As a reporter, it breaks your cold, black heart.
The man you met in the parking garage is giving you gold — tales of corruption, back-room deals, cover-ups … and murder!
TIP NUMBER ONE for aspiring reporters: The word “murder” should always follow the ellipsis for dramatic effect. It provides a suspenseful, film noir feel that your editors will promptly hack out of your copy. Damn them!
The man in the parking garage spills it all. He names names, he provides documentation, he gives you so much information that you might as well go ahead and buy a frame for that Pulitzer Prize. Try Big Lots. Great deals on frames over there.
When the meeting is over, your notebook is hot to the touch and your pencil has been whittled down to the size of a sewing needle. You place them in an airtight bag because surely the Museum of Journalistic Awesomeness will want them for posterity. Then you do what you have to do in order to bring this parking garage meeting with fate to a close.
“Thank you, sir, for this excellent information. May I have your name?”
The fellow looks at you like you have a tentacle growing out of your forehead.
“Oh no,” he says. “All of this was completely off the record.”
D’oh! That frame you bought at Big Lots? If you provide a self-addressed, stamped envelope, I’ll send along a photo of myself to fill it. I really am a handsome devil.
TIP NUMBER TWO: Off the record means off the record. It’s non-negotiable. If you promise a source that you will protect his identity, you must do so at all cost. If you’re a reporter who is tempted to violate this sacrosanct rule, you might as well start painting quaint seaside images on rocks and trying to sell them to tourists because your journalism career is over.
An off-the-record scenario comes in many forms. “You didn’t hear it from me” is a popular preamble, as is, “Between you, me and the lamppost … ” and, “If you tell anyone where you got this information, I will squash you like a bug.”
Information of such a nature can be used as a springboard to further reporting, but it can never be attributed. Herein lies the problem because most good editors will demand attribution. “According to a source” just doesn’t cut it when the information that follows is of an inflammatory nature. “According to a guy I met in the parking lot” sounds pretty cool but you will never slip that one by a copy desk. Ask me how I know.
A source to whom you have promised anonymity must be protected at all cost. Burn one source and you will promptly establish a reputation as a source-burner and nobody will talk to you. The rest of your journalistic life will consist of rewriting press releases and penning weather stories — the Ninth Circle of Reporter Hell, in other words.
Back in two-thousand-whenever-that-was, scandal was afoot in Auburn. The mayor had been arrested on a charge of drunken driving, but all was not as it appeared. There were rumors of grudges and vendettas, dirty deals and generally snake-like behavior.
While the paper was reporting on the known facts, I came into possession of an in-house police document that spelled out the whole sordid affair in titillating detail.
TIP NUMBER THREE: The word ‘titillating’ all by itself is, in fact, titillating. Use it often to titillate your readers titillatingly.
With that document in hand, I was able to write a titillating story of back-stabbing, trickery and deceit, an orgy of lurid detail that revealed the inner workings of the police department and lay bare the seamy side of municipal politics where …
I’ve tired of writing that sentence. The point is, over ensuing days, police, lawyers and city officials fell all over themselves trying to compel me to identify my source. The pressure was intense. And kind of fun! My editors and I met with the newspaper’s attorneys who promptly advised that there was a chance I might be jailed over my unwillingness to reveal the name of the person who had provided the damning documentation.
I’VE LOST COUNT OF THE TIP NUMBER: If given a choice between revealing your source and getting locked up, always choose the latter. Sitting on a hard cot and fending off advances from your cellmate is probably a real bummer, but even worse is losing your credibility as a reporter and your sense of integrity as a man. As the Latin put it, “Don’t be a rat fink, you tool.”
I got the sense that my editors were delighted at the prospect of sending me off to jail. Headlines like “HANDSOME REPORTER JAILED!” would sell a lot of papers, for starters. Plus, they’d have me out of their hair for a while and you just can’t put a price on that.
But the matter was ultimately dropped and the press for my source came down to one high-ranking police official offering me — this is absolutely true — free beer and pizza for the remainder of my life if I’d just spill the beans.
Don’t spill the beans, aspiring reporter. Never reveal a source who does not wish to be revealed. It is vital that you establish a reputation for honor if you wish to rally sources, including cops, insiders and witnesses to … murder!
See what I did there?
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. Anything emailed to [email protected] will stay between you, him and the lamppost, unless it’s really juicy.