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.
Eric, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, responded on Facebook with more advice for dealing with reluctant sources (I added a link):
- If you already possess information the source would be curious about, use that to your advantage in approaching them. Former colleague Pete Carey approached a crucial source in New Orleans – post Katrina – and said, as the man was closing the door, “I didn’t come here to ask you questions, I just wanted to let you know what I know.” The door opened and the rest is history.
- Finish every initial encounter with the suggestion that the source will want to know – as time goes on – what you have discovered and what you plan to publish. Of course, you’ll need extensive personal information to re-contact them: cell phone number, home phone number, email address, home address, office address and, perhaps, some additional info (DOB, SSN) in case you lose track. I’ve gotten the whole nine yards that way. In one case, we were able to track a man’s criminal activity using what he gave me.
- Deeply background every source you approach, preferably ahead of time, and I mean scorched earth, without spooking the more sensitive ones.
- Sometimes my most aggressive backgrounding activities – including contacting neighbors, colleagues, etc. – have caused a reluctant source to contact me, instead of the other way around. People who contact you – rather than you contacting them – tend to be more supplicant, which can be an advantage to a reporter.
- Always ask sources for a list of their friends and enemies (sometimes this line of questioning requires subtlety). Then ask what each enemy would say about them.
- Never argue with a person about their reluctances. Simply interview those fears. You’ll be amazed at the results of that approach.
- In extreme cases – where sources must remain anonymous – get them to sign sworn affidavits. An added benefit — your readers will find these affiants more believe-able (see our Brock Adams investigation).
- Final point – the vast majority of sources should be on the record and all methods, including ratcheting, should be employed to assure that.
Thanks to Eric for adding this advice to what I offered in last week’s post. I also recommend reading his “Loosening Lips” handout, from the best workshop I ever attended on interviewing.