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Journalists are only as good as their contacts

Alex Mitchell at Byron Bay Writers' Festival 2013

Alex Mitchell at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival 2013

“Every journalist should be an investigator, otherwise you’re just rewriting press releases,” said Alex Mitchell.

And for the former Sun-Herald NSW state political editor and NSW Parliamentary Press Gallery former president, it is important that sources should not be thought of as a journalist’s friend.

“They sit down tell you a story, you research it and publish it. Don’t psychoanalyse them and don’t give out their identity,” he said.

Investigative journalists Charles Lewis, Alex Mitchell and Norman Swan discussed what makes a source and how to manage them along with whistleblowers.

Journalism professor and former US ABC News and CBS News 60 Minutes producer Charles Lewis believes that the relationship between journalist and source has changed, especially in the United States.

The journalist can no longer give anonymity to their sources because of news corporations. There have been a number of situations in the US where the journalist’s notes actually belong to the news organisation and not the journalist.

“In a case involving Time Magazine they actually took the notes of the reporter in amongst litigation and gave it to the government without talking to the reporter, and over the objection of the reporter,” Lewis said.

The conversation then turned quickly to source anonymity where the presenter of ABC Radio National’s Health Report, Norman Swan told the audience that sometimes you have to disclose the sources identity to a lawyer to save your back.

Mitchell agreed and said that journalists have to work with lawyers and to make sure you don’t tell the editor who your anonymous source is.

“The editors would want to gossip about the unknown sources to other newspaper organisations.”

In a contrary topic, Swan described how he deals with whistleblowers.

“I deal with them in a scientific manner, ” Sawn said. “I get informed consent. I tell them that I don’t believe them and that the story will not be how they want it.”

It is important to gather evidence to test the whistleblower claims.

Swan said that as a journalist, you hear their story and you want it to be true but you spend your whole career trying to prove it wrong until you prove it right.

Lewis agreed and mentioned that he likes to put a lot of data into his work and that the journalists must have both caution and aggression when dealing with whistleblowers.

Kelly Wintour is a Southern Cross media student.

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