Why the work matters: Talking about source tracking

Source tracking gives you the opportunity to explain your mission and your journalism to your community and create good newsroom habits. Here’s how to best message this work.

Source tracking can be a daunting task, but if you take some time to talk through the process and intended impact with staff first it will only help you explain your work to your audiences—especially at a time in our society when doing this necessary self-reflection and reparative work can face pushback from politicians and the public.

We recently talked with a few newsrooms who participated in a year-long cohort assembled by API to track the diversity of people quoted in their stories through Source Matters, our award-winning source diversity tracking and analysis tool.

These newsrooms were intentional about talking with their staff first before explaining to their audiences how source tracking would impact interviews and ongoing reporting. In this way, it made it easier for staff to talk to each other first and feel comfortable talking about their work before they started asking sources to participate.

Share & discuss your results

At VTDigger in Vermont, source tracking was an extension of the organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work that had already been underway. So the newsroom was ready to tackle questions of how to improve who was being represented in their journalism, said Natalie WIlliams, a senior editor, at VTDigger.

“Sourcing has kind of been on the forefront of both our DEI work specifically and our newsroom’s perspective,”said Williams. “We looked at it in two ways. Our newsroom was proactively seeking stories about groups of people or individuals who weren’t otherwise going to be well represented in our coverage. And, also representing people in our everyday stories.”

Williams also said it helped to frame the work to reporters that, while acknowledging it was going to be a little more work, “this is going to give us a lot of great information.”

And it did.

At the end of the three different review periods, the DEI Committee at VTDigger put together a presentation of the data. The presentation included a comparison of source audit results to key demographic data. They compared age, race and ethnicity, income level, location and gender, among other identifiers including role in a story and source type.

The report showed where the newsroom was already doing well with some historically marginalized communities, including sources identifying as LGBTQ+ and race/ethnicity, but it was still falling short when it came to quoting low-income residents of the state and inconsistent on sourcing women and people from the southern part of the state. These are all findings the newsroom is taking into consideration as they map out their coverage for this year’s elections and everyday news cycles.

Speaking to your readers & community

To readers, the term “source auditing” or “source tracking” is just jargon-y. So, think about how to talk about it by centering it on other aspects of your mission (if you have one) or the values that are at the heart of your source tracking project. 

At the San Antonio Report, before writing up a public-facing story about their source tracking process, Community Engagement Editor Blanca Méndez opted to send out a report about their work to a dedicated group of newsletter subscribers—their most loyal and habitual readers. This served to get core readers on board and informed and it made the process of going public to a wider audience—some of whom may be less accepting— less daunting. The response was so positive that it gave the newsroom confidence to share it with a wider readership on their website.

The response to both the newsletter post and the public story then led the Report to include news of their source tracking effort into a general fundraising appeal and asked readers if they would chip in to support the newsroom’s work. They did and the Report plans to ask again, Méndez said. 

Newsroom Tip:

Newsroom leaders at  the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel offer three simple tips for a successful source tracking project:

  1. Try following up with sources over text instead of email: One reporter found that not everyone would answer a follow-up email with links, but would respond to the source identity questions over text as it might be more direct and personal and not mistaken for a SPAM email.
  2. Build habits from top to bottom: One reporter recommends to include the questions at the bottom of every list of questions. That can be hard when in the field, so it’s also incumbent upon editors to be paying attention to whether reporters are asking questions and paying attention to the process. 
  3. Take time every week to categorize sources: Source audits take time, and it may be hard to find the time. But, one reporter said even with a daily pace, he was able to set aside an hour on Fridays to get caught up on his sourcing data and it just became his weekly routine. Whatever down day you may have for research or planning is the day where finding an hour can yield solid results.