What to do when sources won’t answer?

I am not the first reporter to experience the run-around with a city official, and I certainly won’t be the last. In fact, this is not the first time this semester I have been in the position where I can’t get a hold of or answers from sources. So I thought, before leaving the Missourian in a couple weeks, I should see if any readers have suggestions for what to do.

Although we are talking about not getting answers from city officials, I would like to say that, for the most part, I have gotten quick and in-depth answers from many officials over the semester. So to those who I have spoken with— thanks for taking your time to talk to a student reporter.

But those who do not answers calls, avoid reporter phone calls or say they do not want to comment publicly on an issue they are very much involved with do present a problem for us from time to time.

Here’s my situation as an example, but there are many more reporters in Columbia and around the country who experience the same thing.

A few weeks ago, the Columbia City Council voted to continue the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. We wanted an update on what this program is doing, how many people it has helped the past two years and where the money to continue it is going to come from. According to a previous Missourian article, Columbia and Boone County received a $405,358 grant  in 2009 to help run this two-year program. The Lutheran Family and Children’s Services, Central Missouri Community Action and Phoenix Programs are the three organizations contracted to help administer the program. When I called the Lutheran Family and Children’s Services, they told me there were changes being made to the program. I was told that, before I speak to each organization about the program, I should talk to the city employee who sort of heads this program because he could give me a broader view of what the program has done so far and how it is changing in the future. Then I could talk to each organization to get a view of the parts that make up the whole. And they were right. I need the background information before I can ask specific questions.

So I called him, and he said he did not have time for an interview, but I could email him a list of questions that he would answer as soon as he had time. So I emailed him some questions.

A couple days later, I hadn’t heard back from him, so I called his office again. Instead of talking to me, he told his secretary that he got my email and he will reply when he had time. This was frustrating because he is the guy I needed to talk to in order to understand the program, the changes being made and the overall effect it has had on the homeless in Columbia. So I waited a couple more days, and still there was no reply. So I emailed him again. Still nothing. I have called several times and emailed a couple times. And still nothing.

Other reporters this semester, and I’m sure in past semesters, have had similar problems. Many have a hard time ever getting first contacts. So what do we do? Should we keep calling? Should it depend on the story and the seriousness of the story? Should we camp out at the person’s place of work? Do the expectations of getting answers change if the source is not a city official?

Anyone with answers or suggestions please comment.


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