Last month, Houston Landing investigative reporter Alex Stuckey revealed how scores of inmates who died in Houston-area jails had documented histories of mental illnesses yet didn’t receive the help they needed.
It was a powerful story. And it all started with a news tip from a trusted source.
News tips from people like you help journalists unearth all kinds of news stories that would otherwise go untold. But if you’ve never spoken with a journalist, you might be wondering where to start, what to expect and how to protect your identity.
We’re here to help.
The Houston Landing is a nonprofit newsroom that publishes stories about Houston, Harris County and the seven neighboring counties that make up this incredibly diverse region. We want to make it as easy as possible for you to contact our team of journalists to share story ideas. And we want to make sure you know what to expect if you’re talking to a journalist for the first time.
Depending on the type of story you want to tell us about, you can also reach us on our main social media channels on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram. These are perfectly fine methods to reach us for tips about feel-good stories, interesting news features or problems you can alert us to that won’t get you in trouble.
But how should you contact us if you are taking a risk by talking to a reporter? For example, many companies and government agencies prohibit employees from talking to the news media. If your employer is doing something wrong and you believe the public should know about it, we want to hear from you, but we don’t want you to lose your job over it.
Safely using email
To keep your communications secure, it’s best to avoid contacting us from your work computer, your work phone or a work account, since your employer might have access to your messages. Avoid sending us sensitive information on services such as Facebook, since social media companies can access your messages.
Consider setting up a personal email account to contact us and make sure you choose a service that offers “end-to-end” encryption, which means the email provider can’t access the contents of your messages.
ProtonMail is one company that offers end-to-end encryption for free, and you can set up an account without using your real name. If you send me a message from your ProtonMail account to my ProtonMail account at firstname.lastname@example.org, we’ll be the only people who can read those messages.
The downside of email is that even if you use end-to-end encryption, not everything is fully encrypted, such as the subject line and the email addresses of the sender and the recipient.
If you have a smartphone, you can use the gold standard of secure communication with an app called Signal. Available on Apple and Android, Signal not only uses end-to-end encryption like ProtonMail, but there’s very little metadata that tracks details about messages. You can contact me on Signal at 210-692-4655. The app is free to download and use.
Using the U.S. Postal Service is a safe, old-school way to contact us, especially if you want to send us records that help document your story idea. Our address is 4203 Montrose Blvd., Suite 650, Houston, TX, 77006. If you want to remain anonymous, don’t put your name or return address on the envelope.
What makes a good news tip?
We only act on news tips that can be verified by provable facts, so if you have pertinent documentation or evidence to support your tip, we might ask if you’re comfortable sharing copies with us. A good tip will be about a unique, interesting or newsworthy issue in the Houston area.
Keep in mind that not every tip or story idea pans out. Sometimes a little digging reveals there’s more to the story that might change the gist of a tip or even disprove it. Good journalists look for these complexities, no matter how juicy a story sounds.
What can you expect from us once you make contact?
We receive a lot of story ideas from the public. And while we recognize that they’re all important topics to the people who are sharing them, not everything rises to the level of a news story. If it’s something that might be newsworthy, a member of our reporting team will likely email or call you to gather more information.
You might be asked to describe what happened and how you know what you know. For many news tips, we talk to people on an “off the record” basis, which means we won’t disclose the identity of a source, but we might use information provided by the source to try to confirm a story.
You might have also heard the term “on the record.” That means journalists can quote you in a news story and use your name. We’ll make sure you understand these distinctions if you speak with us. You can read our full ethics policy here. For many types of news tips, there won’t be a reason to go on the record. But even if you’re comfortable being named and quoted in a news article, keep in mind that your comments will likely live online for a long, long time.
Can you really trust the media?
We’re not blind to claims that journalists are enemies of the people. The reality of good journalism is far different.
I can’t tell you how many thank-you notes I’ve received from people who were grateful that a journalist took the time to look into something that deeply affected them. News tips from people like you help make the world a better place.
Remember Alex’s article about jail deaths? After it was published, the story had an immediate impact and county officials announced more funding to assist inmates. Alex’s stellar work hasn’t ended — she’s busy pursuing future stories about this important topic.
And it all started with a news tip.