Developing sources within your beat

NBCU Academy 101

Journalists often rely on sources to obtain information for their reporting. For beat reporters, it’s especially important to build a network of people who are subject-matter experts or have authority over the topic area. NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman explains how to find and develop a broad range of sources within your beat.

Make a list of key players in your beat. Think of it as the newsmakers within your beat. Look through past coverage of your beat, see which people were mentioned in the stories and add them to your list. 

Take note of where people congregate and go there. It could be a board meeting, an annual conference or any other type of event. If your beat is Congress, go to Capitol Hill when the House of Representatives and Senate are in session and talk to the representatives and senators and anyone else who works on the Hill.

Reach out to potential sources. The internet is a great place to find contact info. If they’re a well-known person, sometimes they have it listed on their personal or company website. If not, a Google search might bring up email, phone number or social media profiles.  

Build a relationship with a source. This might take a while, so commit to that relationship and show that you care. 

  • Set the ground rules early. You and your source must be on the same page if the information they are providing you with is on the record, on background or off the record. 
  • Keep in touch. Check in with your source regularly, not just when you’re working on a story and need information. 
  • Set boundaries. On occasion it’s OK to develop a source relationship over lunch or a drink, but keep it professional. 

Once you get some new information from your source, check a few things before publishing it.   

  • Consider how your source obtained the information. Do they have first-hand, direct knowledge about what they told you? Did they only hear about it from someone else? If you’re not sure, go back to your source and ask. 
  • Why is your source telling you this? Do they have an angle you should be aware of? what’s in it for them? 
  • A good rule of thumb when deciding what information to use in your reporting is that it should come from at least two independent sources who have direct knowledge of a situation, or one official or authoritative source speaking on the record.  

Even if it’s a trusted source that you have worked with before, you always want to corroborate the information they provide. One way to do is see if there are primary documents or official records that you can access to fact-check your source’s information.