Sources Of Tension
By Andrew McMillenApril 4, 2012
Times have changed for journalists, and some have changed the way they get their information. It's time to let readers in on one of the shortcuts.
Pre-internet, journalists had it tough. If they needed quotes, they had to use initiative, combing their existing contacts, working their telephones, or wearing out their shoe leather meeting people face-to-face. Often, all three tactics were employed simultaneously.
In 2012, not only are supremely useful online tools such as Google, Facebook and Twitter making the hunt for sources a much more efficient process, there are now entire digital businesses built around connecting journalists with sources - namely, the "real people" you find dotted throughout broadcast, print and online news stories. While Facebook and Twitter are useful for this purpose, they can be limited by a journalist's existing network of "friends" and followers. So, aiming to streamline the process by offering volume and efficiency, new digital services will push a journalist's message out to a large audience as quickly as possible.
At face value, such businesses may appear no more than a slick machine pushing the antiquated skill of personal sourcing into the interconnected present. But the media-consuming public usually are unaware of how the voices in news stories have been gathered, knowledge that might colour the way readers interpret the quotes. To examine the ethical complexity of the issue, The Global Mail looks in detail at one such direct-connect business: an Australian website named SourceBottle.
A cursory scroll through the website's Twitter account, @SourceBottle, offers a depressing insight into the way some Australian journalists are using the service. On SourceBottle's Twitter feed, wedged among requests for the generic ("Magazine seeks Gen Y girls who ditched the city life for the country"), the hopeful ("Magazine seeks people to lose 5kg in 2 weeks") and the plain lazy ("Magazine seeks details on the Titanic for article") is this jaw-dropper, tweeted on December 10, 2011: "Mag seeks women who have rejected a 6-figure salary, gone blonde, adopted a rescue dog or converted to Islam #beasource."
It's a shame that the link leads to a dead-end on the SourceBottle website — the journalist's deadline has long since expired, and so the "call-out" is shielded from public view — as that story sounds amazing. (Imagine if they found one women who'd done all four disparate tasks?) Mirth aside, it also sounds like an Australian women's magazine has planned an article and then attempted to find sources to fit their idea of reality, rather than using reporting to inform the outcome. It's the journalistic equivalent of putting the cart before the horse.
SourceBottle, founded by former PR rep Rebecca Derrington in July 2009, advertises two functions. Firstly, it helps journalists and bloggers find sources for stories. These voices are essential across all forms of journalism: without sources, we'd only ever see, hear and read fiction or opinion. In order to find people to interview for their stories, journalists are allowed to post a "call-out" on the site. If all goes to plan, the journalist can "sit back and sources will find you", according to the site's bolded marketing spiel.The concept is instantly appealing to any time-strapped journalist (as most are, after all).
Secondly, SourceBottle claims to "help businesses & PRs get free publicity". Since call-outs placed by journalists on the site are all — presumably — stories that have been commissioned by an editor, the public relations sector is able to get a rare insight into the journalistic process and tailor their pitches to suit said call-outs. Whether or not these PR pitches make it into the final story is entirely up to the journalist, yet given that most outside of the tight-knit Australian media industry won't have heard of the site before reading this article, it's concerning that the published story rarely seems to declare the unusual manner in which the sources were obtained: by a journalist sitting back and waiting the sources to find them.
One real-world example of publicists and journalists interacting via SourceBottle took place in December 2011, when Australian freelance journalist Shannon Dunn posted a call-out looking for sources to comment on "the best ways to detox" for a 2,000-word feature story commissioned for WellBeing Magazine. An American PR rep, Lara Miller, saw the call-out on Twitter and responded on behalf of one of her clients, model and actress Shanna Moakler. "I thought Shanna would be a perfect addition to the article as she lives a vegan lifestyle and regularly detoxes," Miller told me. And Moakler had just launched a cosmetic company in the States, which Miller was pushing. Dunn told me that she received 10 responses to her call-out. "Of those, I contacted about four for my feature," Dunn says. "These were all useful. Although I know a lot about detoxing, I wanted to get some expert opinions and real-life cases in order to write a balanced story. I was also on deadline and wanted to add a bit more texture to my story, so it really helped me to put the finishing touches on my story."
Miller says Dunn "was terrific. She responded within 45 minutes of receiving my pitch and the entire interview was done and submitted back to her [via email] within two hours. I was extremely impressed with not only Shannon, but also the speed in which SourceBottle delivered my pitch to her. I think it's a great service."
"I've used SourceBottle many times," says Dunn, the journalist. "More often than not, I get contacted by great sources for my stories. Occasionally I will receive responses from publicists who are representing a product that's not relevant to my query or story, but these are minimal." Dunn says that she had no qualms using Moakler's quotes — arranged by the publicist in the middle — because "her answers were a good fit for the story. I didn't feel like it was a PR push."
Moakler's quotes comprise between one and two paragraphs of Dunn's 2,000-word story. The writer says that she wasn't asked directly by Miller to mention the model's new cosmetic company; instead, the publicist suggested that readers should "go to Shanna's website/shop for more tips if needed". Dunn decided not to mention the site.
Clearly, however, the site makes a PR rep's job easier than ever. Rather than expending the time and energy involved in cultivating and maintaining relationships with individual journalists and editors — a time-consuming process with no guarantees — PRs can reactively pitch their clients to whichever journalists choose to use the site knowing that the pitch is right on target for an active story.
Journalism in 2012 is an intricate dance between three parties: the pervasive publicity sector, reporters doing their best to pretend that the first party doesn't exist, and the public. SourceBottle brings the first two very close, at the possible expense of the unknowing media consumer.
Rather than online sourcing from the comfort of the office chair, journalism traditionally has operated through simply talking to people. Award-winning feature journalist Trent Dalton: "I'm a little old-fashioned in the sense that I'll first find a primary source — a person I want to do the feature on." Dalton has written for The Courier-Mail's Qweekend magazine since 2005, and he won a Walkley Award for social equity journalism late last year.
"I'll find a topic, work out who the key people are, and then decide on one person — the source of information. After interviewing that person, you ask them directly, 'Who else should I speak to about this?' They'll say, 'You must speak to ….' Then that person will say, 'Well, it wouldn't be decent story if you don't speak to …' and so on. If I don't have any sources for a particular topic, then I just go into the street and ask [people] — which I've spent 10 years doing. I say, 'Listen, will you please, please, please talk to me?' [That approach] takes you to places you'd never thought the story would go."
The SourceBottle website is split into 33 categories including Animals & Pets, Finance, Sport & Fitness and Retail. Founder Rebecca Derrington was writing press releases and pitching them to journalists when she suddenly realised that the process was flawed. "I started to wonder why we weren't just asking journalists what stories they were working on, and whether we — PRs and businesses collectively — could help them locate the expert sources they needed from amongst our own networks," she says. "It just made sense to start a service that could do this."
Of the 10,400 call-outs posted on the site as of early April, the most popular are those concerning small-to-medium sized businesses and entrepreneurs, beauty and lifestyle, fashion, retail, health and fitness, and family and parenting, says the founder. Some 13,300 subscribers receive the site's daily mail-outs.
Derrington says that she and her small moderation team refuse to publish, on average, 10 call-outs per week, "most often because they aren't call-outs at all — they're just promotional messages or sourcing other things entirely," she says.
According to its founder, SourceBottle was "never intended to replace the more traditional tools of journalism — just to complement them. And with a network that's large and rapidly growing, it's very likely that by using the service, any call-out posted will reach a much larger audience than it would otherwise and give a lot more people the chance to respond."
Derrington points to the ease with which call-outs can be shared as one of the main reasons behind the site's growth: she says that subscribers to the site — either via SourceBottle's daily email summaries, or their nearly 20,000 Twitter followers — often will pass relevant call-outs on to friends and associates who aren't subscribed to the service, extending its reach even further. "The site is custom-built to do this," Derrington says. "I encourage journalists and bloggers to use the service, as well as sourcing experts via their own networks."
My first experience with the site as a journalist was in January 2010, as a green freelancer. I'd been handed the biggest assignment of my career: a 2,000-word feature story for The Weekend Australian's Review section, about the state of Australian country music following the annual Tamworth festival.
I knew very little about that genre of music, so in addition to asking my existing contacts within the industry, I posted a call-out on SourceBottle.
Within hours, I had PRs chattering in my inbox about their clients, offering to set up interviews. I went ahead with a few of these, in addition to a dozen other sources I found via my other interviewees. I look back on my decision to use SourceBottle with mild embarrassment. It seems too quick, too easy; like playing a video game with cheat codes.
SourceBottle isn't just used by green freelancers; plenty of credible journalists use the site regularly. I put a call-out on the site on December 20, "seeking AU + NZ journalists who have used SourceBottle to find sources while researching stories" and received eight responses, all of whom spoke favourably about the site and its service. Several commented on the prevalence of the type of "inappropriate PR guff" and "time-wasting garbage" that they often received in response to call-outs.
I asked Simon Sharwood, the former editor of My Business Magazine, whether there's danger in the site facilitating close relationships between journalists and PRs. "Of course, because PR's agenda is not your readers' agenda," he replied. "But I think anyone who has worked as a journalist for more than a year or two understands the field they cover well enough to be able to spot — and filter — pitches from PR people."
Some of the country's most influential media outlets use the site, too. On January 3, someone claiming to work for The Australian posted a call-out under the title: "Is mobile technology helping or harming your young child? Are touch screens good for toddlers?" Sources who responded to that call-out appears to have been used for a feature story in the January 7 edition, entitled, 'Toddlers, touch screens and the parents' dilemma.' Staff at the paper would not comment on the practice of using SourceBottle. Nobody at The Australian would confirm or deny that SourceBottle was used for the story.
On January 4, someone claiming to be from The Herald-Sun posted four separate call-outs for products to appear in a "reader jury test": energy drinks, healthy snacks, mineral foundation, and make-up remover. An editorial assistant told The Global Mail: "I have absolutely no idea who has posted those call-outs. I wish I could be of more help, but I am clueless."
On the same day, a reporter from The Sunday Age posted a call-out seeking "tennis tragics": "Looking for mad fans of the Australian Open to share their tips, experiences," wrote the reporter. The 2,300-word story, "The Love Game", appeared on the cover of The Sunday Age's M Magazine on January 15. In an email, the reporter declined to comment for this story. However, via Twitter, I contacted three of the tennis fans who were quoted in the story; they confirmed that their involvement was facilitated by responding to the SourceBottle call-out. One of the sources, Jodi McAlister, says although there were a few small factual errors — namely, about McAlister's age, location, and how she met her two friends — "otherwise, [the story] was fine".
When asked whether she believes that her site brings journalists and PRs closer together than ever before — to the potential detriment of editorial independence — SourceBottle founder Rebecca Derrington replies, "I think it actually does the reverse. By making the service accessible to everyone, in many cases journalists and bloggers are able to bypass PRs and go direct to the source for comment."
And although Qweekend feature journalist Trent Dalton was not aware of SourceBottle before our interview, he says that "anything that helps you get more sources should be embraced — but it should be complemented by the footwork of just getting out and doing the hard yards."