Interviews: the Human Element of Your Investigation
By Nuria Tesón, Ankita Anand, Jess Lempit, Megha Rajagopalan
In Short: Gain the techniques, skills and good practices you need to safely identify, interview and maintain contact with people during your investigations in order to gather and strengthen evidence.
Most of the times when undertaking an investigation, you will need to support it beyond desk and field research. Human sources are often indispensable in this process, and facing subjective reactions to incidents or conducting expert conversations will be unavoidable. Here you will find tips on how to address difficult subjects, techniques to keep yourself and your interviewees safe, and methods to build up connections that might be helpful in future investigations.
On “Sources” and “Interview Subjects”
It’s important to make a distinction between interview subjects / interviewees and sources. Interviewees are those that you may meet for a current investigation, and may or may not meet again. Sources are those you will need to invest some effort in building connections with, to create and maintain a network of contacts for current and future work. Some of your interviewees may become your sources and you will have to establish different dynamics with them than you would with a one-time interviewee.
Mitigating risks of interviews
Human interactions are all about common sense. But with interviews in particular, because you are dealing with people and people are often unpredictable, preparation is key.
It may seem fairly intuitive: first, you determine which sources might be useful and find their contact information; then, you initiate contact, set up a meeting, prepare your questions, meet, ask a set of questions and take notes or record.
Interviewing is, in fact, a much longer process than just a one-time conversation or a series of exchanges and questionnaires you might use to collect information. It requires background research, building profiles of people, establishing trust, anticipating risks, taking safety measures, and more. Sometimes you will need to meet people more than once, while other subjects will be reluctant to meet at all.
You will need to be resourceful, flexible, determined, and respectful with your interviewees and sources, but also cautious. Your safety and your human sources’ safety should always be your priority.
Safety first! - Risk evaluation
Whenever you consider reaching out to someone, you should consider the risk of that interaction, not only for yourself but for your interview subject or source.
Be careful when deciding the order in which you collect information, the people that you share it with,when/where you arrange to meet them and where and how you store the information you’ve gathered from your interviews.
Beware of disclosing confidential or sensitive information about your investigation and sources, since this might put you and your collaborators at risk depending on the context and issues you are researching. Consider legal implications and listen to your intuition: if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
Risk is inherited. If you are someone with little to no risk (you may live and work in a safe area) but you are interviewing a person experiencing high risk (living in a dangerous area, being under pressure, or working on controversial issues), you inherit that risk. Your risk level will be higher for a period of time before and after the interview. If the interview is for a report or an article that will be published, be prepared for your risk to increase at the time of publication. When investigating individuals in positions of power and influence, be prepared for a prolonged higher risk if they become aware of your investigation.
While you may not consider yourself a high risk individual, your contact with high-risk people and situations or with certain controversial topics may mean you need to prepare for unfamiliar and heightened risks. To address this, you should be constantly revisiting and reworking risk assessments and safety plans as your investigation advances. Integrate this into your regular work-flow; it’s not a one-time task.
You will encounter situations where your perceived gender will have an effect on how you can do your work and how interviewees accept or address you. Be aware of this and make sure you establish clear boundaries from the beginning to avoid unwanted approaches. Sometimes, it might be useful to pretend to be in a relationship even if you are not, or to wear a wedding ring. In many contexts people may respect the fact that you have a partner. Research the place, culture, beliefs, and social norms of the places, communities, and people you visit or plan to talk to. This can help you prepare for how gender is addressed in different contexts.
Before the interview: preparation
Finding potential human sources of information and interview subjects is your initial step. This requires research, practice, and commitment. Depending on whether you are starting your investigation from scratch, looking to add a face to your story, or to collect testimonies, you will most likely have to find and interview different people to meet different needs of your investigation. Getting started may be as easy as keeping track of NGOs, groups working on issues that interest you, activists, government staff, or international organisations.
Identifying potential interviewees
You can identify possible sources and interviewees in different ways:
Observe their activity on social media. Try to be organised and create topic-related lists that you can follow depending on the issue you are investigating. If you use Twitter, Bellingcat has a useful guide on how to use Tweetdeck in your research. Gather a list of all those working for particular organisations or in similar fields such as activists, civil society members, or companies.Identify those people who seem more vocal and try to understand their possible bias or their willingness to communicate with an investigator. Avoid ‘liking’ or ‘following’ them on social networks if any connections to particular issues or people might get you in trouble, depending on what you are investigating.
Subscribe to newsletters. Most organisations have newsletters and you can find potential sources and/or interviewees among those who appear in their publications or those who write for them.
Attend press conferences. People who are not generally accessible might be approachable during press conferences. Especially if your potential source is an official, this is a good way of reaching out to assistants or lower rank people who might be more open to talking.
Keep track of and attend open meetings, conferences, public lectures, conventions, etc. Networking might not be always the best solution, especially when working with sensitive topics. However, such events may often host speakers or participants that it would otherwise be difficult or even impossible to access. Try to collect business cards and give out yours, if you consider it safe.
Follow blogs and webpages maintained by activists or local citizens. These may not be popular, but they can be rich in documentation and can open a door to someone that may become a source, provide leads for an investigation, or help you get in touch with the right person.
Visit official websites. These can be helpful when trying to get access to government officials. You can find out which ministries or departments are in charge of your area of interest and then request interviews with the relevant officials.
Find closed groups of specialists and support. NGO workers, journalists and activists sometimes rely on closed groups (or secret groups) to exchange information and tips. As you build more connections, you may want to reach out to someone you trust and ask about some of these groups if your investigation is centered on a specific country or topic. Be prepared to be background-checked by them. Journalists and activists especially may be concerned about granting you access to their networks if they don’t know you.
When doing research using online resources or public files, always make sure to archive any relevant content you find, save screenshots and/or keep copies of the files in case the content is later taken down. It is much better to take these measures before something goes wrong than after the fact. Visit this Kit’s section on “Retrieving and Archiving Information From Websites” for more on how to use the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and other tools to preserve and recover internet content as well as other effective methods, including safety advice.
All these practices allow you to access contact details and identify people who may be key sources of information. However, be on the lookout for less obvious sources – those who may hint at having deep knowledge or experience of the issue. Such people can give you valuable information if you spend enough time with them, and understand their work, and can also help you earn the confidence of other potential interview subjects for your investigation.
Safety first! - Digital security basics before you start
Safeguarding yourself, your interview subjects, and your investigation will require basic but essential steps to preserve your privacy and safety:
Install and use the Tor Browser for private, undetectable searches and communications where possible. Tactical Tech’s Security-in-a-Box website includes detailed guides on how to use the Tor Browser on Linux, Mac and Windows, among others.
Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that keeps your research private on both your laptop and your mobile. VPNs work by disguising your IP address, which can be used by websites you visit to map where you are coming from. When using a VPN, rather than seeing your real IP address, sites you visit will see the IP of the VPN provider. There are many VPN options that get reviewed by experts and users. ThatOnePrivacySite is a VPN review site we can recommend you check before picking a VPN service. Choose a VPN company that claims not to record logs of your traffic. While most free VPNs should be avoided because they often fund their operation by selling their log data (records of what sites users visit via the VPN), there are some reputable ones we can suggest, such as: Bitmask, Riseup VPN, PsIPhon or Lantern.
Create difficult passwords for your computer and mobile and change them once in a while. Check the extensive guide on creating and maintaining passwords from Security-in-a-Box.
Encrypt the sensitive information on your computer, phone, external storage device (hard drives, USBs, etc.) or ‘Cloud’ storage. Each of the major operating systems Linux, Mac, Windows) provides a way to activate full disk encryption which will protect all of the data on your device when it is turned off. In addition, we recommend using VeraCrypt, a free and open-source encryption tool that works on Macs, Windows and Linux computers. VeraCrypt is typically used to encrypt a specific folder of data, rather than everything on your computer, but it might be your only option if you work across multiple operating systems. Have a look at Security-in-a-Boxto learn more about how to use VeraCrypt on a Mac, Windows or Linux computer.
Don’t leave your devices unattended and lock them with a password when you are not using them.
Stay updated on the digital and physical security checks that authorities may do in the areas where you travel and work and learn in advance about your rights when crossing borders, especially in airports. This guide on Border Searches from the Electronic Frontier Foundation provides useful information about risks and rights.
Maintaining the privacy of your communications is key for your investigation. Just as with online research privacy and device encryption, you need to consider a few basic communication hygiene practices.
Whenever possible, use encrypted email (PGP) in communication with sources and interviewees.
For calls and messaging, there are different applications with enhanced levels of encryption and privacy such as Signal or Wire. These are preferred over WhatsApp, though the latest is of more common use and you may encounter people who are not easily accessible on any other (safer) apps. Check the Secure Communication guide from tactical Tech’s Security in a Box for extensive tips, tools, and methods to keep your digital communication as private as possible.
When you are forced to rely on conventional ways of communication, non-encrypted phone -calls, landlines, etc., make sure that you provide only the minimum information and try to establish in advance what details are less risky to communicate and how. Convince the person you are talking to that you will provide more details when you meet in person. Be careful about what you say and the information that you disclose so you don’t compromise your investigation if you or the person you are talking to are (or suspect being) under surveillance. Check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s resources on Surveillance and Self-Defence for advice, tools and methods to stay aware and address risks in potential surveillance situations.
Another option is to use the above encrypted methods to get in touch with someone close to the human source that can help organise a meeting.
On occasion, if you think your phone might be monitored, consider using a burner phone - a disposable phone you can use on one or a few occasions and that is not linked to you or that you can discard easily.
Types of sources and interviewees
Finding the right person to talk to is not necessarily easy or straightforward. Oftentimes you will need to go back and forth as the investigation evolves, and you might change your mind about those whom you wanted to interview. It’s important to be clear about the different types of human sources that you can potentially interview. The following factors may dictate your approach:
Their role in your investigation - is the person a victim of the phenomenon or event you are investigating? Are they the perpetrator?
Their position relative to your investigation – are they willing to collaborate, can they interfere in your investigation?
What you want to obtain by interacting with them - will they help you collect evidence or background information, will they help clarify information, or will they provide you evidence?
In most cases you will have to combine multiple approaches, while in some you will be able to get what you want in fewer steps.
Let’s move on to a more detailed look at the types of sources.
By their role in the investigation:
These sources will give you direct evidence or testimony on the topic that you are investigating:
Government staff or officials
These sources won’t provide direct testimony or evidence but may offer support at any stage of the investigation:
Witnesses - although witnesses may provide valuable information and can be considered primary sources, you must also be aware that their testimony can potentially be inaccurate and/or inconsistent. Therefore, you may sometimes need to consider them as secondary sources.
Tip-offs - receiving tips is a way of obtaining information from a reliable or unreliable source, and you will need to verify them from other sources.
Journalists - available research and reporting can be a very useful resource during your documentation process.
Fellow investigators - might be activists, investigative journalists, citizen investigators, or NGOs conducting research and compiling reports.
By their position relative to the investigation:
These sources will have suffered various kinds of trauma or are part of disadvantaged or threatened communities:
Survivors of trauma
Survivors of sexual violence
Communities under threat
People in marginalised, monitored, or persecuted groups
Not all your interview subjects will be welcoming. You should be especially careful when approaching adversarial sources - sources who may not be sympathetic to your investigation - that could become aggressive or may be extremely hesitant. These may be:
Hostile, aggressive sources
If possible, try to interview these subjects at the end of your investigation. We will go into the specifics of how to deal with these sources later on.
By the type of information they can give you:
Depending on the investigation and what information you have so far, sources can provide you with:
Background information - details on the topic you are investigating, new leads and contacts of other relevant people. Background sources can also help you get in touch with potential interviewees or provide leads to further investigations:
Other experts and people involved in the topics you are researching.
Understanding/interpreting information - you may have information gathered from other sources or interviewees, but no way of putting it in context or interpreting it. In these cases it can be useful to reach out to:
Direct evidence - the core of your investigation might depend on an interview with someone who has first-hand information or evidence:
Government staff, police, etc.
Consider that interviewees providing direct evidence can be biased (willingly or unwillingly) or may face risks due to their proximity to the topic or incident you are investigating.
Reaching out to sources and identifying interviewees
Conducting thorough research is essential before deciding who to interview and why. You may end up not pursuing some subjects, but clearly defining your goals will help you find alternative people to interview. Here are some basic planning guidelines.
Prioritise and organise interviews
Whenever possible, start with interviews that will provide more background information about the investigation itself or about other potential interviewees. Once you have an understanding of the topic or situation, you will be able to approach more evidence-focused interviews. Note that nothing is considered evidence until you’ve verified it repeatedly, so never assume that information obtained from an interview is 100 percent reliable.
Try to go from the easiest interviews to the most difficult ones so you can be better prepared to address adversarial subjects at the end, when you have more knowledge on the topic.
Diversify: gain multiple perspectives
Any investigation is multi-layered: the more diverse sources you include, the richer your evidence becomes, and the easier it is to avoid bias. Include primary and secondary sources and try to interview people across different ages, genders, castes, classes, or beliefs. Avoid speaking only to the leader or main representative of a group and seek out the views and experiences of other members.
Conduct a risk assessment
When choosing human sources, it’s important to assess potential risks and rewards, especially when contacting those who are close to the subject of the investigation. Sometimes you will need to plan the order of the interviews carefully to prevent interferences, conflicting interests or bias in your work. Also consider how risky the interaction might be for you, for the investigation, and for your sources and interviewees. Spend some time assessing the risks of communicating with a potential source. Some questions you could ask yourself are:
Has your source spoken publicly about this subject before?
Might your source be worried about government surveillance?
What kind of information do you need from this source?
How tech-savvy is your source?
How scared or vulnerable is your source?
Sometimes you will be able to get in touch with an interview subject immediately. Other times you may need to rely on someone close to them to initiate contact. Activists, organisations, lawyers, or journalists may be able to put you in touch with primary or vulnerable sources to whom they already have access. In any interaction with your human sources, follow protocols for safe communication.
Note - How your role, position or background can impact sources and interviewees
The power dynamic between an investigator and an interview subject is complex. It’s important to consider the position of the person being interviewed. Think about your role and responsibility and where you draw the line before you conduct an interview. Some people may feel intimidated or scared of talking to you. Others will try to intimidate you, convince or dissuade you, or gain your favour. For that reason, it’s important to maintain a balance between what you want to achieve and how you do it.
Addressing people from a position of power
Being the person who will record someone’s interview responses and analyse the information they give you often puts you in a position of power. Your interview subject’s perception of you may be that you represent an opportunity. Perhaps they hope to gain something from the interview, whether this is an agreed-upon exchange or something less concrete. Draft your personal rules of behaviour before you begin work on the interview questions themselves, and ensure you’ve considered ethics, common sense, when to listen, when to stop, and when to insist on certain boundaries. Take precautions for you and your subjects when interviewing vulnerable people. This includes children, survivors of trauma, members of marginalised communities, and others.
Some people won’t want to be interviewed. Respect their refusal. Do not use your privilege to coerce them into talking to you. If they are vulnerable they may not want to recall a traumatic experience, or may fear the consequences of sharing it with you. In the first instance, when and if they say no, indicate that you respect their decision. You may try to talk to someone they trust who can act as an intermediary later on. If they still decide not to talk, make them aware that they are welcome to talk to you if they feel up to it in future. Pass them your contact details if you consider it safe to do so.
People often feel wary of, upset with, or disinterested in investigators who seem to parachute in and out of the area, or give the impression of superiority. Do not go into the interview with a sense of entitlement, expecting everyone on the ground to work to your objectives and timelines. Some people might reconsider talking to you if they feel safe or if others have talked to you first, so first impressions count. Be patient,but also be prepared to let go of leads and interviews if they aren’t feasible.
Addressing people in positions of power:
You may be eager to prove or disprove a particular idea over the course of the interview. This gives your interviewee a degree of power over you, whether they realise it or not. Pay attention to the risks of making compromises and don’t allow the interviewee to control your questions. When you are face to face with that person, you may see them as an opportunity to advance your research, but consider that this interview may seem more important now than it will later. You can never predict which evidence will end up advancing your investigation.
You might also find yourself talking to sources who are in positions of authority, enjoy some privilege (be it wealth, influence, class, etc.), or you might be interviewing someone whom you suspect of being a perpetrator of the wrongdoing that you are investigating, or someone who is enabling illegal activities like bribes, tax evasion, trafficking, etc. These interviewees might try to manipulate you, get you on their side, offer you favours, or use their privileged position to threaten you in order to deter your investigation. Do not feel obligated to accept favours from them because they have agreed to speak to you, and make sure that you consider all possible dangerous scenarios in advance to prevent putting yourself and other sources at risk.
If you face difficulties contacting or getting appointments with people like this because it’s difficult to access them - for instance, company executives or high-ranking public officials - try talking to people at lower or middle levels. You can also ask for advice on how to deal with certain sources from those familiar with them, such as fellow investigators or experienced journalists.
In certain circumstances, being a woman may be an advantage, in others a disadvantage. It might help other women to relate to you or confide more details and feel safe, especially if they are survivors of trauma or sexual attacks. Sometimes it will be the opposite.
Risk is connected to identity,and data suggests that people who self identify as women face different risks. It’s important to consider these risks and also possible opportunities, such as being able to go to places and speak to people others cannot. Make an effort to understand cultural, personal, emotional, psychological and political viewpoints of the interviewee toward women before planning interviews.
When approaching your potential interviewees for the first time, you may think that it is OK to do so through conventional means like a landline or a mobile phone. Whenever possible, try to use encrypted services.
Introduce yourself and your purpose
Introducing yourself, your intentions, and the purpose of your investigation is the first step in building trust with your sources and interviewees. Intentionally deceiving them is unethical and some interviewees and sources might feel betrayed or lied to if you do so.
A lack of transparency can lead to misunderstandings that could cause the source to become upset with you or even put them at risk. Take some time to explain your work at the outset. If you run a public project, a website, or have other work that can be shared, show these to your sources or interviewees to establish your authenticity. Avoid terms that might sound too heavy, like “investigator.” You can use the term “researcher” instead, but, again, never hide the purpose of your work.
Depending on the issues or people you are investigating, you may not always want to share every detail of your investigation, if this could pose a risk to your safety and/or that of your sources. If you feel it’s necessary, keep the details you share down to the basics, but be as honest with them as you would expect them to be honest with you.
Arranging interviews and logistics
Setting the time and place
Where possible, contact people well in advance of your planned deadlines. Always offer to set up an appointment on a date that suits them, to avoid putting pressure on them and risking missing out on potentially valuable conversations. Schedule your interviews so that each one builds upon the previous one. Give yourself time between interviews, whenever possible, to review your findings and reassess.
Sometimes, where you meet is as important as the interview itself. Public places may not always be the best option. Keep in mind that a meeting location can provide you with as much information about the person or the investigation as the interview itself. For the interviewee, it might spark memories or encourage them to speak more openly. It might be a place where the incident you are investigating happened, a gallery with photographs of a certain place before a natural disaster or a conflict, or an exhibition or home displaying pictures of a person who has disappeared, is in jail, or has been tortured. If connected to your interviewee or source, these details might bring up memories or documentary evidence of past events and help start a conversation about certain topics or experiences they have had. However, proceed carefully, as this can also have the opposite effect of re-traumatising people.
By using the elements displayed around you can find talking points to start building trust. For instance, they can spark small talk that makes sources feel comfortable or allow you to find common ground. This will encourage your interviewee to trust you. A lawyer’s office or the headquarters of an NGO can also be safe and friendly environments in which to conduct interviews.
Travel safety and security
If you are travelling you should do a risk assessment of the country or region you are visiting. This travel risk assessment allows you to measure the threats associated with this location. To begin with, see if you can gather information from friends and colleagues who share your identity. Risk and identity are closely related. This means that your risk is impacted by your race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or country of citizenship. Often, your passport may carry privilege and protections - other times it may be the opposite. As with all things in security, it’s a good idea to find someone who shares your identity markers and has travelled to the same area to ask them about their experience.
Note that travel advisories are often very conservative and sensitive to any risk. To test this, check embassy guides to see how the rating of a place you are familiar with - your home country, for example - compares to the place you are going. Some embassies have started posting more up-to-date information on Twitter, so it’s worth checking the US, UK, Canadian, Australian official Twitter accounts as well.
Risk mitigation and security firms also issue risk information by region and country. These companies may have a financial or political incentive behind their research and ratings so be sure to verify. Examples are Riskmap, Kroll Intelligence Center and Kroll Global Fraud and Risk report, International SOS Travel Risk map but not all of these are updated frequently. In addition the United Nations crime statistics by country may be of use and although not all types of crime get reported or researched (for various policing, political, cultural reasons) it can still be a good indicator.
Try to contact people in advance who can help you when you are on the ground. If you think that you may face personal risks like surveillance, detention, or kidnapping, inform someone you trust of your itinerary and fill in a proof-of-life document designed to match your needs. This document should include personal details and answers to questions that only you know, as well as procedure on how to act if something happens to you. It should include instructions for the trusted person(s) you give the form to. It may include passwords that allow the trusted person access to your social media accounts, should they need to be changed or deactivated. For a sample form and more on how to use it, we recommend resources for freelancers from the Rory Peck Trust.
Make sure that you have the right vaccinations if required, and that your passport has more than six months left on it and several pages available for visas or stamps at the borders. Follow your embassy’s security recommendations or those of other embassies and the location’s visa requirements, and do not forget to do a risk assessment of the pros and cons of taking the trip.
Preparing for interviews
Once you’ve decided on who you will interview, you need to prepare for the interview itself. Knowing the person(s) - either directly or from background research - and having a clear understanding of the information you want to gather is essential. Ideally you will already have familiarized yourself with your interviewee’s personal or public details, and will be able to focus instead on the truthfulness and possible biases of their responses.
Do your background checks
Before the meeting, do a background check on your subjects to learn as much as possible about them. Make use of online resources or reach out to trusted people who can provide information on your interviewees. Knowing the subject of your interview and their field of expertise (if any) is also a way of respecting their time and not asking for information that is too basic or already out there. These background checks may also help you establish the reliability of your subject or their potential biases.
For instance, when dealing with topics such as environmental damage, it makes sense to interview local scientists because of their specific knowledge. However, they might be facing direct or indirect pressure from private companies or from the government. Foreign scientists may have differing views on the subject itself but do not necessarily have to be conscious of local politics or be under the same pressure. However, you should still research the sources of their funding and look for any dubious connections or conflicts of interest.
Should you conclude that someone is not trustworthy, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should not interview them. Knowing that the informationtheyprovide is doubtful or possibly biased will help you ask targeted questions and be on guard for possible manipulation. Someone trying to drive you towards a certain conclusion or hide information that you are already aware of can be a good piece of evidence in itself.
Consider how safe it is to share certain information while doing your research on sensitive topics and dangerous people or groups that you are interested in interviewing. In these cases, it’s better to abstain from asking too many questions outside of your close circle as you try to obtain an interview. Asking too many people might spread the news of your investigation too early and expose the issues you are pursuing or make the people that you want to interview more vulnerable.
Background checks - preliminary interviews
Interview subjects may find the idea of a background check intimidating and in some cases it may create conflict or tension, especially if they learn about your attempts to verify them from third parties. One of the simplest ways to avoid this is to conduct a voluntary background check, as long as this is possible and does not put you, the subject, or the investigation at higher risk. Normally, this begins with a preliminary interview focusing on simple questions. While everyone is different, most people enjoy a platform to speak from. One benefit of making the subject part of the verification process is that you can ask for their express permission to clarify your understanding of the situation and contact some of their network to help you better grasp the subject matter. When presented this way, a background check is transparent and consensual, so you are avoiding any unnecessary escalation while respecting the privacy and safety of the interview subject.
Background checks - online
When doing online research it’s important to use a VPN and/or a private browser. This will lower the chance of you and your investigation being connected to the online research activities, basically keeping you anonymous to those you are researching about. The purpose of this research is always verification in the name of safety and risk mitigation. In most cases information gathered via background checks should not become part of the investigation itself, since your purpose is protection, not spying on your sources. Exposing details on a source that might be off the record or anonymous brings great risk to the interview and to your relationship with the source. Not only is this unethical, but in some areas it may also be a criminal offense.
Background checks on phone numbers
Here are three methods to verify a source’s phone number, should you need to do so:
Calling the number
Performing a reverse lookup on the number
Performing a carrier lookup on the number
1. When calling the number, don’t do it from a phone connected to you. Using a public/pay phone, hotel phone, or virtual number can allow you to distance the call from yourself. Another option is to use virtual numbers. These are numbers that are NOT connected to cell phones or physical land lines, but are provided by software. If you live in the US you can create a Google account and use https://voice.google.com to produce a virtual number for free. If you live outside the US, smartphone apps and web services like Skype (international numbers through Skype out/Skype in), Burner App (for US/Canada numbers), Coverme App(US/Canada numbers), and Hushed App (International Numbers) all provide virtual numbers.
2. Phone number reverse lookup tools will turn a number into the data for that number. Most of these are commercial services.Wedon’t endorse any of them but merely indicate what is out there: Comfi, Whitepages, Spokeo (US numbers only), Pipl. We recommend using a VPN and a private browser before conducting searches with online reverse lookup tools.
3. For carrier and caller lookups, some of the available tools are:
Twilio: the easiest way to do carrier and caller lookups. The caller lookup will provide you with the name associated with the number, or who pays the bill for the number. It will also let you know if this is a business or residential number. The carrier lookup will let you know which mobile provider is connected to the number and also lets you know if it is a landline, mobile, or virtual VoIP number. As of mid 2019, Twilio carrier lookups are about $0.005 USD per request while caller lookups are $0.01 USD per request.
Truecaller: an app used to list and look up phone number information and who is associated with that number. App users use it as caller ID to block robocalls and identify callers. Because the app can pull contacts from phones that have it installed, it often has details on unlisted or unique numbers.
Numerify: offers a service to look up global phone numbers.
Background checks on companies, public institutions and non-profits
If the person you are interviewing is associated with a business, a non-profit organisation or a government institution,you can check available databases and tools for useful contacts, details, and connections. If you don’t know where to start, we recommend digging into the Investigative Dashboard’s global index of resources by region/country or exploring its constantly growing global database of documents made available from past investigations. The Investigative Dashboard is a resource developed and managed by a network of investigative reporters of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
For the US, you can search some of these databases to find information about people linked to companies, non-profits or government:
Little Sis, a free database of contacts in the US
US Business Entity search if you know State a company is registered in
Online usernames, people search and social media
Here are some tools and databases to verify someone’s online presence.
Type in a username to find out where it’s used online:
People-finders allow you to look up information on someone. Most focus on theUS:
Social media API lookups - for investigators with some technical skills:
OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) tools - powerful open-source lookup tools:
Maltego CE: the community edition of software used to find & visualise relationships between datasets
Spiderfoot: lets you look up info on IP addresses, domain names, host name, network subnets, ASN, e-mail address, or a person’s name
Spiderfoot HX: a hosted web-based dashboard version of Spiderfoot
Harvester: to get information behind email addresses, names, subdomains, IPs,& URLs
Define your goals
Some possible goals for conducting an interview might be:
Getting the human side of a story - Conversations with people relevant to your investigation are a good opportunity to give a voice and a face to your story. When these are conducted in a balanced, ethical, and unbiased way, they can add credibility to your findings and claims as well as help others identify with the problems and issues you are researching.
Gathering evidence - Your interviews with certain sources might be key to gather testimonies that support the rest of your investigation. For example, meeting people in certain areas of the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt) that denounce extrajudicial killings of supposed extremists by State Security Forces may provide proof of the innocence (or culpability) of those accused of terrorism, or about a certain event that you can check with other collected evidences and testimonies. Military experts may give you leads on how these forces operate, the usual targets, and types of weapons used. Depending on the interview subject, you will have to ask different questions.
Building a case - You may seek to obtain the testimony of a primary source in order to be able to denounce certain crimes. Following the previous example, if your investigation is intended to end up in a formal case against the Egyptian Government in the International Penal Court in the Hague, you will need to support any evidence with testimony from all different sides.
Write a list of questions. Organise it.
Write down a list of questions, though you won’t necessarily have to follow it strictly during the interview. You will need to be open to redirecting the talk or changing the way you ask certain questions, depending on how the interaction with the interviewee goes. Having questions ready will help you focus on the most important topics. Writing down the questions will help you figure out what you want to get from the interview. If you face a difficult interview and emotions take over, the questions will help to divert your attention away from your feelings and back to your work.
Types of questions
An interview should approach the subject from different angles and alternate between types of questions that will allow the conversation to evolve little by little. Start with easy questions and get into more sensitive topics as the conversation advances. Small talk before you go into the topic may help, too.
Closed vs Open - Closed questions offer the subject a chance to give a short,simple answer,e.g. “yes” or “no.”Unless you want to confirm evidence collected previously, it is good to avoid them. An open question will allow the subject to give a complex overview of certain topics.
Factual vs. Open-ended - Factual questions are intended to establish facts: name, occupation, and age. Open-ended ones will allow more elaboration and a more detailed answer.
Follow-up questions - You may want to ask something that follows on from a subject’s answer, either because they haven’t responded fully or because they’ve brought up a topic that you want to know more about. If this is the case, do not interrupt your interviewee while they are still talking. Wait until they finish their answer to ask follow-up questions.
Provocative questions - Intended to provoke a reaction or to force an answer of your interviewee. You will have to consider when this is appropriate.
Note - Avoid leading questions
Leading questions point the respondent toward a certain answer. Even when you have a clear set of facts, you are interviewing someone in order to obtain more information or to clarify, rather than prompt a specific response. Instead of asking, for example “Is the government’s compensation good?”, you can ask: “How is the compensation that the government offers?”
Prepare for difficult interviewees
Sometimes, especially when discussing a difficult or painful topic or when interviewing adversarial people, you may realise that they are trying to avoid giving a definitive answer. Responding with another question or trying to draw attention to positive aspects of the situation are ways of avoiding your questions. Mark questions that you think may raise some concern or which may be faced with rejection. Prepare a set of alternative questions that can help you obtain a response. For instance, officials, members of the government, and politicians are often very skilled at avoiding difficult questions and answers that can make them look bad. Try to ask the same question in different ways if you notice this happening.
Use time effectively
Sometimes you will have a limited amount of time, especially when dealing with officials. Try to save time for the really significant questions. Respect your interviewee’s time and offer to take breaks if they need them. Spending more time interviewing someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to get more information. If you realise you are not achieving what you expected, consider whether you are asking the right questions, or if your interviewee is not able to cover the topics you expected, and try to focus on important topics. Try not to go over an hour, unless it’s really necessary and you feel your interviewee is OK with it.
Know your terms
Language matters in relation to various aspects such as gender, race, and other sensitive topics. You have to be careful with the language you use during your interview, both for accuracy’s sake, and out of respect. For example, make sure that you understand terms like “trans”, “nonbinary”, “pansexual”, before interviewing someone who is LGBTQI+. The same applies to race, social status, religion, etc.
Get in the right mindset
Leave your own feelings and biases aside, especially if you have to face an adversarial source who you may disagree with. If you have to interview vulnerable sources prepare yourself to face sadness, anger, frustration, and stories that will be difficult to process. Being prepared will help you react appropriately.
Get legal advice
Some organisations have access to internal legal advice, but if you are an independent investigator you may need to reach out to experts to make sure that you and your work are safe. Get in touch with a lawyer if you have doubts about the information that you are handling or if you obtain access to information about a wrongdoing or a crime. Be aware of the laws that protect (or endanger) you and your interviewees and sources, which might vary depending on the country. Make sure that you are not committing a crime or putting yourself in the spotlight by getting in touch with someone who may be under investigation or surveillance. And if you do so, be aware of the circumstances and the possible consequences of your interaction.
During the interview
Let’s look at how to conduct general interviews, gather background information from interviewees, talk to witnesses, and go into specific, more sensitive approaches.
Channels for conducting the interview
Part of preparing for an interview is establishing what medium or channels you will use with your sources and interviewees. Here are the most common ones:
Face to face
This is generally the preferred option. It will help you connect with them but also make it easier to maintain the confidentiality of your interaction. Body language is an element you shouldn’t underestimate. If you ask a difficult question, your interviewee’s reaction may give you more information than the answer itself.
If you may have to interview your source remotely, we recommend using encrypted communications, as well as tools that allow you to record the conversation, if you have their permission. If you can use video, this is always preferred.
This is the least desirable option as it will reduce your ability to ask follow up questions and have a proper conversation. Most importantly, you can’t be sure that the person you want to interview is the one responding to the questions. This channel should be your last resort.
Not everyone understands interview jargon, and people can get confused by terms like on the record or off the record. Also, these may apply differently in various contexts and cultures. It’s better to avoid them and just explain to the person you are interviewing how the information will be used. This process should be a two-way conversation - expect the source to push back at times, until you arrive at an agreement that both of you can accept.
These are some basic terms (and practices) to be aware of:
On the record
This means that you can use the information provided in the published results of the investigation and mention the person that gives it to you.
Off the record
Off the record information is sometimes provided to help give you background details on something that is too sensitive for the source or interviewee to talk publicly about. In general terms, you cannot make off-the-record information public or attribute it to the person who gave it to you. You can however use that knowledge to obtain information from a different source who might be more open or be willing to go on the record. It’s OK to disclose that evidence if you are able to verify it elsewhere or obtain similar information that is on the record, be it from another source or from other research.
The main difference between non-attributable and off the record is that in this case you can publish the information but you cannot name the source. For instance, you can say that a certain member from the Canadian Embassy provided you with the information but you cannot name the person.
You can publish information given during an interview, but you must never name the source. That means that you cannot even mention that a certain official provided you with the information. For instance, a Canadian diplomat may reveal details about a corruption case they are investigating, and provide evidence that you may also use in your investigation. In this case, even if you don’t name that person, mentioning that a Canadian diplomat gave you the information may put them at risk.
If a source makes it clear that they don’t want to be identified in your published project, it may not be enough just to remove their name and image. Sharing someone’s employer, exact location, age, personal history or family background can sometimes identify someone without their name ever being mentioned. It may be necessary to preserve the anonymity of a source even if they are not aware of the risks of going public. For example, if you are gathering evidence about human trafficking from a Syrian woman in a small Norwegian town, ask yourself how many Syrian women there are in that town. If there are very few, you might inadvertently reveal her identity.
These are signed documents in which the source or interviewee agrees that their words and/or image might be used in your investigation and agree that you may do so under the circumstances that are clearly described on the form.
Always check that the data you have received from a source or interviewee is accurate and whenever possible try to gather similar information from various sources. If at any step of the investigation you are doubtful about any information, you should double check with your interviewee that you understood the information he or she provided you.
All the information you receive must be accurate in order for it to be trusted as evidence of something. You will need to look for confirmation of its accuracy through different sources and ways at different points during your investigation.
Getting consent and permission
Even if a person has agreed to talk to you, you will have to explain certain terms relating to how the information they are providing will be used, or if their name will be mentioned and how. Sometimes, you will need to get signed permission to use their image and/or their words. A simple piece of signed paper with a written agreement will work if you don’t have a form. This is especially important when interviewing minors. In these cases, an adult should always give consent on their behalf.
Make sure that your interviewees understand that you are getting in touch with them because of your work - even if you already know them - and that the relationship is professional. This will help lower the expectations of your human sources about you.
Documenting the interview
To further your investigation, the testimonies and evidence that you collect from human sources should ideally be recorded in some form. Ethically and legally, you can only do so after they have granted you consent.
This the easiest and most common way of recording the information you get during the interview. Try to take notes at the same time. This will help you find the right information in the recording afterward, or serve as back-up in case something goes wrong with your recording device before you can back up the information.
Video calls / phone recordings
Ideally, you should try to meet people in person to be sure that they are who they say are. If you need to talk remotely, use a channel that allows you to see their face (Jitsi, Wire etc.) and make sure you have a way of recording at least the audio, once you receive this permission from the interviewee. Be aware that some devices and apps will show your interview partner that you are using a tool that allows recording, so don’t try to trick them. On Skype, for instance, as soon as you start recording, everyone in the call is notified that the call is being recorded. Other channels (including Skype) or landlines will not be secure for certain sensitive interviews, so keep that in mind. It’s recommended that you ask for written permission to record or to have them say it clearly before the start the interview, and to have their permission recorded as well.
Photo / video recordings
If you are taking photographs or a video, do not get caught up in setting up your gadgets and getting the perfect angle or lighting. If you are asking people to change position or move to a different background, ask them if they are OK with doing so, rather than instructing them to do it. For example, if an elderly or ill person is in their house on a cold day and it is dark inside, do not ask them to come out because you want better lighting. If you have come with a photographer or a videographer, inform them of these possible considerations or ask them to let you know about their requirements, so you can then share them with your interviewees in advance.
Ethics in using recordings
When publishing your story, choose the images you use with utmost care. For example, if you are writing on sexual violence, avoid images that make them appear powerless or weak. The same applies to minors: you should always be careful with the sort of images that you take and the legislation that applies. The rights and protection of the minor always takes top priority.
Obtain written permission for recording and taking photos/videos. Some of these pieces of evidence won’t be admissible if you do not have legal consent - especially if information may end up used in courts or as proof by others (journalists, lawyers, campaigners, NGOs etc.). When in doubt, get legal advice.
Note on Recordings: Always check local laws on recording conversations to make sure you are not violating a regulation or law.
Interviews requiring special approach
Every investigation will require different human sources. As explained previously, you will need to vary the type of interviews you conduct to gain a broader perspective. This may mean interviewing people in different locations, but also some who might require especial attention because they are vulnerable or because the goal of our investigation might be to build a legal case.
The following are some examples of special circumstances that you may face when interviewing people for your investigation.
Interviews in foreign countries and other unfamiliar places
If you are planning to meet a subject in another country, consider cultural or religious particularities, make sure you have a reliable contact or network there, and try to know the basics of the local language. This may make a huge difference in the results you obtain.
A fish out of water
When travelling to meet people for interviews or visit sites ahead of a meeting, you need to be sensitive of cultural, linguistic, political and economic differences, among others.
Try to bridge existing gaps as much as possible. Reaching out to activists or organisations working in the area will be helpful.
If the topic or event that you are investigating is still ongoing,your presence might raise suspicion,especially if you’re in a place where your face or outfit would stand out in a crowd. Minimise risks by finding out as much as you can about the way security forces and local communities behave and the rules (or lack of them) that apply. Make sure you have your embassy’s or consulate’s emergency numbers. It’s a good idea to let them know that you are in the country if you can, although be careful not to disclose sensitive information about what you are investigating if this could put you and your sources at risk.
Entering some regions with a professional camera may cause problems. Research before your travel so you don’t end up losing your devices at customs. Your way out is as important as your way in. Keep in mind our security recommendations for the information that you have gathered, and for equipment from being searched or confiscated.
In small towns or villages, for instance, it might be best to use available local and public transport, but there are places where you should avoid them due to security concerns.
Sometimes it’s a better idea to drive yourself or be driven around by someone you trust and who works or lives in that place. Local drivers are also much better at navigating or asking for directions in the local language. If you take your private or work vehicle, it should be as inconspicuous as possible. Consider parking at a distance in a larger common or more commercial area. If you feel confident enough take a taxi, you can always ask the driver to drop you off at a certain distance from the place where you have your meeting.
Consider which may be safer: sitting behind your driver, or sitting in the passenger seat in close proximity to the driver. Take into consideration how others travel, how well you know the driver, and whether you are more likely to be stopped. Often a certain brand, model, price, age, and/or colour of vehicle are more likely to be targeted or stopped. This can be by law enforcement, security forces, gangs, or thieves. Speaking to a local will help you find out more.
Getting a local phone number is a good way to facilitate communication with a local source. Local phone cards are often available at airports and around main stations or in commercial areas. It is useful to get one with an internet package so you can continue to use encrypted communications and so you have access to a digital map.
Safety First! - SIM cards
In some countries you are required to show an ID card (or a photocopy or photograph) in order to get a SIM card. Purchasing a SIM card with your debit or credit card exposes additional personal information. Not only are you potentially giving away personal data (name, date of birth, etc), you are also linking yourself to this SIM card. All SIM cards have a unique number or ICCID (Integrated Circuit Card ID) and an associated IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) that are also now linked to you. The ICCID contains 19-20 numbers and is a serial number that is made up of codes for manufacture, country code, issuer identifier, and SIM number. The IMSI number is made up of a Mobile Country Code (MCC), Mobile Network Code (MNC) showing your provider, and a Mobile Subscription Identification Number (MSIN). This information is broadcast across the cellular network when your mobile has service, and it connects your identity directly to the SIM card.
To avoid this, a virtual or VoIP (Voice over IP) number will be useful to help have a local number that is not easily closely linked to your identity.
We advise you to gain an understanding of how cell phone, Wifi and Bluetooth tracking connects you and your devices to a location. It’s important to assess whether you should (or should not) bring a phone with you to an interview. If you feel safer having a mobile phone, try keeping it offline/turned off. An offline device is one that is powered down. Ideally you should keep your device in a RFID blocking bag or Faraday bag or any other cell service blocking mechanism. If you need a quick way to block cell signal, wrap the phone in several (minimum two) layers of aluminum foil, like the one used for cooking. It’s important to test this method before relying on it by first putting a cell phone that is online/turned on in a Faraday bag or foil wrap and trying to call it. The phone should not ring.
You won’t know the local language in all the places that you go. If you work with a translator you will have to be sure of their reliability. It is useful to reach out to local journalists or activists who can help you with translating or connect you with someone who can. It is also useful to learn a few words that will help you around. Thank you or please and salutations in the local language will be appreciated.
Cultural and religious concerns
Being aware of local customs and traditions will help to facilitate interactions with local communities or to go unnoticed when necessary. For example, some people may not want a foreigner interacting with kids or babies (to avoid the evil eye). People may not expect you to behave as they do but may appreciate you trying. Try not to eat, drink, or smoke if someone you need to meet is fasting, but consider that it will be disrespectful to refuse if they offer it to you. As a mitigation, it may help to say that you are also fasting, or to mention being sick or having an upset stomach, rather than to outright refuse a meal.
Do not take the availability of what may seem like basic conveniences for granted. For example, in a village, it’s better to say you need to use the toilet and ask them where to go, rather than inquire about where the bathroom is. If they do not have one, they could feel embarrassed. Be respectful and genuine if you compliment anything about the house or the area or you may sound patronising. Communities take the burden of hospitality upon themselves when an outsider visits. Make yourself comfortable, so that they feel comfortable. Be thankful for their time, for being allowed in their home and life, and articulate this feeling to them.
Your gender may and will have an impact in all your interviews, but when visiting foreign countries, it can sometimes make a huge difference. If you are a man doing an investigating on genital female mutilation in a conservative community, talking straightforwardly to women won’t be welcome. Try to find ways in which your interaction is not seen as a threat or disrespectful.
The same applies to women, though in most cases they will experience that people are more open to considering foreign women as a “third gender”. This means that they may be allowed to access places and people local women would never be allowed to, or places male foreigners would never get access to.
Tip: As a reading resource, we recommend this practical guide from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on integrating a gender perspective into Human Rights investigations, with tips on interviewing people and preparing for field work.
You must keep in mind that the way you dress may affect the way people behave with you. Men wearing shorts will be odd in certain communities. You may be asked to remove your shoes in mosques or orthodox churches or monasteries and women may be asked to cover their head in holy places, but covering your head must be a sign of respect towards the community that will facilitate interactions. You may want to have a pair of socks and a scarf on you. In some conservative secular venues, like the Islamic University of Gaza for instance, you may be asked to cover yourself. Don’t take it as an offence even if it goes against your principles. Your primary goal is to have a successful interview and gather evidence for your investigation. Even if you feel compelled to stand up for yours or other people’s rights, this might not be the best moment to do it. Try to prioritise your investigation and accept dress code requests or restrictions, if they are not violently enforced, and see them as a choice you make for a better purpose.
As a general rule, you should stick to comfortable clothes and shoes that will help to go unnoticed as much as possible.
Safety First! - Hostile environment
It is important to remark that a hostile environment is not necessarily a conflict zone. You should never travel to a conflict zone without the proper hostile environment training, but you may have to investigate in countries that are not immersed in war or an open conflict - such as Colombia, Mexico, Israel or Egypt - that are still considered hostile environments and therefore risky for an investigator to work in. Or you may be a citizen of a country where there is an ongoing conflict and therefore live and work in tense environments where your safety and that of your sources and interviewees might always be at risk. Most of the previous recommendations for investigating in foreign countries will apply, but you should be extra careful when getting in touch with people, deciding where you are staying, and how you deal with officials, sources and interviewees.
For reading resources on conflict-sensitive research and reporting and on working in conflict areas, we recommend going over the Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s (IWPR) publications. An example ofthe resources you can find on their site is the Conflict Sensitive Journalism in Syria handbook (in Arabic) or Reporting for Change: A Handbook for Local Journalists in Crisis Areas.
Try to be what is called the grey (wo)man. Maintain a low profile. Go unnoticed. Don’t let random people know who you are or what you are doing in the country unless you consider it is safe to do so. Be especially careful when chatting around or making small talk. In many of these countries, security forces rely on a well-maintained network of informants on the lookout for possible threats. Don’t reveal personal information or ask revealing questions about your sources, interviewees or anything else that may raise suspicion.
For instance, if you are trying to find the location of a local NGO that is going to help you navigate the location, it would be wise not to ask in the hotel you are staying in. Try to gather landmarks from them so you can ask about a nearby place or find your way with a reliable driver without pointing to the organisation (for example, a cafeteria or a shop close to the NGO office). If that doesn’t work, try to ask passers-by far from the place where you generally spend most of your time. Avoid doormen and bartenders, who are often on the police payroll and can be controlled by gangs.
Although it may be emotionally comforting, try to avoid routines like walking the same route or eating in the same place every day. To help you change up your routine, flip a coin or roll a die when making mundane decisions. For example, you might be deciding whether to walk, take public transit, or a cab; whether to head out to a place on Tuesday or Wednesday. This helps to break patterns you may not realise you are making. Connecting yourself with an expat community may identify you as a member of that community. Mundane things like the coins and currency you bring with you or take from a country may connect you with that place.
Whenever you are entering a hostile environment, make sure you know how you are going to enter and how you are going to get out if something goes wrong. Check local news to be aware of any developments.
For example, if you are collecting evidence of abuses against a local community in a remote region and a wave of attacks starts, you may need to abandon the place. You might not be able to get out the same way you entered (by car or train) or with the person you came in with, due to different circumstances (checkpoints in roads, interruption of train transportation, etc.). You always need to have a second option: a driver or knowledge of alternative routes, for instance.
If you end up at a protest it will be useful to know how security forces act. Have a back-up plan. Try to find out the strategies they apply when cracking down on protesters. Also find out ahead of time if your passport or nationality will be of any use, or, conversely, could get you arrested (holding a passport from certain countries can get you into trouble). If you investigate the use of unauthorised weapons or killing of civilians during protests, knowing that the attack will happen in a certain way may be of use to avoid getting caught in between a fight.
Think of your embassy in the country as an ally but not a life saver.
Hotels are usually preferred to staying with local hosts. Depending on the work you are doing, you could put them at risk or, depending on their affiliations, it could seem as if you have a preference for a certain party or group and you have taken sides. Also, if your hosts are under surveillance, this can compromise your investigation. However, there are exceptions and sometimes it will be safer for you to stay with local hosts than to use a hotel. Use your common sense and asses pros and cons before making up your mind.
Consider that in certain places, depending on what you are investigating or the people you are going to meet, choosing accommodation in a specific neighbourhood may also imply taking sides. These sides can affect your risk (if one of the groups is being persecuted or attacked, you may be exposed) but they could also mean taking a stand on one side or the other of opposite factions, and others may refuse to talk to you for that reason. In places like Gaza, for example, even when the situation is relatively stable you need to know if you are in a neighbourhood where the majority of the people are Hamas supporters, Fatah supporters, neutral, or international. You should always make sure that whenever possible you are in a place where there are other foreigners or international organisations.
Avoid telling random people where you are staying. If you have to stay in one place for a long time to undertake your investigation, it may be useful to change your accommodation a few times to avoid people getting suspicious. Check for alternative ways to leave the hotel and don’t follow a routine.
If there are electricity or network restrictions, consider that before you book a place.
Look for reliable means of transportation and make sure that you can trust the people who are helping you move around. Whenever possible, plan your appointments in advance and travel with support from someone familiar to the area.
Know where you are going and don’t start the journey if you don’t feel safe or if you don’t know how will you be able to leave the place. Keep in mind that locals may estimate risk differently than you do. Speak your mind and share your concerns, and ask the people who are guiding you questions. A visit to a farm in the buffer zone in Gaza or to the jungle in Colombia can expose you and your investigation to an unwanted encounter with security forces or armed groups. For instance, people in the Gaza buffer zone do not wear bulletproof vests, but you may want to wear one (and should) when you are in the area. You may also want to interview people who are collecting evidence of the effects of fracking in a certain area, and face an ugly encounter with the supporters or workers of the fracking company, in an isolated or restricted location. Don’t feel obliged to move forward with a dangerous interview or a meeting just because you feel you owe it to the local groups and people who are helping you. Sometimes taking a step back and analysing the situation or the alternative sources of information may be a more realistic plan.
Interviewing vulnerable sources
Some people you are interviewing might be particularly vulnerable. Perhaps they don’t have a good understanding of what having their story, name, or image published online will mean for them. Perhaps they don’t have a good understanding of the kind of work you are doing, or they have unrealistic expectations about whether and how you can help them. Perhaps in speaking to you, they are risking their freedom or physical safety. Or maybe they are traumatised and you will have to conduct your interview with great sensitivity.
In circumstances like these, it is important to know for sure that your source is really consenting (and, whenever possible, that they confirm it in writing). It is your responsibility - not the interviewee’s - to make sure they understand exactly what your use of the evidence or testimony that they will provide means for them, how it will be used, how they will be identified, if at all, and what the risks are. Make sure to think through the possible repercussions for your source before making their evidence and testimony public, and decide together whether those risks are worth taking.
Try to connect with vulnerable sources through an organisation that’s familiar to the person already, a family member, or a friend/confidant they are comfortable with. Such a person could inform the survivor about your credentials, and be around at the time of the interview if needed.
Survivors of trauma
One of the most important aspects of interviewing someone is making them feel that you hear them. This is especially important if you are dealing with survivors of trauma. If you are interviewing someone that has already explained their story to others (e.g. to human rights workers or organisations), you may want to confirm some things and try to gather more information, but you should avoid forcing someone to recall a painful incident unnecessarily.
Focus on the facts of their experiences, rather than getting caught up in the individual’s emotions. For example, if the person has lost his/her family in an air strike you may want to know more about the context, the area where they were living, if there is a police station or members of a certain faction in the area, than about the trauma and loss. You are a human being first and an investigator second and you should always display the respect and sensitivity that your interviewees deserve. Do not rush: it might take many interviews to get vulnerable sources comfortable enough to share details.
When they start telling their story, try to do more listening than talking. Ask open-ended questions, and, if you want to ask follow-up questions for more detail, always allow them to finish their thoughts first, then speak. Try to avoid disrupting the flow of the story as much as possible. Be patient, and try to identify the effects of trauma while they speak. For example, when dealing with lack of linear memory, follow-up questions like “what else happened?” instead of “what happened next?” might help them tell the story without feeling that they are not following through. It’s a useful way to establish what happened and gather the evidence and data accurately.
Don’t get frustrated if people have gaps in their memory or if they change details of the story from one meeting to the other or seem not to remember something they said previously. They are traumatised and these changes do not necessarily signify falsehood, but rather fear. Make them feel safe. If you have experience of similar stories you may want to share them to show empathy, but try to do it in a way that they don’t feel that you are undermining their experience.
Make sure that the vulnerable person has some control during the interview. The place where you interview them should make them feel safe.
These are commonly very delicate subjects so be ready for displays of emotion and offer regular breaks. Something as simple as offering them a glass of water or a moment alone is very useful.
The fact that someone is vulnerable doesn’t necessarily mean that their account is trustworthy. It might have been coerced by someone, or contain involuntary mistakes. You shouldn’t simply believe a personal story without first checking it through other means, but you should always be understanding and empathetic regardless of whether you feel sceptical internally.
Survivors of sexual violence
All the previous tips and recommendations are fundamental when interviewing victims of a sexual assault regardless of gender, but in cases involving sexual assault it may be helpful or even crucial that the investigator’s gender be taken into consideration. Oftentimes a woman who is a victim of sexual violence by men would rather be interviewed by a woman, and so might a man who was sexually abused. If you need a camera person, keep that in mind, too. Do anything in your power to help facilitate the interaction and to make interviewees feel comfortable.
When investigating cases of sexual violence, as a general rule, never name victims unless the person specifically requests to have their identity public and you believe they have a full understanding of any risk connected to that. Keeping victims anonymous protects them from social stigma. People under the age of 18 do not have the ability to consent to be publicly named as a survivor of sexual violence. Make sure that local law permits you to publicly identify a survivor of sexual violence, as this is prohibited in some jurisdictions.
Some victims might be reluctant to talk in the presence of a relative or might have been advised against sharing certain details with you. They might be afraid of the consequences (e.g. dishonouring their family if they are survivors of sexual violence) in their closer circle or their community or have been instructed (forced) to respond in a certain way, or coerced into withholding information from you. Try to figure out whether this is the case by asking general questions such as, “Do you prefer that we talk privately?”
Victims of trafficking
Victims of human trafficking are often wary of revealing details that might incriminate them. If they have broken the law over the course of their trafficking, exposure could lead to their incarceration. These details may be important to an investigation because they could help expose their traffickers and collect enough evidence to build a case against them. Nevertheless, you should be sensitive to them and the information they pass on, and make sure the person you interview understands that their safety will be your greatest concern.
Interviewing minors poses more legal risks than interviewing adults. You must be careful not to do anything that infringes on the minor’s privacy rights or emotional well-being. Ideally, a minor should be accompanied by a responsible adult that they trusts during the interview. Getting consent and permission for the interview and for any photos or recordings might be mandatory in certain cases, for instance when the purpose of your investigation is to collect evidence that could be used in official investigations (e.g. by law enforcement).
When interviewing children, depending on their age, you can bring paper and crayons, toys, or games. Playing while asking questions in a casual way may help them talk about certain topics. They are not adults, but they can think for themselves. Don’t talk about them to other adults in the room as if they were not present. Children might say what they think you want to hear rather than be honest so make sure that you don’t manipulate them that way. It is recommended to ask open-ended questions like “what happened next?” to give them room to elaborate.
Avoid questions that may imply blame or wrongdoing like “why did you abandon the group?” Instead you can ask “why were you alone at that moment?”
But be aware that if the questions are too factual or closed, they may lead to brief answers that might not be too helpful. Others like “tell me more about…” or “then what happened?” are usually more helpful to gather information from children. A possible way of addressing the interview could be to start with an initial description of a situation. When this is fully explored, you can ask more focused questions to gather additional details, clarification, or information that you feel is missing.
Mirroring the child’s words when you ask a follow-up question will help them understand you better.
Threatened communities: LGBTQI+
Some people or communities might be vulnerable not only because of what they are going to tell you but because of their race, religion, caste, or sexual orientation. LGBTQI+ people might be legally and socially discriminated against in some countries.
You should increase all security measures in these cases. Avoid judgmental questions and be respectful of their gender identity. Using neutral vocabulary will be helpful. Do your research in advance on certain specific terms like binary, non-binary, intersex, etc. Try to gather information about your interviewees before meeting them and if you have any doubts on how to address them, it is a better option to ask directly “how do you identify?”. If you have any doubt about what to ask, ask yourself how would you feel if you were asked the same question.
Dealing with adversarial interviewees
Some of your interviewees might be or become adversarial or combative over the course of your interaction. It is important to do as much research as possible before your interview so you can speak confidently if a confrontation takes place. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your list of questions if the conversation requires it.
If you have a significant amount of time with this person, you can start by asking more open-ended questions and seeking to understand their viewpoint. Some investigators pretend to know less than they do to allow sources to explain more. This tends to make interviewees feel more relaxed and understood. Even if you don’t respect this person, you have to approach the interview with empathy. As your time with the source progresses, you can begin to ask more pointed and tougher questions.
If you have a more limited amount of time with interviewees, you may have to start with the adversarial questions much sooner. Try to do this as professionally and neutrally as possible. Don’t make accusations that aren’t backed up by facts and avoid getting emotional or angry.
Never shy away from asking tough questions, but it’s usually better to maintain a neutral tone when you do. Sometimes it is useful to ask tough questions several times in different ways as your source may say something more revealing or contradict themselves. Even people who get angry can provide you with valuable information. Be respectful and keep calm and balanced even if you disagree or if your questions are critical. A source is more likely to respect you and reply to your inquiries if they can see you are acting on the basis of evidence you have discovered rather than an opinion or a pre-existing agenda. If a source feels your mind is already made up, they will have no incentive to tell you the truth or open up to you.
Sometimes an interviewee may become hostile - particularly if the two of you disagree or if they play a negative role in the subject of the investigation. These persons are better interviewed at the end of your investigation so you can prevent them from interfering in your work. They may find out what you are doing and try to disrupt your investigation. They may try to intimidate your other contacts into retracting their stories, shut down a website you are using for research, inform authorities, or put pressure on you or your team or employer.
There is no way to eliminate these risks but there are measures you can take to control the damage. Be transparent with those you work with about what you are doing and the risk of blow-back from a hostile source. You may not be able to fully protect your contacts, but if you believe they are at risk of retaliation, you should make sure not to discuss your interactions with them with anyone else.
You should also protect yourself against possible retaliation. Let someone you trust know when and where the interview will take place and what to do if you do not get in touch at a certain time. Leave all the information about your other sources and evidence collected somewhere safe and be extra careful when choosing the location for the interview.
It is very important that you don’t make any accusations while interviewing a perpetrator or an alleged perpetrator. You must allow them to explain their version of the story before confronting them with information contradicting it if it serves your purposes. Sometimes perpetrators are also survivors of trauma and you should consider this before the interview. Try to start by gathering personal information like their name, age, and where they were born and ask more open questions afterwards.
Some refugees, for instance, may have committed crimes before running away from their country. For example they may have been forced to join the army and ordered to attack people. They may also have become perpetrators during the trip, abusing relationships and trust, and getting involved in sexual abuse or pimping. You have to be extremely careful with the way you phrase your questions. Avoid sounding judgmental. Try to gather information about how they joined the army or guerrilla force, or the gang that committed the abuses, who was in charge, and who was giving orders, to avoid them feeling as if you are accusing them of anything. Encourage them to talk by keeping a poker face or underplaying your knowledge or understanding. Questions like “how did you end up in that village?” might be more useful than asking straightforwardly “what did you want to do there?”
Try to establish facts and do more listening than talking. Some perpetrators are also big narcissists and may be willing to volunteer information and show off if they feel they are impressing you.
Note - Avoid getting sucked in
Some sources will want to start an argument with you. This is usually not productive. If this happens, you should avoid taking the bait. Nod politely and return to your task.
After the interview
Even if you have done your homework and are sure of the trustworthiness of your sources, you should always make sure that the evidence they have provided is accurate, unbiased, and reliable. Always check the accuracy of an interviewee’s claims against data collected with other sources, including further interviews or research. An interviewee may mention certain things as bait, so keep your radar on. If something doesn’t feel right, keep looking, and double-check and fact-check as much as you need.
Checks and balances
Your investigation should maintain a balance in order to be reliable. This means that you have to avoid your personal and your interviewees’ biases in order to gain a broader perspective. But the ways in which you display your evidence and the weight that you give to every interview is very important too. Try to counterbalance statements accurately. For instance, the Egyptian government is painting buildings in poor areas of Cairo, while infrastructures and other services are being neglected. In a case like this, you could balance the positive impact of testimonies praising these measures with others that can give context and expose the negative aspects.
Assessing needs, thinking it over
Your investigation is like a jigsaw puzzle. Even if you have fact-checked at every step, you should revisit and think over your evidence when you have all your information, data, and statements. If necessary, do not hesitate to go back to your sources for clarification or get in touch with people who can help you understand your evidence better. You can always broaden your perspective by speaking to new and different interviewees. It’s useful to let things settle for a while if you have the time and then have a look at your evidence with fresher eyes. You may pick up details you haven’t seen before.
Right of reply
If the purpose of your investigation is to publish a story that accuses someone of wrongdoing, they have a right to respond to those allegations.
In some countries, news organisations and other publishers are obliged to give a subject the right to reply to charges against them under libel law. Whether or not this is a legal requirement where you live or work, it is the ethical thing to do. Everyone deserves a chance to respond to public allegations against them.
Generally speaking, it’s easiest to approach the subject of an investigation with any allegations you plan to publish after you have already done most of the work on the project. This will also give you the opportunity to correct anything you may have previously misunderstood. One easy way to do this is to politely establish contact and then send a written list of questions touching on the allegations against them in your investigation.
When doing so you will sometimes expose yourself, your work, your sources and/or the organisation you work with to interference. Consider the timing and the way in which you inform your subjects to avoid ruining your investigation or putting yourself or your sources at risk. The people with whom you have already talked and who have provided you with evidence might be threatened and deny previous accusations they made, or ask you not to use the interview.
Honour the efforts of your sources and interviewees
Considering the time and effort that your sources and interviewees put into answering your questions, especially in conditions of risk and/or limited resources, they deserve your appreciation.
You can honour their efforts by doing little things like sending them copies of or links to your investigation if you publish it, or by reconnecting with them when you are next in their area. This is a useful way of building up a network of sources that helps to keep you informed or bring to your attention other possible investigations.
Stay in touch
If you plan to stay in touch with someone you have interviewed after the investigation, there are a few considerations to bear in mind. We’ve already addressed the fact that handing out business cards or giving out too many personal details to random people or even to your sources might not always be a good idea. Depending on who the source is, having your card or your contact details may compromise them and/or yourself, and thus your entire investigation. Make sure they understand that for safety purposes and for their own good it is important to maintain secure communication, rely on encrypted messaging applications, and only reveal new and sensitive information when you have the chance to meet or establish safe communication channels.
Know when to let go
There are different reasons why you may have to give up your investigation. Feeling overwhelmed is a natural thing, and the pressure and stress of your work may take over at some point, as we have explained previously. In addition, your research may end up showing that there is no case, or that you won’t be able to collect all the evidence you need. Thinking your investigation over will help you decide whether you need to let go of things.
How to avoid leaving digital prints in your interviewing process: before, during and after.
There are many ways to leave digital traces connecting you and the interviewee throughout the interview process (and the entire investigation, for that matter). These connections can be used to reveal who you are interviewing, when you are interviewing them, why you are interviewing them, and, in the worst case scenario, even the content of an interview. Below is a timeline of the interview process, including ways to mitigate digital prints you may leave on the way.
The Problem of First Contact
Once you have identified and developed close contact with a source, they may be open to the idea of using more secure communication. These methods of contact will undoubtedly leave fewer digital trails. The risk is higher the first few times you contact each other. One way to avoid early mistakes that link you to your source or interview subject is to write up a few steps and guidelines on how people can safely reach you. Get inspiration from tip pages of news organisations such as The Intercept’s guidelines for sources, the New York Times’s guide on how to contact them safely or anonymously, or reporter bios like Barton Gellman’s contact tips. These offer ideas on how best to initiate communication with sources.
Below are a few things to consider before you initiate communication, and over the course of your contact with your source.
When looking for subjects to interview ,it’s common to make phone calls. When making calls, try using a virtual Voice over IP (VoIP) number or phone that is not linked to you.
With regular phones and numbers, the number you dial and your number are linked in a call log. This log exists in your device and is recorded by the telecommunications company providing the service. This call log leaves a trail. Anyone with access to the caller or recipient’s device can see the call log linking the two parties. Anyone who is able to prove to the telecommunications company that they are the owner of the phone number that is called can also get access to a call log. Local authorities, security forces, and governments can also gain access to the log. Calling from a new number that cannot be directly linked to you avoids associating yourself with the number in the call log. When expecting calls from potential sources, give them a new number generated by a VoIP service, or at least use a new SIM card instead of your regular number.
It’s a good idea to do a carrier and caller lookup of your own phone number to see if it leads back to details of your identity (as you may not always want that). You should also check if your phone has voicemail. Do not leave your personal details and affiliations on your voicemail recording. Keep in mind that most voicemail passwords are 3-4 digits and easy to guess. Someone can call the voicemail service provider, enter in a mailbox (usually your phone number), and then be asked for a password which they will guess. There is often no limit on password guesses and eventually a determined individual will have access to your voicemail.
BEFORE: Online communication
The internet is a great resource when investigating who to interview and how to best reach them. However, in doing so, you are linking a lot of information about your computer, your location, and the time and date to your search or website visit. For example, investigators will often do research on specialist or local webpages that don’t get much traffic. On any particular day you may be one of very few visitors to an obscure organisational chart, board meeting notes, company employee bios, or detailed contact listings. You may even be the only visitor. The site’s webmaster has access to a list of who accesses the site, which can allow them to trace you and could sabotage your investigation.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a good option not only for encrypting your local internet traffic but for obscuring information on your location, like your IP address and DNS, which are part of normal web usage. Using a browser just for research helps compartmentalise and limit the data that is shared.
The browser you choose should not be the same browser you use for everything else. We recommend Tor browser, and, in second place, Firefox for this. Even if you are using a VPN you may find that some location data is still coming from your browser (the bottom bar of a Google search results page can display your true location, for example). A fix for this is to use private browsing or incognito mode. For even more protection we recommend using public internet (i.e. not your home or office router) or a network not associated with you.
When you are creating accounts on a service we recommend using a new email address. You can produce an email address quickest and most easily on Tutanota.de. Another option is to create an email address at Protonmail.com.
When setting up accounts, we recommend that you use a long and secure (not intuitive) password. The longer the password, the stronger it is. Consider a password that is at least 15 characters long. An easy way to do this is to make a password consisting of several words. Password managers are applications and services that can quickly generate powerful passwords for you, and securely store a list of all your passwords. We recommend that you use a password manager such a KeyPassXC. You can read in detail about how to create stronger passwords from this Security-in-a-Box guide on passwords.
If you have never met your source or interview subject before or if you have only met a few times it may be a good idea to set up a challenge/response system. This can be visual - “we will agree to wear yellow” - or it can be an action, like “bring a Rubik’s cube”, or an agreed upon question and an agreed upon answer to it. This can be used as a subtle form of verification that you are the interviewer and they are the interviewee.
DURING: Interview notes, recordings, and files
Whether you are setting up one interview or a series of interviews, you are likely to produce large amounts of data. This can be in the form of handwritten notes or files on a computer. Its a good idea to encrypt this data electronically so that only authorised access is possible. The fastest way to encrypt hand written notes is to use a video camera or smartphone to videotape the notes. In a well-lit room, position the camera above you shooting downward or lay it on a transparent glass surface shooting downward. Start recording. Place the notes in front of the camera, wait one second, then place another set of notes. Watch the video: its timeline should now contain all written notes.
Catalogue the location of each note in the timeline then encrypt the video and the timeline document. For electronic files and folders, encrypt the data directly. To encrypt files and folders we recommend Veracrypt or Cryptomator. Veracrypt has more features, but many find Cryptomator easier to use. Purchasing a hardware-encrypted drive is also a good idea. These are external drives with a keypad on them. Their contents are only accessible with a passcode. This can be faster and easier: simply drag files onto the encrypted drive. For another layer of protection, you can move already encrypted files onto the passcode-encrypted hard drive.
AFTER: Sending and receiving large amounts of data
Once the work is done you may need to send the data to collaborate with someone else or for safekeeping. Here are a few methods, in order of safety:
You can use OnionShare to send or receive files from your computer. With this you are creating a web link in OnionShare that can only be visited in the Tor browser. That link takes the visitor to a page where they can download or upload a file. As long as your computer and their computer are online at the same time the data transfer can proceed.
SEND by Tresorit allows you to send up to 5GB to a cloud server for pickup by yourself or someone else. The files last 48 hours before they are automatically deleted. It is strongly recommended that you encrypt the file and folder with Veracrypt or Cryptomator before compressing it and uploading this encrypted container into the Cloud. SEND by Tresorit allows you to be notified via email when the file is downloaded, and there is also the option to set a password on the link to download the file.
It is strongly recommended that you encrypt files and folders with Veracrypt or Cryptomator before compressing and uploading to a cloud service.
There are several local, regional, and global organisations focused on investigation and supporting investigators, including citizen investigators. These might be helpful if you feel that you or your work have been compromised, you are at risk, you need advice on how to proceed with your investigation, or you would like to learn how to maintain your security:
Published October 2019 / updated November 2021
Articles and Guides
Border Searches (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). An introductory guide and checklist on how to be aware of risks and checks that may occur while crossing borders.
Documenting and Reporting Human Rights Abuses Using Testimony - an online course. From Advocacy Assembly, course by CUNY Brooklyn College. *It includes tips and techniques on how to interview vulnerable sources.
Human Trafficking Resources: Best Practices in Reporting (archived copy here). From the Global Investigative Journalism Network(GIJN) - a guide on how to investigate and report on human trafficking and slavery issues, interviewing vulnerable sources, including tips, good (and bad) practices and further links to resources.
Integrating a Gender Perspective into Human Rights Investigations: Guidance and Practice (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Perspectives on Interviewing Techniques (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From the Global Investigative Journalism Network(GIJN) - a list of resources and recommendations about how to conduct interviews in different contexts and with various types of subjects/interviewees.
Pre-assignment Preparation: emergency response (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ) - a list of available resources that can help you learn and prepare the safety elements of your investigations. *Relevant for any researcher, not only journalists.
Questions to assess if a person is a victim of traffic (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here); and Interacting with victims of human trafficking (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From the US Administration of Children and Families.
Samples of investigations, guides and data from The Bureau Local (UK) (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From the Bureau For Investigative Journalism.
Surveillance Self-defense: Tips, tools, and how-tos for safer online communications (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
The Most Comprehensive TweetDeck Research Guide In Existence (Probably) (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). By Charlotte Godart at Bellingcat.com. A guide on how to use TweetDeck tool to organize great amounts of information with less time and effort.
30 Tips on How to Interview Like a Journalist (archived copy here). By journalist David Sparks - best practices for conducting interviews for print, blog, radio, TV, and films; very useful for learning some of the key approches applied by experienced reporters.
Anonymous source - You can publish the information or use it without ever naming the source. The publishing needs to be done in a way that nobody can link that information to the source who gave it to you.
Background check - Research intended to help gather as much information as possible about a person / group / organisation / topic , to confirm or verify important pieces of information before setting out to conduct interviews, go on field research or advance with other stages of an investigation.
Double check - Checking that the data you have received from a source or interviewee is accurate by gathering the same input from various sources.
Encrypted communication - A way of communicating through applications and email that use encoded information. That information can only be decoded and therefore read by the person who has the appropriate password or encryption key.
Fact-checking - The process of seeking confirmation of the accuracy of information you collect by verifying it with different sources and using different techniques at different points during your investigation.
Interview subject/interviewee - The person you are interviewing.
Non-attributable - You can publish the information but you cannot name the source.
Off the record - You cannot make information you receive public or attribute it to the person who gave it to you. Information is sometimes confided to you to understand the background of something which is too sensitive for the source or interviewee to talk publicly about.
On the record - You can use the information provided in an interview or conversation and mention the person that gives it to you.
Proof of life - Document that will serve to prove that you are alive in case something like kidnapping or detention should happen to you. (see a sample here)
Release form - Document in which the source or interviewee agrees with their signature that their words and/or image might be used in your investigation and agree on you doing so under certain circumstances that are clearly mentioned on the form. This is also called ‘informed consent form’ or simply ‘consent form’.
Risk assessment - Measuring the chance that threats might happen along your investigation while dealing with sources and interviewees, so you know how to prevent them and/or address them if you can’t avoid them.
Source - Someone who shares information with you and/or with whom you maintain contact over time, and who may contribute information to your investigations.