Journalists often suffer from bad press. They are said to be nosy, sensationalist, out to destroy people’s reputations, working for the opposition, preventing hardworking people from their duties and lacking respect. Sometimes, these accusations are well-founded. The way to counter these negative perceptions is to behave decently and ethically. Do not be rude and do not demand things that are unreasonable. Act in a manner that shows you believe you are entitled to information, and you encourage hostility from your sources and the rest of society.
Most people like to believe that they are good and honest. So why not begin by relating to your source on this basis? Phrasing questions in ways such as: “I would really like to understand how this works”, or “Please help explain the problem for the benefit of the community”, can often produce positive results. In many cases, sources will help a journalist if they can be convinced that sharing information is in the public’s best interest.
This is not just a matter of strategy: Despite grandiose labels such as ‘The Fourth Estate’, no journalist was democratically elected to monitor the actions of public officials. Journalists are part of civil society, and in that sense, share the responsibility of making sure the state serves its citizens. In this position, journalists do have privileged access to channels of mass communication entities such as newspapers or broadcasting stations. Especially when they are working to expose hostile corporations or corrupt politicians, using methods such as making covert tapes that skirt or even break laws, it is important that journalists use methods that are pleasant, sincere, transparent (at least as transparent as possible).
To ensure that you do not overstep your role as a journalist, always ask yourself: What if I was the person I am investigating? How would I see the world, or the role of journalists? How accountable am I? Would I succumb to the same temptations that I am investigating? Where are my checks and balances?