How to Find Sources for Health Stories
I remember very clearly the first time an editor responded to my article pitch by sending a contract. I was thrilled! And terrified. Where on earth was I going to find someone to talk to me about vintage surfboards?
You see, that’s what my proposed article was about. I pitched a story about vintage surfboard collecting—a topic I knew nothing about. I didn’t even know if collecting vintage surfboards was “a thing.” And I certainly didn’t know where to find a source to talk to me about it if it was.
What is a source?
Every journalist works from source material, whether it’s a new research study, the transcript of a radio show or an interview with a person. According to The News Manual, the word ‘source’ refers to any information a reporter uses to assemble a story.
For our purposes today, I want to talk about where to find “people” sources. As a health journalist, you may need to be able to find diverse types of people sources ranging from an expert cancer researcher to a man with polydactyly to who knows what else.
Where can I find these ‘sources’ you speak of?
Your editor may request that you interview specific sources when she assigns you a story. Don’t ignore this request!
However, you likely will need to find your own sources, as well. Here are some places to start.
- Academic institutions
For health stories, academic researchers can be considered the “gold standard” of clinical sources. They generally are unbiased (as opposed to a corporate spokesperson, for example), and they are completely up-to-date on new developments in their field.
- National associations
These large non-profit organizations often maintain lists of experts who are willing to speak to the press. Like clinical researchers, experts associated with national associations, societies and other groups usually are reliable sources for cutting edge developments in their field.
The ProfNet service, offered by PRNewswire, connects journalists with sources. ProfNet has been around for a long time and enjoys a good reputation among journalists. Keep in mind you still need to do your own due diligence and vet your source thoroughly. ProfNet merely acts as a conduit for bringing journalists and experts together; it’s still up to you to determine if a source you find through ProfNet is reputable. (By the way, ProfNet journalist accounts are free!)
- Help-A-Reporter-Out (HARO)
I’ve heard mixed reports about the usefulness of HARO over the years. It’s free for reporters to sign up, so it might be worth trying. Basically, you send a request for experts to HARO, and they distribute it to their subscriber base. Again, you must perform due diligence before working with any source you find through a service like HARO. These days, anyone can call themselves an ‘expert.’
Have you ever read a story that began with an anecdote like this: “Margaret’s face went white when the doctor told her she had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer….”? How do reporters find those people?
Social media can be a goldmine for finding these non-expert,“real-person” sources. By using the right search terms and hashtags, you can use Twitter to locate almost anyone with any kind of credentials. Need a mom who gave birth to identical twins in the past month? Twitter. Want to speak with someone who makes the best teriyaki chicken west of the Mississippi? Twitter. (For excellent tips on using Twitter to find sources, check out this article on the subject by a staff editor at the New York Times.)
When you need business sources, turn to LinkedIn. Their advanced search function makes it easy to locate entrepreneurs, academics, researchers and others who may be willing to chat with you for an article.
My surfboard story turned out great, by the way. Using my nascent reporting skills, I found organizations that helpfully provided experts for me to interview. I no longer have the original clip, but if you’d like to read the story, here’s a link to a PDF: “Cowabunga! Surf’s Up for Vintage Board Collectors.”
Ask me: What questions do you have about finding and using sources?
Wishing you well,