In many cases, interviewees have legitimate reasons to fear talking to the press. In many countries, ‘disloyal’ media and their informants face harassment or worse. In addition, your interview subjects may have undergone trauma that they are reluctant to relive, or fear suffering other repercussions, such as stigma or gossip, from their communities should their information become public. Gentle persistence may pay off, but often the best way to persuade a reluctant source to speak with you is to get a trusted contact to persuade him or her.
Find out what the source fears, and provide him as much reassurance as you can in order to conduct an interview. This may mean confirming any safeguards with your editor before you conduct the interview, because you must not make promises you cannot keep.
Obtain informed consent to publish
‘Informed consent’ does not simply mean asking a source, “Do you mind if we publish what you say?” It means that your interviewee understands the potential consequences of publication, the risks, and the safeguards that can (or cannot) be put in place, and agrees to publication fully informed. Do not scare people, but do not conceal possible consequences from them either. Your story becomes stronger as more people go public with their information. These conversations help cement your relationship with sources. This in turn would lead to more truthful conversations, even if some identities end up being concealed.
Empathy, not sympathy
Comments such as: “Oh, how dreadful. You poor thing!” disempower your sources and may make them feel weak and helpless. Provide a safe space for an interviewee to share his or her story. A neutral, open listening style and time for the person to gather their thoughts or master their emotions, are needed. Give regular, encouraging feedback. Nod, say “Yes, go on…” or “Tell me more.” If it is culturally appropriate, there is nothing wrong with reaching out a reassuring hand to pat the person’s arm. Let your human instincts guide you.
Know when to stop writing
Sometimes a source’s preoccupation with your note-taking can be distracting. If the questioning enters sensitive territory, just listen. You can make notes later.
Do not rush questions, and do not exploit a source’s answers by sensationalising. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the interviewee and make sure that your questions are not insensitive.
Despite the need for sensitivity, you still need to ask difficult questions. Just because someone tells you they have been a victim of torture, does not make it true. Be wary of people who exaggerate, or those who may be in denial about something traumatic that happened to them. Make it clear that you cannot advance their case if you are not confident in the accuracy of their story, and do not neglect the cross-checks you would do with other types of interviews.
Asking the right questions determines whether you have story. But it is even more important to write about it comprehensively for your audience. The next chapter will discuss how to sort the information you collected into a compelling story.