Dana Priest, investigative journalist with The Washington Post, gave a master class in Tallin, Estonia, at the “Journalism as a Profession” Awards, organised by Open Russia.
In advance of the class, the assembled journalists were given her “tip sheet.”
1. Do as much research as possible on your subject before making calls.
2. Find all the articles written on your subject; make a list of sources/names in the stories and call them.
3. Ask everyone you speak with, “Who else should I call?”
4. Find experts in academia, think tanks, advocacy groups, people who have written reports on your topic, to explain what they know about the subject. Ask them for names of “formers” people who used to be in the institution you are writing about.
5. Find other “formers.” These can be very valuable sources because they may be able to talk with people inside the institution for you. Even people who have been out of government for years may still know a lot of people inside.
6. Find “associations” of current and former government officials.
7. Find people inside competing institutions who know about your subject. Exploit the bureaucratic rivalry.
8. Ask “formers” to introduce you to people inside. This happens rarely but can be great.
TALKING TO SOURCES
1. Most sources have never met a journalist before. Go slow. Be open and friendly, not judgmental. Even mention something personal about yourself, when appropriate, to show you’re a human being.
2. Adapt and empathize with the source’s culture. Use their language, acronyms, etc.
3. Don’t pull out your notebook until you sense it will not scare the source.
4. Offer to be “on background” or “off the record” right away. What you first need is the information; once you know the entire story, you can get it on the record somewhere else.
5. Bring bits of information you already know into the conversation to get them confirmed and to show the source you already know something about the subject.
6. “Do something” with the source; go to coffee, lunch, dinner, drinks, for a walk in the park. Offer to meet at their home; anywhere that is not official.