Cart 0 $0.00
IRE favicon

How to build trust and get reluctant sources to talk

By Laura Rena Murray

Ellen Gabler of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tony Kovaleski of NBC Bay Area, Ellen Weiss of Scripps Washington Bureau and documentary producer Andrés Cediel discussed cautionary steps to consider when identifying sources and offered advice on getting reluctant sources to speak at the IRE Conference in San Francisco.

Key recommendations for locating trustworthy sources included understanding their motives for speaking, identifying potential roadblocks to understand their hesitation, doing a criminal background check and using mutual contacts to build credibility.

Kovaleski stressed the importance of making sure reluctant sources understand the risks. “I like my job. I like my stories,” he said, “but I like people more.”

Gabler suggested mining lawsuits, Facebook support groups and advocacy organizations for sources. By reporting thoroughly and requesting medical records, test results, journals and photos, she put her sources at ease because “they felt confident that I was taking so much time to tell their story.” 

When dealing with agencies reluctant to release records or data, Gabler advised being polite while explaining the desire to understand the problem, taking copious notes, referring back to former correspondence and, when all else fails, calling the bosses.

Cediel also emphasized the importance of newsroom diversity. They used Spanish-speaking reporters in the newsroom to interview monolingual women who were not in the country legally.

To report on assault and rape, Cediel said it was important not to pressure sources into talking. “It had to be their decision,” he said, “not mine.”

Regarding possible retaliation for speaking out, Kovaleski said he always asks sources on camera, “What happens if you lose your job after this interview?” One technique he employs to mitigate potential retaliatory measures and establish trust is calling company numbers with a blocked number.

The panelists agreed it was important to follow a story until it was done and to write about retaliatory measures, if any occur.

“The source has to trust the journalist and the journalist has to trust the source,” Weiss said.


Laura Rena Murray is a San Francisco-based independent investigative journalist covering public interest and accountability stories that highlight corruption, mismanagement or human rights violations. Her cross border investigations have exposed resource deals brokered by corporate webs with pariah regimes throughout Africa and examined corporate land concessions in Southeast Asia that displace tens of thousands in return for millions in investments.

109 Lee Hills Hall, Missouri School of Journalism   |   221 S. Eighth St., Columbia, MO 65201   |   573-882-2042   |   |   Privacy Policy
crossmenu linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram
My cart
Your cart is empty.

Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.