Opening Doors of Communication with Sources

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

We’re taught as journalists not to get too close to our sources. The story, after all, is about them, not about us. But I’ve always thought there’s an inherent tension here. When writing a story about someone, particularly for a profile or a feature, you often need to learn about the person’s past and what led them to where they are now. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you end up shadowing sources for days or weeks to get to know them on a level that brings their personality and life story to the surface.
When you don’t have days or weeks to shadow someone, it helps to find a nugget of information that connects you to a person. Let’s say you’re writing a story about a soon-to-be mom. Maybe, then, it’s a matter of sharing stories about your own kids or about your experiences with children. If you’re writing a crime story and want to interview the family members of someone who has just died, sometimes a simple, but genuine, “I’m so sorry for your loss” can help break communication barrriers. 
Recently, I wanted to find a way to connect with a local artists I was interviewing named Charles William. I knew I would have to ask Charles some tough questions about the time he spent on the streets before he started selling art, so I wanted to find a connecting point. Early on in the interview, Charles mentioned that he’s a Gemini. I seized this moment to tell him that I’m a Gemini, too. We talked for a few minutes about our astrological sign, and his whole demeanor changed. He laughed when we talked about Geminis having dual personalities, and he started to share more his story with me. It was just a small nugget of information that helped open our lines of communication, but it was enough.