All good reporting begins with one question, which is topic of today’s excerpt from my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers. Among the five chapters from Section III, two—this and the previous one—primarily focus on the importance of sound sourcing. Chapter IV explains the importance of original sourcing at a time when so many blogs or news sites cite one another as primary source; that’s terrible form. Today’s installment is all about assessing sources’ motivations for giving you information.
The two views on sourcing are related because bad practice of either leads to the same outcome: Propagation of misinformation. The first is easily fixed: You make the contacts and get first-hand sources rather cite blog, forum, tweet, etc., without vetting who is behind them, while corroborating with sources with whom you personally interact. The second, and topic today, is more complicated. You need to understand what the other party gains, particularly when leaking something directly to you.
Today’s installment is best understood in context of the others. To best follow the logical flow, you should start at the beginning: Foreward; Section 1, Chapters I and II, III and IV, V and VI; Section 2, Chapters I, II, III, IV, and V; Section 3, Chapters I and II, III, and IV.
Reminder: Responsible Reporting will release into the public domain some time after the serialization concludes. With that, let’s begin…
V. Who Benefits?
Generally speaking, there are two legitimate types of sources: Those whom you credibly uncover independently and those who come to you. Always question the motivations of the latter, asking yourself first and foremost: “Who benefits?” It is your writing life’s most important question. Ask about everything.
Human beings are generally motivated by gain, whether personally or professionally. No one gives you information for free. Someone always benefits. The “Who Benefits?” question is tantamount when someone approaches you with information, particularly something to leak. Ask: Why? What does the leaker seek to gain? Why give the information to me? To whom else? Who benefits from the disclosure?
To report responsibly you must ask these questions and seek to answer them. What you uncover may also carry the reporting forward.
Hidden benefits are biggest concern when the source refuses to be identified. That’s the time to be most suspicious of the information and when to seek stronger corroboration—all while always sniffing answer to the most important question: Who benefits?
Anecdote: June 6, 2001, I receive a tip that Microsoft will incorporate into Windows XP a controversial web-linking technique from Office XP—Smart Tags. The first source, an analyst, is extremely credible. So I ring Microsoft for comment—and this is after business hours Pacific Time (my office is East Coast). To my surprise, the company provides a spokesperson to answer questions, which is out of character because of time and topic.
I contact my editors about filing a late-day story and raise suspicions about the leak and Microsoft’s timely response. Something doesn’t feel right. But the story is a scoop, and editors want to post as soon as possible. “Windows XP may steer users’ Web choices” goes live at 8:45 pm PT.
My article isn’t the only one. Wall Street Journal Personal Tech writer Walt Mossberg has a scathing Smart Tag rebuke, and his opinions tend to be hugely influential. I learn “Who Benefits?” while editors process my story. One analyst emails sometime following our phone interview: “I don’t remember if we discussed this but the reason for MS addressing this subject today is that Walt Mossberg is going to write a negative review tomorrow in the WSJ”.
Next day, I email Mossberg:
Microsoft may have tried to steal your thunder. Smart Tags had been on my radar for sometime, but they were pushed to the sidelines as a ‘I’ll-get-to-it-when-I-find-time’ topic’ The reason: Inclusion in Office XP only. But I got a call last night from analysts briefed by Microsoft on Smart Tags in Internet Explorer 6 for Windows XP. No NDA. They couldn’t figure it out.
Suddenly, Smart Tags were a big issue, and I pounded out a story late last night. Strangely, Microsoft had no trouble putting me in touch with Windows XP project leader Shawn Sanford. My line of questioning also made it clear where I was going with the story, which didn’t seem to be a problem.
Obviously, Microsoft had a pretty good idea about the nature of your column. The Windows people must have known I or some other reporter would get wind of any Windows XP analyst briefings.
So, what do you think? Was there a play here to contain the damage?
I need not share his response, which should be obvious. Three weeks later, following a tornado of controversy, Microsoft kills Smart Tags in Windows XP, ahead of the operating system’s October 2001 release.
There is a secondary lesson hugely relevant to my diatribe about sourcing. The original source—again, a respected trade analyst—contacted me. I called others, who confirmed Smart Tag’s Windows XP inclusion. I could easily have written the story on the strength of these reliable sources but nevertheless contacted Microsoft, which quickly responded.
So I had a solidly sourced story, but no clear reason why before filing. The point: Adequately sourcing sometimes isn’t enough to get the story.
Context is crucial to understanding Microsoft’s objectives. In June 2001, an adverse antitrust ruling hung over the company. The case derived from Microsoft leveraging its desktop operating system monopoly into the adjacent market for web browsers. Smart Tags further tied web content to Internet Explorer, Windows, and other Microsoft products or services.
Mossberg gives one of the best explanations about what Smart Tags do: “[They] turn any word on any website into a link to Microsoft’s own sites and services, or to any that Microsoft favors. These links would appear without the knowledge or permission of a website’s owners, and would encourage readers to leave the original site and go to a Microsoft site”.
Smart Tags were risky to start. Mossberg’s turn against them presented Microsoft real problems, which the public relations team sought to mitigate by briefing analysts without imposing a non-disclosure agreement. Analysts seek visibility. Being quoted in news stories raises their public and client profiles and authority as experts, which is all good for business. Some analyst was sure to contact some journalist, and Microsoft was ready to proactively answer questions before Mossberg’s column could raise them.
The real story isn’t what I reported but what I didn’t—how a seeming slip, analyst briefings without the prerequisite NDA, would lead to an eventual news story preempting Mossberg’s column.
There are dozens more examples I could share, but this is the one I refer to most often because the “Who Benefits?” question is so clearly asked and answered.
However, the question fits broader context—pretty much anything you write about—because the answer(s) offer(s) insight into motivations behind actions that are news. With perhaps the exception of natural disasters and acts of God, the human element is relevant to everything.
In the age of context, repeated corroboration is the answer to questions about sources’ motivations.
Photo Credit: Nick Perla