How to Manage Your Sources
By Nuria Tesón, Ankita Anand, Jess Lempit, Megha Rajagopalan
In Short: Start building your own contacts, learn how to develop, interact with and maintain sources and how to enrich your investigations with their cooperation.
During the course of your investigation you will be in touch with people you will want to interview but also with others who will provide you information over longer periods of time and whom you may not necessarily interview. These will be your sources.
The information we cover in the Interviews section of this Kit - on types of sources, how to identify them, conduct background research, establish their biases and trustworthiness, reach out to them, communicate safely, etc. - applies as much to long-term sources as it does to one-off interviewees.
Certain details, on the other hand, can differ and we address them below.
Creating an agenda and database
If you work (or plan to work) as an investigator, apart from specific people that you may need to reach out to for a specific investigation, you need to create a network of sources that you can rely on for information over time.
You can set out to reach sources specifically by establishing a relationship starting with an informal interaction, having a coffee, or meeting them at their workplace. You can also try to turn your interviewees into sources by keeping contact with them after you are done with a specific interview or investigation.
Be organised and gather contacts in a meaningful way while also taking extra care to save and store details safely to protect the identity of your sources. For instance, your agenda may involve building a topic-specific contact list of environmentalists, lawyers, political activists, human rights researchers, officials, etc.
Don’t discard or dismiss lower-ranking people. They might reach a position of responsibility in the future and can be helpful as they gain access to more sensitive information (or be able to help you in accessing evidence and/or interviews just by being close to those in power). Security forces may be good sources too, but be aware of the particular status of their work and make sure that you adopt high safety measures as discussed in the Interviews section to maintain confidentiality of your interactions.
If you are (or become) known in the field of investigation, people may also start reaching out to you and offering information over a longer period. You should always establish their reliability and biases, ask them about their intentions, and lay out the boundaries of your relationship.
Your work is your best tool when you are trying to gain the trust of a source.
If you have done other investigations and you were able to preserve the privacy and safety of your interviewees and sources, others may feel more inclined to collaborate with you. Build a reputation not only as an investigator but as someone who cares about the people you are interviewing and, again, remember to be genuine. People might be assuming a huge risk by maintaining a relationship with you and you should always make sure you acknowledge it.
Screenshot: The evolution of trust - a ‘game theory’ game about choices. Source: https://ncase.me/trust/
Keeping contact: the Law of the Three Calls
Never take your sources for granted. Once you have established contact and started building a relationship, you need to show interest and maintain contact. Ideally, don’t just call your sources when you need something. Rather, try applying the law of the three calls.
Once in a while, send a message showing interest in how they are doing and make sure they feel that you are not looking for information. A second call may follow later on to check on them, ask how things are going with work and in their lives, and let them know that you are up for a coffee. This should be only for the purpose of catching up and not to extract any information. Then, when you really need them for the purpose of an investigation, the third call will happen naturally.
It might happen that they actually get in touch first to inform you of something because you are on their mind and because they don’t think of you as a selfish investigator who only appears once in a blue moon when you need something.
Is your source compromised?
The fact that someone has been trustworthy or reliable at a certain point doesn’t mean they are going to be so forever.
You need to preemptively check your source’s credibility and reliability every time you meet them, and not just before the first meeting, depending on who they are, the context they are informing in, and other factors.
For example, you may have been in a country where someone working for an organisation was helping you and putting you in touch with people you wanted to interview. In the meantime, the source or source’s family or organisation might have been threatened or pushed to denounce you or your work if you ever come back. Be alert to changes in their behaviour. If they suddenly ask too many questions or want to know too many personal details like where you live, who your partner is, who gave you this or that evidence, their status as reliable sources may have changed.
Confidentiality is key for your sources. If you let others know who they are you will be compromising your sources and your relationship with them.
Screenshot: Protection of Journalistic Sources, from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Source: https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/FS_Journalistic_sources_ENG.pdf
Your interaction must be based on mutual trust and sources have to be sure that you will not deceive them under any circumstances. You have the right to protect them even when asked about them by a judge, though this might vary depending on the country you’re in. You must be aware of the legislation in your own country and in the country you will be working from. In the United States, for instance, civil and criminal courts can issue subpoenas forcing you to disclose the identities of confidential sources, and you will have to decide whether to reveal them, or face fines and even jail time.
A good way of protecting the privacy of your relationship is to keep your communications encrypted and your contact databases protected with passwords. Follow our digital security advice in the Interviews section of this Kit to make sure that you are doing your best to protect your devices, communication, and information from unwanted access.
Sources will often expect you to know how best to safeguard their communications and interview transcripts. Be sure to spend time researching the best ways for you to do this with the equipment available. The source is often the person who will be most at risk if a mistake is made.
When you have been investigating the same issue for some time, but also when you are just starting to build a network of reliable sources, you may need to be careful that your relationships remain at a professional level.
This might be tricky, and the line can sometimes become blurred, as the bond you establish with certain sources is all about trust, commitment, or about joining forces to fight against wrongdoing. You need to consider the fact that if your relationship strengthens to the extent of befriending your sources you may become biased and lose both objectivity and credibility.
Sometimes you may get to know details that are useful for your investigation in a context in which your source talks to you as to a friend rather than an investigator. Establish the necessary boundaries to avoid this if possible, though sometimes it will occur naturally. Try to avoid revealing your personal life in detail whenever possible. Be friendly but professional. As an investigator you will need allies, but make sure that you are aware of the difference between someone trusting you because of your shared friendship and someone trusting you because of your work.
If you can avoid the relationship with your source becoming personal, you have to consider how your interactions might be changing. For instance, if they disclose information in a private, friendly (and not investigative) context, you must ask them straightforwardly whether it can be used, and never use it without their consent. Be aware that they may feel pressured to let you use the information, so consider potential risks and don’t abuse your position of power to make them talk to you as to an investigator if they were confiding in you as a friend. The same applies the other way around. A source may feel entitled to ask you something you are not comfortable doing if your relationship is too close, and also use their own power to mislead or manipulate you. Make sure that even your closest sources are still reliable at different moments in time.
Do not feel forced to maintain a relationship with a source if you think your boundaries are being crossed. You have every right to cut a source off, even if they have helped you in the past. Don’t let them make you feel responsible for their wellbeing. If you have done everything you can to protect them, and you have no regrets about your behaviour towards them, don’t feel obligated to go forward with an interaction that makes you uncomfortable or may put you, your organisation, or your work at risk. If you are a woman investigator you may be more vulnerable to unwanted advances from your sources. This can happen when people interpret your interest as personal. This can ultimately affect anyone, regardless of gender. Establish boundaries from the beginning and stick to them.
There is never too much warning or awareness on this. Whenever you are dealing with sources you should repeatedly assess any risk you and your source are assuming. You need to decide carefully when it’s secure to get in touch and how you do it.
This is especially necessary if these sources are confidential or the information they hold is controversial or dangerous. Whenever possible, stick to encrypted communications as recommended before. If you need to use mobile or landline phones that are not secure, you may want to establish a code with your source to make them aware that the call might not be private and there is risk of surveillance. Don’t disclose any sensitive information, such as your subject matter or where you will meet. When meeting, avoid going to places you visit frequently or where you may run into people either of you know.
You may want to consider using pseudonyms to hide their identities, and remember to always keep your files encrypted. If you are meeting sources and you fear your safety or security might be compromised you should arrange a proof of life document. This is a document that contains confidential information and sometimes passwords that someone you fully trust will keep in order to determine, based on your online activity (or lack of it), whether you are still alive. For a good introduction to proof of life procedures, consult this Rory Peck Trust resource on Proof of Life Notes and Templates.
Published October 2019 / updated November 2021
Articles and Guides
*Note that while resources below often refer to journalism they don’t only apply to journalists but to anyone else doing research and investigations. Reality is that there are more resources out there addressing journalists than citizen investigators.
How can journalists better approach sources around breaking news stories? (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From First Draft News.
5 Tips for journalists who want to do a better job of cultivating sources (archived copy from Wayback Machine available here). From Poynter.org.
Agenda/data base - A network of sources that you can rely on to get information and tip-offs over time.
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.
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.
Interview subject/interviewee - The person you are interviewing.
Proof of life - A document that contains confidential information and sometimes passwords that someone you fully trust will keep in order to determine, based on your online activity (or lack of it), whether you are still alive.