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Effective accountability journalists spend considerable time building relationships with sources and readers

While it’s true that high-impact reporters use multiple forms of digital communication to help find and connect with sources and audiences, it’s clear that personal contact is at least equally important to them.

“I never turn down an invitation,” said Mary Ellen Klas, who added that she answers every email from readers.

As a former state legislative reporter, John Micek said that “the most productive thing I did at the legislature was walking the halls and talking to people.”

Lee Tolliver attends an annual awards event for young athletes — not to write about it, but for “source and audience management.”

Stephanie Arnold said her philosophy is to “start interacting with our audiences before we need them. If you haven’t talked to your audience all year, and then you all of a sudden demand something of them, what kind of relationship is that? Relationships should be reciprocal.”

Politics reporters in particular often have another obstacle in building source and audience relationships: Many news organizations have a distinctly partisan editorial reputation that historically can add a layer of difficulty to reporters’ source-building and outreach. Briana Bierschbach works for an organization that some people view as left-leaning. For her, connecting effectively with conservative audiences requires “more legwork … taking them out to lunch, talking with them, spending more time.”

Kera Wanielista noted that her former supervisor, now a manager at a television station, taught her that “it’s OK for our audiences to think of us as real people and for us to share parts of ourselves with them.”

John Micek, too, believes that his decision to tell the story of his wife’s miscarriage as a way to help explain the consequences of controversial medical legislation helped him connect with sources and readers — particularly those opposed to the legislation.

The journalists also make specific efforts to deal with oppositional audiences. Their tactics include meeting with groups or individuals personally; responding calmly and reasonably to emails and online comments; and in one case, arranging for a vocal critic to write an op-ed column. “Most people just want other people to hear them,” said Jeremy White, a statehouse reporter for the Sacramento Bee.

Most people just want other people to hear them.

But it’s noteworthy that, while they’re clearly passionate about reaching all readers, they also had some ambivalence about connecting with angry, anonymous readers. Several reported receiving abusive and even threatening comments on website stories and through social media. One reporter had to pepper-spray a hostile reader when it appeared the man would become physically violent, and at least one reporter had to call police about phone threats.

Ricardo Lopez said such abuse can harm recruiting and retention of diverse staffers and takes an unhealthy toll on journalists. Yates called it “an emotional health issue” and suggested that newsrooms find ways for reporters to discuss and deal with attacks.

Why this characteristic is important in accountability journalism: “Getting to know sources face-to-face is vital to finding accountability stories and doing strong reporting,” says Kaiser. “Often the best stories can come from what start as general conversations.” And working through even difficult relationships with readers is vital because the result can be audience growth and more valuable sources.

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