inhumane. Vergano enjoys joking around with his sources; Qiu has bonded with researchers over shared experiences, like growing up in Beijing. These relationships end up becoming a balancing act: It’s important for journalists to make their sources feel comfortable and listened to; it’s also essential for them to ensure that the needs of their readers, not their interviewees, come first.
Where, exactly, the line is can be hard to define. Thomas ignores Facebook friend requests from her sources, for instance, but doesn’t mind receiving texted pictures of her sources’ kids. She’ll turn down offers to co-write a book, but she’s happy to chat about her career with a source’s niece who harbors journalistic aspirations. And she’ll listen to complaints sources have about other experts, even other reporters. She just won’t respond in kind. Abdool Karim thinks of working hours as a litmus test: A Monday afternoon coffee with a source to chat about their lab work is fine; a weekend birthday party, though, crosses into we’re hanging out in our free time.
I personally get a lot of requests to proof sources’ op-eds or other writings; I’ll forward them along to editors, but won’t offer my own take. Whatever the case, when the answer has to be no—usually because the request involves material benefit to a source—Irfan tries to explain why. “That’s not a favor I could do for you,” he says. “That would be crossing a boundary.” Similarly, paying or otherwise compensating sources in some significant, materially beneficial way wouldn’t be ethical. Still, small tokens of gratitude can have their place. “For my best sources, I bake,” says Sun, who makes a mean sour-cherry pie. One of them once went to a team of scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who had granted her in-depth access for a reporting trip to the Congo; another went to former CDC director Tom Frieden, who was invaluable to Sun during her coverage of the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak.
Maintaining distance with sources isn’t easy, especially when empathy is such a big part of the job. But pies or no, sources are still getting plenty out of their interactions with journalists, whether it’s exposure for their research, catharsis over sharing a personal experience, or just a great conversation that shores up their communication skills. Reporters ask the sorts of questions that get at what the public needs to know—helping sources hone their key talking points. And they have access to intel that many others don’t. Irfan at one point discovered that he had become one researcher’s go-to for up-to-date info on COVID vaccine filings—which, he says, actually felt a bit odd. In the end, though, if the interactions feel a bit transactional, that’s okay. “This is a job,” Vergano says. “It’s not your social life.”
Professionalism can also make it easier when sources, even the well-cultivated ones, inevitably get upset. A recent story of Sun’s, which criticized the Biden administration’s bungled and lackluster response to the monkeypox outbreak, angered one of her longtime sources at the CDC. The next time she called him, he furiously hung up the phone. “If he feels that way, too bad,” Sun says. “My job is to call it like it is.” Thomas feels similarly. Many of the best sources may even respect reporters more for an unflinching, albeit unflattering, take. Those are the pieces that show “I don’t feel beholden to them,” Thomas says. “And I’m not beholden to anyone else, either.”
Katherine J. Wu is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a senior editor at The Open Notebook, and a senior producer for The Story Collider. She previously served as a science reporter for The New York Times. She won a Schmidt Award for Excellence in Science Communication in 2022, a Science in Society journalism award in 2021, and the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for Young Science Journalists in 2020. She has a PhD in microbiology from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineJWu.