Investigative Resources

Developing sources

  • Most public bodies have self-appointed watchdogs. Get to know them, even if they seem a bit crazy.
  • Collect business cards or contact info from everyone you meet, interview etc.
  • Create an organized contact system such as Outlook. Have an electronic Rolodex in addition to the paper one.
  • Tend to your source garden. Spend some time and contact each source every few months – or at least once a year – to check in.

Developing sources

  • Try to think of yourself as always on duty. The best sources already know and trust you – people at church, your neighbors, your family, friends etc.
  • Even if you think you aren’t interested in something a source tells you, spend some time checking it out. Get back to them with the outcome.
  • Run background checks on sources if you are placing a high level of trust in them. Do they have a criminal past? Are they being honest about who they are?
  • Everyone has an axe to grind. That shouldn’t disqualify them as a source. Just try to figure out what their angle is.
  • People who aren’t public officials don’t understand the difference between off the record, on background, etc. Make it very clear what your understanding is.

Going off the record

Definitions

  • On the record: You use it with the source’s name
  • Off the record: You can’t use the information and must confirm it some other way. You can’t tell anyone that the source told you.
  • Not for attribution or on background: You can use the information in the paper but you can’t say where you got it. Proceed with caution.

Anonymous sources

  • Is the story crucial to the public? Does it further equip readers and viewers to make responsible decisions in this democracy? Or is it simply a scoop?
  • Is the information this source will provide crucial to the story?
  • Does this source have firsthand knowledge of what he or she is describing? Can you report the nature of that knowledge to help the public judge the source’s reliability? Is this source the only person with firsthand knowledge or is there someone else who could provide the same information on the record?
  • Is the source targeting an individual or group of individuals, and if so, does the source benefit? How? Who else benefits? How?
  • How would the source be harmed by publication of his or her name? Can you make that clear to the audience? Who else might be harmed?

» Source: Poynter Institute
Anonymous sources

  • Ask the source why he or she wants to go off the record.
  • Warn the source that if the information is published, his name will be revealed to at least one editor back in the newsroom. Ask him if he’ll come forward if you are subpoenaed, as reporters have been since Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA operative was revealed.
  • Ask the source to suggest others who can at least confirm the information he provided and possibly go on the record.
  • End every conversation on the record. Go over each piece of information. Can this be on the record? What about this?

» Source: Poynter Institute

Be visible so people can find you

  • Always keep your business cards handy.
  • Put your email and phone number at the end of your stories if possible.
  • Go to meetings and events even if you aren’t writing a story.
  • Carry something with your paper’s logo on it.
  • Make sure your newspaper’s website has a staff list with contact info.
  • Use Facebook and Twitter to get story ideas, sources for stories. Be aware your posts are being watched. Don’t be too political in social media, blogs etc.

Interviewing

  •  Try to conduct interviews in person.
  • Write down your questions in advance but be prepared to stray from them.
  • Take notes even if you use a tape recorder.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence and eye contact.
  • Do your homework in advance. Bring your files and other materials with you.
  • For a showdown interview, bring a stack of files.
  • Save your hardball questions for the end in case the subject ends the interview.

Interviewing

  • Consider asking another reporter to come along for a good cop-bad cop routine.
  • Really listen to what the source is saying, note facial expressions, clothing, nervousness etc.
  • Throw in a question you already know the answer to and can verify elsewhere to see if the source answers honestly.
  • Background check your source before the interview.
  • At the end, ask if there’s anything the source wants to add, any documents you should get, any other people you should interview. Triangulate!
  • Interviewing
  • Don’t ambush people if you can avoid it. Let them know what you will be talking about so they are prepared.
  • Bring a flash drive to grab electronic copies of documents they refer to.
  • Take a mental photo (or a real one) and make notes for anecdotal, color material in your story.
  • It’s fine to read quotes back to people and fact check. Just be clear what your arrangement is if the source wants to change parts of the story later.