This guide will help you track sources in your journalism. API assembled a cohort of newsrooms in 2023 to track the diversity of people quoted in their stories through Source Matters, API’s award-winning source diversity tracking and analysis tool. The insights in this guide have been learned alongside newsrooms participating in the cohort.
Journalists have a lot of power. The sources we choose to quote affect and indicate many things in our local communities, like whose stories get told and how; who the news is for and about; which communities are served; and who is seen, heard and listened to.
In recent years, news organizations have attempted to reckon with a history of unfairly covering communities of color. API and our partners at Trusting News have projects aimed at helping newsrooms improve coverage and rebuild trust with their communities. All news organizations — old or new, big or small — should ideally reflect and represent the communities they serve in their coverage. Practicing more inclusive journalism is one goal many of our partner newsrooms have when they start using Source Matters. Knowing who’s being included — and who’s being left out — of your coverage can begin with a source audit or source inventory.
Blanca Méndez, community engagement editor at San Antonio Report, along with Leigh Munsil, editor-in-chief, outlined why they’re tracking sources in an edition of their newsletter. “[We] don’t just want to listen to our community’s concerns — we want to show through our actions and data that we take them seriously.”
Similarly, Stephanie Williams, executive editor at Black Voice News, shared this with her audience:
“At Black Voice News we are committed to telling stories of communities that are typically undercovered, underserved and/or overlooked. Although mainstream media will turn the lens on these areas at times, this often occurs when what’s being reported fits the stereotypical narrative regarding how our communities are too often perceived. Our goal is to broaden that lens and tell stories that not only matter to you, but to do so in ways that reflect the truth of your experiences in all of its diversity.”
Collecting data is a key first step, whether you develop your own homegrown system through a Google Form/spreadsheet hack or use a tech tool like Source Matters.
You may collect information about who reporters are including in their stories and how representative that data is of your community, and then make changes based on what you learn. It’s a process and a cultural muscle that needs to be exercised.
How to start tracking sources
- Decide how you want to collect the source information. Do you have a budget for this project? Investing in a technology tool can help automate some of the process while providing your newsroom with a single platform to store and analyze the data. This can be especially useful if you anticipate tracking many sources. But getting started is the most important step, even if that means creating your own source tracking system using Google Forms and Spreadsheets. Here’s a template to experiment with, created by Lauren Chapman, digital editor for Indiana Public Broadcasting. Choose the format that makes sense for your organization.
- Set your newsroom up for success. Plan how reporters will collect information from sources. Will you provide a script for reporters to ask sources these questions at the end of interviews, or do you want to create a survey for reporters to send to all sources? This part of the process looks different across newsrooms, but choose the process that reduces friction as much as possible to encourage wide participation.
- Put together a pilot group of enthusiastic allies in all types of roles. A working group will ultimately help with buy-in and accountability across the organization. Reflect on these questions: Who in your organization can be your ally in this project? If you’re a publisher or executive, can you get editors on board? What about new and veteran reporters? If you’re a reporter, can you get your editor on board? How about audience engagement folks? If you’re on a DEIB committee, how can you get buy-in and support from leadership? What can these folks help you do?
- Rachel Piper, deputy editor for news, projects and investigations at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, took a strategic, measured approach to launching source tracking in her newsroom. (The Journal-Sentinel is one of 13 newsrooms participating in our 2023 Source Matters cohort.) First, she rounded up a core group that included a few reporters from different teams. From there, they strategized how to launch this internally. They met early in the year to put together a list of goals as well as the support they needed from leadership and the accountability this would require.
- Choose what information to track about your sources. Each publisher and audience is different, and the data about sources should reflect that. The choice is yours, and the categories you track can evolve as time goes by. Some common options include:
- Role in the story
- Political party/ideology
- Deciding on which categories to track was another task the Journal Sentinel’s working group tackled together. The Source Matters team provided some recommendations, and they tweaked the options to fit their needs, ultimately settling on tracking race/ethnicity, gender, age, and role in the story.
- Determine how long you want to track sources. It might make sense for some newsrooms to track every source in every story in perpetuity, but for others, choosing a short-term collection period makes more sense. Fixed collection periods give everyone on your team a timeframe to focus on the project before analyzing the data and reflecting on insights. Then you can use that data to set goals and schedule another collection period. Continuously repeating this process will, in time, help evolve your newsroom culture to be more aware of the sources being included in your coverage at large.
Read more about source tracking and diversification efforts across the news industry:
- 5 questions reporters and editors should ask to diversify their sources (Poynter)
- How newsrooms track sources to ensure coverage reflects community (Institute for Nonprofit News)
- Are you ready for source tracking? Here’s a practical playbook to know. (Reynolds Journalism Institute)
- Explain your sourcing (Trusting News)
- KQED started tracking sources. Here’s (exactly) how they did it (Nieman Lab)
- Also, consider how piloting source tracking with a smaller group (or tracking one beat or topic) could provide proof of concept for resistant leadership or even staff members. Regardless of whether or not you pilot with a small group, plan to designate a period of time (perhaps two weeks or one month) for a “test period,” where you can give folks an opportunity to test the process and provide feedback on any aspect, whether it’s technical issues or questions about how to collect the information from sources.
- Plan how you will roll this project out. This is a critical step. Scheduling a couple of training sessions and then hoping your colleagues fill out the source tracker likely won’t be enough for this to make the lasting impact you hope for. There are a number of ways you could approach rollout in your newsroom. It depends largely on your internal culture and whether or not you anticipate resistance at any level of the organization.
- A thorough training with clear instructions is foundational. At the Journal Sentinel, Piper said the core group in charge of rolling out Source Matters presented to top leadership and collected feedback. Next, they made another presentation for a group of section editors. From there they scheduled three staff training sessions. Piper coordinated this project across many departments with many stakeholders, leading with influence to get buy-in on a newsroom-wide initiative. A smaller news organization might not require the same number of meetings, but the forethought and planning can be replicated. Getting a team of people on your side to iron out anticipated questions ahead of time will make a difference in long-term buy-in.
- Don’t forget about this project after the first training session ends. Remember: source tracking is a process and a muscle that your newsroom needs to exercise. It should be one piece of a larger DEIB strategy at your organization. The process will not be perfect. Talk about source tracking regularly and set up a project plan specific to your newsroom’s needs. Piper said her newsroom in Milwaukee planned a pizza party for the end of their initial collection period where the staff could eat some free food while finishing categorizing sources. This also provided a forum for collecting feedback and sharing ideas for how to change sourcing. The process is still ongoing in Milwaukee.
Ultimately, source tracking is a way for news organizations to audit how they are or are not including voices in their communities. Launching a source audit is just one way for journalists to reflect on the power they wield and how that impacts communities.
Source Matters is accepting new partners. For anyone interested in learning more about source diversity tracking or seeing a demo, contact us, or reach out to News Products Education Manager Katie Kutsko.