By Bernice Yeung

There are many lessons about journalism to be learned from “Spotlight,” the film that chronicles The Boston Globe’s investigation into the Boston Archdiocese’s systemic cover-up of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

As the story behind the story, “Spotlight” highlights themes that are especially instructive to investigative reporters: That there’s the unspoken complicity among institutions —including, at times, the news media — to look the other way when vulnerable people are being harmed. That there’s a need for bold editors to back big-picture and long-termprojects. And that there are inevitable internal conflicts that reporters experience in the process of doing their job.

In laying out the general contours of an impressive investigation, “Spotlight” also drives home an obvious but overlooked point: We cannot do our work without human sources.

This was, after all, a story for which no data was available, where cases were hidden by private and confidential legal settlements, and where key documents were either undercourt seal or had been — as shocking as it is to believe — removed from public access by the Catholic Church.

How do you excavate a story that is so deeply buried? The Boston Globe reporters turned to human sources: lawyers, victims, law enforcement, researchers and churchinsiders. They did the hard and sensitive work of developing trust with sources, knocking on doors, pushing hesitant sources to confirm information and confronting the accused.Crucial turning points in the reporting came when people offered testimony of abuse, a revelation about the scope of the problem or a tip about where to find documents. Then bitby bit, the reporting team pieced things together. The picture that emerged was a damning one of intentional obfuscation of widespread sexual abuse.

The reporting team did not rely on interviews alone. They methodically pored over years of Catholic Church directories to pinpoint potentially errant priests. The newspaperfought to have court documents unsealed, which ultimately proved that the Boston Diocese had known about a priest’s transgressions for decades and had failed to act. Butwithout the cooperation and the courage of human sources, the size and severity of the problem would have gone undetected and unproven. 

This is an especially important moment to remind ourselves that an investigative story cannot succeed without excellent sourcing. As investigative reporters seeking to providethe public with evidence of wrongdoing, the recent emphasis on data and documents is undisputedly necessary. In the era of big data, we’re able to dig deeper into darkercorners than ever before.

But in the absence of human insight, we would continue to fumble around in the dark for answers. Regardless of new technologies or increased computing power, we will alwaysneed human sources to provide critical information, to tell us where to look, to offer context and to extract us from confusion. Sources are our sherpas through complicatedmaterial, wonky science or a seemingly incomprehensible set of facts.

And as journalists, we write and produce stories, not white papers. Our work does not have impact and relevance if we fail to connect the facts to the power of lived experience.Journalism requires human testimony to illustrate why, beyond the abstract, the public should care and why the problems we have identified demand reform.

Investigative reporters also have a special responsibility and opportunity to seek out sources that others have ignored. As Martin Baron, the then-editor of the Boston Globe whooversaw the 2002 Boston Archdiocese investigation, told The New Yorker: “I hope that ‘Spotlight’ will cause us all to listen to people who are essentially voiceless, and listen tothem closely.” 

As crucial as sources are, we don’t talk nearly enough about their role in contemporary investigative journalism. And this means we often don’t think deeply enough about ourrelationships with — and impact on — the people who lend us their stories and who lead us to our most critical findings.

I remember taking an anthropology course in graduate school, where I learned that it is standard practice for a researcher to think through their “positionality” to the researchsubject. I had never heard the term before, but as a reporter, I understood intuitively what it meant: There’s an inherent power dynamic between journalists and their sources.

We know instinctively that this dynamic exists. We play on it every time we seek strategies to encourage someone — whether they’re an elected official, a whistleblower or asexual abuse victim — to share information that they’d prefer not to disclose. Making demands on people for information is part of our job. But it doesn’t mean we have to do itthoughtlessly. This is especially true with sources who are not public figures, and who never set out to be martyrs or heroes.

There are many ways to work with sources, and each scenario requires its own approach. But in my time covering topics such as domestic violence, human trafficking andsexual assault, I’m guided by three practices when asking sources to discuss sensitive and potentially traumatic topics:

Apply the Golden Rule. I start by asking myself, “How would I want to be treated by another reporter who is asking me to speak publicly about the most difficult thing that’s everhappened to me?” I use that mindset to guide my interactions with sources.

To reach a source about a painful topic, I try to put myself in his or her place. It’s unlikely that I would agree to do an interview on a sensitive subject with someone who cold-called me or who I’d never met before. So I try to contact an intermediary that they trust — a lawyer, social worker or family member — to ask for help arranging an in-personintroductory meeting with the source. Some sources are ready to tell their stories right away, but for those who are more hesitant, these meetings are a chance to explain whatthe reporting is about and an opportunity for the source to get to know me. I’ve found that showing up and meeting people in their own spaces can be persuasive in and of itself.Sometimes the source even agrees to begin the interview process at what was supposed to be the introductory meeting.

By putting myself on the other side of the table, I’ve also learned that there are a few things I can do to make sure the source is making an informed choice about telling theirstory publicly. Unsurprisingly, most of it has to do with direct and clear communication. If the source is hesitant, it’s helpful to recognize their concerns — and then talk throughcreative solutions that responds to their worries and allows you to get what you need for the story. Sometimes the detail that holds a source back from participating is not ajournalistic deal breaker, but you won’t know it unless you have the discussion. A source-journalist relationship is ultimately a two-way street, and in exchange for the source’scandor, you can offer clarity and transparency about your journalistic objective and the reporting question you are trying to answer. One way to do that is by putting your work incontext by explaining why you are asking for painful or personal information.

Be patient. Dealing with vulnerable sources takes time so don’t be surprised by it. Instead, plan for it. Set the right expectations with yourself and your bosses from the outset bycreating realistic timetables and deadlines. When checking in with a non-responsive source, be courteous and persistent — what I call the “polite full-court press” — but notoverly aggressive. I’ve rarely found sources who have been victimized to respond favorably to tactics that are too pushy or desperate.

And don’t give up on your sources. While we do need to guard against excuses, keep in mind that you are not the number-one priority in a source’s life, which might involvemultiple jobs, family illnesses or other challenges. Find ways to make it easy for them to interact with you by showing up where they already are. Remind them of the publicinterest reasons that they should work with you on the story. But at the same time, don’t make promises that you can’t keep.

Think about the future. It’s a lot to ask someone to recount a harrowing and traumatic experience, and we shouldn’t forget that in the push to meet a deadline. Be sensitive to thefact that after you’ve packed up your recording equipment or published your story, it’s the source who will feel the ripple effects most profoundly. But there are some ways tominimize negative effects: When interviewing someone about a traumatic event, rely on documentation whenever possible to avoid asking upsetting questions that areunnecessary.

Wind up and down from the traumatic event through the arc of your questions. Ask the source if they would like to have a confidant in the room during the interview who can staywith the source after you’ve left. Most importantly, after the story runs, stick with your source if and when there’s blowback. We may not be able to resolve a source’s post-publication problems, but we can still check in occasionally and listen to what they are going through.

The importance of approaching sources thoughtfully was driven home to me most recently by a woman named Maricruz Ladino, a former farmworker who used to wake upbefore dawn to pick lettuce in the agricultural town of Salinas, California.

I met her in 2013 because I was on a reporting team where The Center for Investigative Reporting collaborated with UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program and KQED-FM and investigated the sexual assault of agricultural workers — a phenomenon that has been described as an “open secret” in the fields.

Ladino said she had been raped on the job by her supervisor, and she had taken the rare step of making her case public by filing a lawsuit. It would take months before shewould agree to talk to us — partially because it was a hard decision and partially because unbeknownst to us, she had changed her cellphone number and she hadn’t received anumber of our voicemails. But she eventually became the face of the documentary produced by my reporting colleagues and a crucial voice for the entire project.

Soon after publication and air date, she told us that terrible things were happening to her. People were calling her and leaving hateful messages — some were calling her an“unfit woman.” And Ladino’s fiancé was caught off guard by how public her story had become and broke up with her. He would come around a few months later and propose toher again. (She said yes.)

Throughout all of this, she said that she never regretted telling her story.

A few months after the story broke, I asked her why. We were in her second-floor apartment, decorated with family photos and religious trinkets. She started to explain how hardthe process had been for her, and to make her point, she went into her bedroom and came back with a journal. In it, she had written letters to her deceased father — her way ofdealing with the painful process of talking about the sexual assault. But she explained that she had eventually agreed to tell her story because she wanted other women to knowthat they were not the only ones. And while it was difficult, talking about the rape had also been cathartic for her. “Now it’s part of the medicine I take,” she told me. “It’s like I havea cancer, and I remove a little bit … (with) this medicine.”

There are a million potential ethical pitfalls when journalists deal with human sources. As journalists, we can’t make any promises. We can never fully know in advance how ourwork will affect people — in potentially righteous or unjust ways. In the end, the only thing we can offer a source is an honest explanation of our journalistic objectives and anopportunity for them to give us their truly informed consent.

Because Ladino made her decision to participate with intention, she was capable of weathering the blowback. And while she was driven to tell her story in part to help herself,she also came with an altruistic purpose.

To me, Ladino is the model for what a source can be. She knowingly accepted the potential consequences of talking to reporters, and she shared our belief that telling the storycould serve the public interest.

 

Bernice Yeung is a reporter for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. She was part of the Rape in theFields reporting team, a project that won a 2014 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award and Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Most recently,she was on the reporting team that produced Rape on the Night Shift, which resulted in text, radio and TV documentaries.

This article first appeared in the 1st Quarter 2016 IRE Journal.