Ana Balmazovic

How To: Get a Source to Talk

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Kevin Donovan, an investigative reporter for the Toronto Star, shares his tips on how to get the most out of your sources.

Step 1 – Initial approach: “Go to their home, their office, call them … and then send an e-mail.”

“Writing an e-mail is the last thing I would do. The personal touch is always better, although there are different approaches for different people. If your source is a government official, then you’ll have to send an email because of the way the government operates. It’s so easy to shoot off an email, but the problem is, it’s also easy for the source to look at it and spend a week strategizing a response with their handlers. It’s always best to get your source away from their handlers.”

Step 2 – Conducting an interview:
“Information is power.”

“Bring evidence with you that the source has done the thing they’re being accused of and show it to them. For one of my stories we were looking into a charity for abused women. The charity had made all these claims for the work they do. One of my female colleagues called the charity posing as an abused woman asking for help. The receptionist said to her, ‘Do you want me to go to the Yellow Pages with you?’ and stated that they couldn’t help her. We recorded this and when I confronted this guy and played him the recording, he completely crumbled and confessed that they didn’t have all the services they promote, but that they hope to accomplish it all within five years. It’s not always going to happen that way, but sometimes it does. There are different approaches for different people but you should control an interview subject by doing it properly. Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions.”

Step 3 – Loosening tight lips:
“The choice of zero information or a lot of helpful information.”

“I did one colourful story about a bunch of guys who stole $4 million in small business claims and used it for escorts, cars, etc. Thirteen people were charged, but most of those charges will be dropped. Some of those guys are talking to us, but we had to make an agreement not to name them. Sometimes you have to do that so you can get important information. If I have to make an agreement not to name someone, I’ll tell them two things: I really only want you for information, and you lie to me, and the deal is off. Then you take what they tell you and go check if it’s true.”

Step 4 – When to give up: “Everybody talks – if you have the right way to unlock their fear of speaking.”

“You shouldn’t give up. You can’t force someone to speak, but I can’t think of a lot of people that didn’t talk to me. For the story I wrote, ‘Sex and charity,’ the target subject didn’t want to talk to us but it turned out that his aunt and mother wanted to rat him out. They didn’t say he was despicable – they had their own reasons for why he did what he did – but what they said confirmed the story. Try anything. Don’t say to yourself, ‘A family member won’t talk to me.’ Really smart people won’t fall for these tricks, but some people will.”


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