How to cultivate sources for investigative reporting
Finding, developing and maintaining good sources is crucial for an investigative reporter.
- “Everybody is a source.” (Monk Manny’s Guide to Source Development – IRE Tip Sheet) Having sources who hold senior positions is great, but some of your most valuable information and story leads might come from sources in the lower ranks.
- Know your sources. Talk to them about things unrelated to your reporting. Find out about their lives and find something you have in common to chat about; a favorite football team, a hobby, kids, vacations.
- Keep in touch. Call them occasionally, even if there’s nothing you need from them. Few sources want to talk to a reporter who only calls when there’s a crisis. You don’t want to be best friends; you do want to be friendly.
- Never lie to your sources and let them know you expect the same from them. Also, allow them talk to you about their fears and concerns on the story, or an any other issues.
- Always do background research on your sources and ask them to tell you about anything you don’t know and which could be used to discredit them after your report is published or broadcast.
- Double-check everything they tell you and keep asking the question: “How do you know this?” Sources sometimes mix facts with assumptions. Some might exaggerate or engage in selective story-telling. Sources often have agendas. It is your responsibility to fact-check their statements.
- Practice the “rule of threes”: After you interview a source, ask them for three other people you can talk to who are knowledgeable about the story. Repeat the process with the next three. That makes the source feel valued and it protects you. You want to get as many voices as possible if you’re going to have a complete story.
- Using unnamed sources is controversial, but sometimes necessary. Do your best to convince your sources to go on the record. If they don’t agree, make sure their reasons are convincing enough. If you agree to protect their identity, do it sparingly — you need to be prepared to go to jail to protect a source.
- After publishing a story, call all your sources, as well as the people you investigated, to talk to them about it. It is a great way to develop sources and build respect, even amongst those who were upset by the report.
This post was originally part of an online course by ICFJ Anywhere, which supports journalists worldwide with free training on a range of topics. Courses are offered in a variety of languages including English, Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and French. For the latest ICFJ Anywhere course offerings, click here.