In a couple of different contexts recently, I’ve had interesting discussions with journalists about the differences between dealing with confidential sources who are feeding you tips and using confidentiality to even start a conversation with a source who doesn’t want to talk to you.
However you handle confidential sources (as a reporter, an editor or a news organization), this is a fundamental difference that changes nearly everything about the situation and how you address it.
One simple example: My friend Dan Gillmor argues that journalists should reveal the identities of unnamed sources who lie to them. He makes some excellent points, and I think that could and perhaps should be part of the agreement with an eager source who contacts a reporter and wants to leak information to you. But I think the consequence of breaking your promise of confidentiality gives you no chance to persuade a reluctant source to tell you anything. Beyond the issue of intentional lying, part of the source’s reluctance might be that he or she has incomplete knowledge, or only second-hand information. If errors on the source’s part will be treated as lies to be publicly rebuked, you’re not getting that interview. The source doesn’t want to talk to you anyway; confidentiality is the only way to start a conversation.
The dynamics are entirely different depending on the source’s willingness to talk. The reporter’s position shifts from demanding to pleading.
I may blog sometime about how to handle the eager source (or I may decide I covered it well enough in my 2013 general post on dealing with confidential sources). This post will focus on dealing with reluctant sources.
I’m not talking here about dealing with a politician who’s trying to shut out the press in a fit of pique or a show of power. Or about a regular source who’s angry and decided not to cooperate for a while (or ever).
My focus here is on getting information from people who may know things that are helpful to your story but who have strong and valid reasons not to talk to you.
I’m going to generalize (and thus perhaps miss a few rare situations) that in most of these situations, the reluctance stems from one or more of these factors:
- The information you seek is confidential, protected by law or policy.
- The person doesn’t know (or fully know) what you want to know.
- The person doesn’t trust you.
- The information you seek is personal and painful.
I’ll address these in order.
You’re seeking confidential information
Reporters often work on stories where we’re pursuing information that people are actually forbidden to give us for a variety of reasons:
- Many stories, particularly in such areas as the military or national security, involve information that is classified. Perhaps you think the information should be public, but your potential source could be breaking the law by helping you.
- Some information, such as personal education or health care information, might be confidential under federal or state privacy laws. Again, your source has legal reasons not to talk to you.
- Some information is protected in other ways, such as regulations, company policies or professional ethics codes. Your source may not be breaking the law by cooperating with you, but still faces consequences, including perhaps losing a job.
These are some of the toughest persuasion situations. You simply can’t tell a person (whether a longtime source or a total stranger) that your story is worth their freedom or their job.
None of these techniques works every time, and they may all fail with some sources and situations. Sometimes you won’t even get time to try them all. But some of them can help:
- Ask what information is public. Every story involves a range of facts. Some of what you need may be confidential, but other information may be available in public records. Some facts that are in the classified or confidential files might be available elsewhere in public documents. Asking a source to be your guide to what’s available publicly is a great way to build trust. You can note that if you get the document, or even just get to see it and take notes, you can quote the doc and not use the unnamed source at all (or at least less) in the story. At least your story improves. And if working together through the public info helps you get access to the shielded material, then you’ve really succeeded.
- Ask for general understanding, rather than specific information. Again, I’m talking here about turning your source into a guide, a more helpful relationship. Acknowledge that your source doesn’t have your whole story. If you can get an overview of the situation, or your source’s perspective, that can help you identify other sources who might be able to provide details. Your overview conversation might give you a chance to build the trust that will lead to the details. Or it might point you to some other sources or documents that can provide the details. Sometimes the overview itself can be a valid story, even if the details would provide a better story.
- Seek other avenues. If it’s illegal for a source to give you a record, find out whether it’s legal for someone else to give you the record. Years ago when some Des Moines Register reporters who worked for me were investigating Iowa’s juvenile justice system, records of individual cases were confidential under state law. But the parents of juveniles were entitled to copies of the records and were not bound by the confidentiality rules. So the reporters were able to obtain copies of records in key cases from the parents of youths in the system.
The source doesn’t know what you want to know
This is why it’s important to understand why a source doesn’t want to talk. If a source doesn’t know the information you’re seeking, you’re not going to use this person as a primary source anyway. But the source still might be helpful. You can take one of three paths in this case:
- You can see whether the source will talk on the record, since she won’t be a source for the key information anyway. The source might have some helpful supplemental facts that aren’t as sensitive as the key information. Getting some of the surrounding facts on the record might help bolster the credibility of the story, even if you can’t get the core facts from an on-the-record source.
- You can grant the source confidentiality and discuss what the source knows and what he doesn’t. Sometimes a source who doesn’t know the key information can lead you to a source who does know. Or the source provides important context and understanding that will be helpful as you pursue the story.
- You can talk on the record about the matters the source is willing to talk about, then grant confidentiality to discuss matters where the source is speculating or doesn’t have direct knowledge. You’re not going to report anything based on this confidential information, but if you think the source is pretty well-informed, conflicts with sources who give you the key information may be red flags that require extra verification steps.
The source doesn’t trust you
Lack of trust comes primarily in two different forms:
- The source has specific reasons not to trust you specifically or the media in general, based on previous bad experiences.
- The source is not used to dealing with the media and has no reason to trust you, but no specific reasons for distrust.
Rebuilding trust can come slowly, if at all. If a source was unhappy with a previous experience with you, try to learn why, explain what you did and why. Be ready to apologize and admit errors, if you made any. But sometimes this distrust will be difficult or impossible to repair. Perhaps you just did your job and the source didn’t like the results. If you have any chance to rebuild trust here, it starts with an off-the-record conversation (if the source will trust you enough to talk off the record).
If the source’s distrust is based in a previous bad media experience, but you weren’t involved, explain how you work with sources, how you verify facts, how you protect sources, etc. You can play the good cop to the “bad cop” of previous reporters (whether they were really bad or not).
If the problem is not experience-rooted distrust, but you have not won the source’s trust yet, you can build trust with an off-the-record conversation. You might do more explaining than interviewing in the conversation: Explain why named sources make your stories more credible, explain about the public interest in the topic you’re pursuing, explain your process of verification, explain how and why you will protect an unnamed source’s identity. You might build enough trust that the source will discuss the issue you’re interested in on the record, or you might build enough trust for an interview in which you can use the source’s information, but not the name. (Be sure you both are clear on the terms of the agreement, and how you will attribute any information you use.)
You want personal and painful information
Journalists write stories sometimes about intimate matters such as illness, addiction, sexual abuse, crime, abortion and domestic violence. I have written about all those matters and more. Rarely would the person talk initially for the record. Sometimes you build some trust by discussing a matter off the record, and then you persuade the source to talk for the record. (I wrote in 2013 about how I persuaded women to discuss difficult pregnancy decisions for the record.)
Depending on the nature of the story and the personal information, your news organization might be willing to write a story without identifying the source. For instance, many of the stories I’ve written about survivors of sexual abuse did not use their full names. (I avoid using fictitious names, usually agreeing to use a first or middle name.) I did a story on a survivor of domestic abuse who used a little-known program in the Social Security Administration to provide new identities to abuse survivors seeking to hide from abusers. It would be ridiculous in such a story to insist on using the source’s name, but I was able to confirm details of her story through court documents and a local law-enforcement source.
Persuading a reluctant source to go on the record
After interviewing a source in confidence, explore the possibility of getting some or all of the interview on the record. As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder calls this technique “ratcheting”:
At the end of the interview, pick out a good quote in your notes that isn’t too damning and say: ‘Now what about this thing you said here? Why can’t you say that on the record?’ If they agree to put that comment on the record, go to another one in your notes and say: ‘Well, if you can say that on the record, why can’t you say this?’ And so on. I have gotten an entire notebook on the record this way. If they insist on anonymity, however, you must honor it.
Update: Eric provided more advice for dealing with reluctant sources, which I have posted separately.
I also have been successful in using information from unnamed second-hand sources to push reluctant first-hand sources to talk, as I discussed in a post about another domestic violence story.
What are techniques that have helped you work with reluctant sources?