Talking to Sources
Oct. 15, 2014—15 minute read
In this post, you'll learn:
Convincing strangers to give up information is fundamental to journalism, and it's an indispensable skill you'll need to learn.
When I approached the glass box, I saw the inmate sitting there in a loose gray jumpsuit, glaring out. Darryl Littlejohn had the body of a Seahawks cornerback, a shiny shaved head, and hooded eyes. I would soon be introduced to this notorious career criminal, public enemy No. 1 in New York because he’d allegedly raped and murdered a pretty criminology student.
It was 2006, and I had come to Rikers Island hoping Littlejohn, 41, would give me an interview.
The victim, Imette St. Guillen, had been snatched from a popular Manhattan bar where Littlejohn worked as a bouncer, sexually assaulted, strangled, and dumped near a landfill. I arrived at Rikers uninvited—a jailhouse doorknock, as we called it at the New York Post.
A female corrections officer unlocked the door and ushered me into a small square space with a gray table and two metal chairs. Littlejohn was sitting back, his hands uncuffed. There were no restraints or barriers of any kind, which surprised me. His past, I’d discovered, included a string of rape allegations suggesting he’d made a habit of grabbing women off the street and forcing them into his van. Twice he’d been convicted of armed robbery. I’d written a story about his first victim, the owner of a Manhattan men’s store, whose face he’d slashed with a barber’s razor.
The guard pulled back the other chair for me, walked out, and closed the door.
“Hello,” I said.
“Who are you?”
“I’m a reporter from the New York Post. My apologies for showing up like this. I’m hoping to talk to you.”
He stared at me in silence.
“Do you mind if I sit down?”
He nodded at the chair.
I scooted the chair close to the table, inches from his face. I needed to show this man I wasn’t afraid even though he could have punched me or grabbed me around the throat before the guards could do anything.
So it goes when you’re on the job.
Littlejohn and I wound up talking for hours. Moving right next to him, rather than away, proved to be the right call and was a reminder reporting requires you to do everything in your power to make people feel comfortable enough to open up. There are many different approaches to journalism, but if you can’t convince strangers to reveal details, you won’t succeed. It’s the most basic, indispensable talent in the game.
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I’ve been a reporter for more than 30 years, and every major story I worked on involved persuading someone to say something unexpected or off-limits. But I have no secret formula. I can’t tell you how to do it yourself. However, I can say this: There is no substitute for instincts. You must trust yours implicitly and develop your style based on a sober assessment of your strengths and weaknesses.
Some reporters are comfortable being aggressive and combative. They challenge subjects immediately, get in their faces, rile them up until they speak. Others, like me, rely on empathy. I do my best to understand and appreciate their points of view and sometimes even mimic their inflections.
“I always know when you’re talking to a mobster,” my girlfriend once said. “You end up sounding just like them.” I’m sure she’s right. But when I ease into the tough questions, I do so having built some measure of trust.
Both techniques can work. Mike Wallace, who could provoke an argument with his dog, was the opposite of Ed Bradley, who was warm, avuncular, diplomatic. Yet these two legendary interviewers from 60 Minutes were equally skilled at extracting sensitive information from their sources.
Think of it this way: How you should proceed depends on how you react when you don’t know anyone at a party. How do you put people at ease? Everyone possesses some skill at presenting themselves in a favorable light during challenging circumstances.
If you’re shy or reluctant to make random approaches, don’t worry. I would guess the introverted reporter is at least as common as the ebullient one. I don’t enjoy walking up and asking questions to people I’ve never met. Fills me with anxiety. But I force myself, pretending to be a more confident, carefree person because I have no other choice. Call it an acting job.
Once, when interviewing a beautiful socialite over lunch, I inadvertently spat out a small bit of sandwich, which arched across the table. As I opened my mouth to apologize, another bit went flying, then a third. She looked at me like, “What the hell?” If this had occurred in my private life, I probably would have bolted in shame.
“Oh my god!” I cried, covereing my mouth dramatically. “Am I, like, spitting food all over you?” She couldn’t help but laugh.
Be ever observant and quick to react to what’s in front of you. Try to embrace the obvious. Act fast when things are breaking. Go slow whenever possible. And always be ready to take risks.
Case in point: A series of front-page scoops on the Staten Island ferry crash of 2006 resulted directly from a mid-conversation gamble that could have ended very badly.
I had been trying to reach Michael Gansas, the captain of the ill-fated Anthony J. Barberi, which crashed after his co-captain dozed off at the helm, killing 11 passengers and maiming dozens more. Gansas, who at the time was checking lifeboats for a Coast Guard inspection, went into full retreat, refusing to meet with investigators or tell anyone what he knew. I’d gotten a list of his family members and began calling them one by one.
His brother Joe picked up. I told him who I was and that I was interested in hearing his thoughts. I said Michael seemed to be shouldering the blame for an accident that wasn’t necessarily his fault. Or at least not his sole responsibility.
“You d-d-d-d-don’t even know,” he said. “It’s really not f-f-f-f-fair. My b-b-b-b-b—”
“Brother,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. He sighed and stopped talking.
“That’s some stutter you’ve got!” I blurted out. I couldn’t help it. Joe’s inability to communicate hung between us like a half-chewed sandwich bit. “I happen to know something about stuttering. A cop source of mine, a detective, had this horrible stutter but he was really good at police work. I wanted to write about him, so I started looking into the condition.”
“Really?” Joe said.
“I found out there all these treatments that don’t work and so a lot of people wind up covering. Some really famous stutterers were great speakers. Like Winston Churchill. He talked about actually seeing words he couldn’t say coming at him, knowing he had to think of a different word. So he developed this amazing vocabulary. Howard Cosell used a deliberate delivery. This-is-How-ard-Co-sell.”
Launching into this topic was not exactly planned. But I was telling this stranger I’m sympathetic to your struggles; I put you in a class with some accomplished folk; I do my homework and keep an open mind; maybe I can identify with your brother’s anguish.
As we talked about his speech impediment, Joe’s stutter began to loosen. He warmed up to me. And it became clear he and his brother were close, that Joe knew a lot about the city’s troubled ferry operations because of Michael’s years of service. I grew to like him—we would end up having many more conversations—and over several weeks, he passed along key pieces of information about the agency and introduced to me to other valuable sources.
Those connections helped me earn the respect of New York ship captains, an insular fraternity, which led to a number of exclusive stories. I exposed a criminally negligent culture at the city’s Department of Transportation, one that flouted regulations. Most of the deckhands on the Barberi were playing cards or relaxing below deck at the time of the crash instead of manning their forward positions as mandated. Had they been standing where they were supposed to be, lives could have been saved.
First calls are always the toughest. It helps to think through what the person is facing on the other end of the line. If you’re enthusiastic, people tend to respond. If you talk about yourself, they are less fearful that you harbor a hidden agenda or intend to hurt them with your story. It’s good to remember the public generally distrusts the media. Often, I will come right out and explain what I want to write. Whenever appropriate, I try to joke around to establish a casual familiarity.
But the end game must be top of mind: What do I need from this person, and how can I get it?
An investigation into city overtime abuse started with a phone call to a payroll bureaucrat. I could only imagine the scintillating environment at her office.
“Good afternoon!” I chirped. “I’m calling from the New York Post. How are you today?”
“Okay,” she monotoned. “How are you?”
“Well, I’d be fine if they stopped with all the birthday parties over here. Do you know I just heard the fourth bad rendition of `Happy Birthday to You’ this week? Not a single person in this office can carry a tune. And I’m getting diabetes from all the cake.”
A little over the top, perhaps, but this kind of approach tends to work.
When you know you’re headed for a particularly painful topic, stretching out the conversation can be the best option. My first question to Darryl Littlejohn was not: “So, did you kill her?” But at some point, I had to get there.
He was an interesting challenge. He made it clear he was not open to being interviewed — “I’m not talking to you” was his first statement. But he didn’t call for the guard or stand up to leave.
“I probably wouldn’t want to either,” I told him.
I had to think for a moment. I knew the Dorrian family, his employers at the bar where St. Guillen was abducted, had been cooperating with police. Perhaps he’d heard this as well and felt betrayed. “I’m interested in what it’s like to work for those owners,” I said. “You know, we’ve heard all kinds of rumors about shady stuff they were doing over there. I bet most people have no idea what was really going on.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” he said. “But I really can’t say anything.”
“No problem,” I said. We sat in silence for a while.
“Well, I’m here anyway. I did find out a little bit about you. You grew up in Queens, right? Maybe you could tell me what that was like.”
“It was hard,” he said.
“Do you have any siblings? Are you close to your parents?”
“Let’s leave them out of this,” he said.
“So you haven’t had any visitors since your arrest?”
“I tell them not to come.”
I continued to gently prod him about his upbringing, figuring he might be more open to speak about his early life than his current predicament. At one point he admitted he’d done “a lot of stupid shit” as a young man.
“You mean like that hold-up at the men’s store?”
“I heard about that,” I said. “You were what, 18? And with some other guy who got away. Who was that guy, anyway?”
“I can’t tell you. But let’s just say I got talked into that job.”
“The police said you told them you met him on the subway.”
“Nah. He was an older guy from the neighborhood. I did it to be down, you know? It wasn’t my idea.”
The next two hours were a series of loops. Littlejohn would talk about himself and his past, and when he appeared to relax, I’d ask about St. Guillen. He would tell me he couldn’t speak on that. So we’d return to his own history. He’d look comfortable again. I’d bring up the murder. He’d shut down.
But eventually he got into what happened that night. He said he didn’t see Guillen come in, but when he noticed her it was late, about 4 a.m. She was tipsy, by herself, and didn’t want to leave despite being asked to do so by manager Danny Dorrian.
“She said something like, ‘I paid for these drinks. I’ll leave when I want to leave.’ Danny said, ‘You’ve got to go, you got to go.’ ” So Littlejohn stepped in. “I said, ‘Listen, lady: It’s almost closing time.’ She said she was an FBI agent. I said, ‘I don’t care who you are, you got to go.’ Then she said, ‘That’s why 50 percent of black people are in jail.’ I didn’t even know what that meant.”
Littlejohn claimed she finally did walk out—alone. He remained at the bar for about 15 more minutes, then went home by himself, taking the subway because his van was broken. He never saw her again, he said.
I asked if he had anything to do with St. Guillen’s murder. He said no.
“Well, you must be angry about being arrested,” I said.
“I look at it like karma,” he said. “For all the shit I’ve done.”
The Post was thrilled. My editor splashed the story over two pages, the headline screaming: “Imette’s ‘killer’ whines of his bad ‘karma.’ ” He was later convicted at trial and sentenced to 25 to life. You can read my interview with him here.
I’m not sure if I could have pulled it off without the occasional ability to remain calm during difficult situations.
I’ll tell you one more story. It’s about how my colleague, the talented Susannah Cahalan, scored a career-changing scoop as a college intern at the Post. This story is also about a jailhouse doorknock. Her exclusive in January of 2007 transformed Cahalan from low-paid beginner to central player in the biggest crime story in the country.
She had worked for us in the summer and again during the winter break of 2006 and had just returned to Washington University in St. Louis for her final semester. That’s when the case of Michael Devlin broke—right near her college town.
Devlin stood accused of kidnapping two boys, keeping one of them locked up for years for his own vile purposes. People didn’t know for certain, but many assumed Devlin sexually assaulted the boy repeatedly. I got Susannah on the phone and implored her to make a trip to the jail where Devlin was locked up in Union, Missouri.
“I can’t,” she said. “I got back to school late and I’ve already missed so many classes.”
“Yeah, but this one be could good. Look, he’s got visiting hours on Friday morning. Can you get free for a couple of hours? Show up early and if he turns you away, you’re done. Shouldn’t take long.”
“Uh… okay. Where am I going?”
When she arrived at the prison, a herd of national media had camped outside the gates. Cahalan breezed past the reporters, went in, and requested a visit with Devlin. He agreed, not knowing who she was. She explained she wanted his story for the Post. She was nice, cheerful, supportive. She asked about his family. She offered to bring him books. And he spoke with her in detail.
As one might imagine, the other journalists went nuts, an apoplectic response fueled in part by Cahalan’s youth and brazenness. TIME, People, Newsweek, and every major TV network didn’t want to admit the obvious—they’d been schooled by a neophyte.
Cahalan, who is now a best-selling author, had demonstrated another aspect of successful reporting: When you’re after information, just ask for it. Yes, you need guts. Yes, it helps to use psychological tactics to get people to talk. And perhaps some of the techniques I’ve spelled out here will be of assistance as you hunt for big stories. But sometimes, the simple act of making a request is enough. In journalism, as in life, you’ll never get what you want if you don’t ask.