The true value of a reporter can be measured by the number of contacts in his or her address book, I’m told, and one of the most important priorities for a journalist is to establish a wide network of sources, which can later be used to produce solid and trustworthy reporting.

Now, increased Internet and social media usage in newsrooms has opened a new chapter in identifying journalistic sources.

Instead of making phone calls and scheduling lunch meetings, reporters can find useful contacts through a growing number of digital services, allowing them to post queries online and simply wait for potential sources to respond.

On April 5, Facebook launched a page called Journalists on Facebook, with the aim to “serve as an ongoing resource for the growing number of reporters using Facebook to find sources, interact with readers, and advance stories.”

As Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s director of Media Partnerships, noted, Facebook offers journalists the possibility to connect with “an audience of more than 500 million people.” These are searchable by name, interests and occupation.

Web resources for reporters

Journalists can also look for potential sources by using services that connect them with people willing to share their expertise on various topics.

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Help a Reporter Out is a website that originated as a Facebook group called If I Can Help A Reporter Out, I Will and later migrated into a separate entity. In accordance with HARO’s tagline “Everyone Is an Expert at Something,” the website connects experts with reporters who are on a deadline.

Menachem Wrecker, a writer and blogger at the Houston Chronicle, said he was able to produce several dozen success stories thanks to HARO and a similar service called Reporter Connection.

“I look at a service like HARO as a crystal ball that tells me what I don’t know, and what I never would have thought of looking for,” he said. “I absolutely don’t use HARO or Reporter Connection to the exclusion of calling people I know and asking them for recommendations, but why not cover all of the bases?”

Wrecker warned, however, that only a small percentage of the responses obtained through services such as HARO are on target.  “There is a ton of spam and off-topic promotions that you need to sift through, but I think I’m not alone in saying I’m glad to sift through the dirt if I’ve got a good sense that there’s a gold nugget embedded somewhere within,” he said.

Isn’t there a risk of giving away story ideas by sharing them on popular sites? “Other reporters could steal the stories,” Wrecker said, “but I’ve never had a problem with that. I think new and social media are moving so quickly that it’s actually tough to steal ideas and beat out publications even if you want to.”

Change of rules

According to Paul Grabowicz, senior lecturer and associate dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, these new technologies have increased the ability for journalists to reach a much broader group of people, whether they’re looking for experts or just want to find out how the audience feels about a particular issue.

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Paul Grabowicz

Grabowicz, who has 25 years of journalistic experience writing for the Oakland Tribune, The Washington Post, Esquire magazine, The Village Voice and Newsday, remembers what it was like to search for relevant sources when he started his job as a reporter. “It was who you could reach via telephone or walk and chat with,” he said.

Online platforms such as HARO, Reporter Connection or ProfNet have opened up new possibilities.

But journalists still face the challenge of verifying their source’s reliability and credibility.

“I think looking at what the person actually says is often a good indicator,” Wrecker said. “I also find that sometimes individual responses on HARO might be red herrings, whereas looking at trends in the many responses might be a good thing to consider.”

Sifting through it all

New technologies can also be used in the verification process. “Now with the Internet, you can look up your sources’ bio or the things they have written or maybe see what other people have said about them,” Wrecker said.

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Menachem Wrecker. Photo from Twitter.

“If you put out a query on a service like HARO, you are more likely to get people who are just looking for publicity, but the web also helps you check out who they are and what ties they may have,” he said.

Grabowicz advises his students that their first step should be to check the credibility of their potential sources, their level of expertise, the people who can vouch for them, and what has been reported about whatever they’ve previously said or produced. These are professional journalistic standards that haven’t changed for years.

“They are the same checks you use no matter who you interview or what the topic is,” Grabowicz said. “You have to be careful. Just because somebody contacts you and claims to be an expert does not mean that they are. As long as you are cautious about that, there is nothing wrong with expanding your universe of sources.”

Smart choices

Grabowicz stressed, however, that reaching out to people through services such as HARO or ProfNet is never a good substitute for keeping a network of trusted sources, established over the years.

“A sloppy reporter would say, ‘All right, I don’t have to cultivate those kinds of networks; I can just use one of those services.’ But that’s not the problem with the service. That’s the problem with the bad reporter,” he said.

For Wrecker, it all boils down to trust. “Having trusted sources is very important,” he said. “Whether you meet those sources at the grocery store, a bar, the ball game, a website, a blog or a source like HARO doesn’t really matter. If anything, something like HARO — insofar as it’s the speed-dating site for journalists and sources — might accelerate the dating process.”

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This story was originally published by the European Journalism Centre, an independent non-profit institute dedicated to the highest standards in journalism, primarily through the further training of journalists and media professionals. Follow @ejcnet for Twitter updates, here on Facebook and on the EJC Online Journalism Community.

Kornelia Trytko is a journalist and attentive observer of the international media scene. In 2008 she received, with honors, her Master’s degree in Journalism and Social Communication at the Institute of Political Science, University of Wrocław, Poland. She worked for two years for media outlets in Wrocław and Lower Silesia. In 2010 she participated in the Erasmus Mundus Master programme in Journalism, Media & Globalisation. After completing a semester at the Danish School of Journalism in Aarhus, she is now studying at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, University of California. She is a reporter for and contributes to European Journalism Observatory.