September 24, 2009

A budding journalist’s thoughts on stalking a reluctant source

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Interning with a team of seasoned, award-winning reporters from well known publications, it’s hard not to see myself as just a fledgling journalist here at InvestigateWest. When I think about the people they know, the sources they’ve spent time with — it can be just as intimidating as it is inspiring.

But I often remind myself that I’ve been interviewing people for a while now, too — since I first served on my high school newspaper more than seven years ago. Since then, I’ve shared coffee with government officials, watched the sunset with a Northwest tribal chief and even Skyped an Australian scientist.

So when I recently encountered a barrage of barriers while trying to arrange a conversation with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official, I was flabbergasted. How had I reached elusive authors, but couldn’t seem to get a call back from a government employee — one who had served in that position for decades, no less?

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service LogoAs part of InvestigateWest’s continuing examination into the condition of the Pacific Flyway, we’ve been attempting to connect with people from the Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Management Division. That includes Tami Tate-Hall, the agency’s migratory bird permit coordinator in Portland, Oregon. From the day I sent the first e-mail to Tami, to the day I received the interview three days ago, nearly a month passed by. It started with an e-mail — which was never returned — and turned into multiple unreturned phone calls. Finally, I contacted Joan Jewett, a Wildlife Service public information officer, to help arrange the interview. But even she was reluctant! Joan finally obliged, but not before insisting she be present for the interview. Why, I asked. She responded:

Tami doesn’t usually like to talk directly to reporters.

A journalists’ sources are the gutters through which information flows, and a source’s expertise can help a journalist develop some background and better understand an issue. Government officials have a particular responsibility to help accommodate this and when they’re reluctant to share information, it appears as if they’ve got something to hide.

Fortunately, Joan changed her mind at the last minute about joining in on my conversation with Tami. The interview didn’t go quite as well as I had hoped. But it was a lesson in persistence.

— Natasha Walker

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