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Interviewees have many reasons for refusing to answer your questions. Above, we have discussed how to deal with defensive 'spin', but often, people have real and good 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 stigma in their communities from private information that they disclose to you. Gentle persistence may pay off, but often the best way to persuade a reluctant source to speak with you is to use a door-opener.

Find out what the source fears, and provide him or her as much reassurance as you can in order to conduct an interview. This may mean confirming any safeguards with your editor before you have 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 (and 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 with the more people willing to 'go public' and contribute information to it. These conversations help cement your relationship with sources and have 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.

Stop writing

Sometimes a source’s preoccupation with your note-taking can be oppressive. If the questioning enters sensitive territory, just listen. You can make notes later.

Show respect

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.

Be rigorous

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 necessarily make it true. Be wary of people who exaggerate. 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.

Be aware of denial

People lie, or tell half-truths, for different reasons, and not necessarily bad ones. Denial is a recognised psychological state, where people bury some truth about themselves because it is too harsh to face. So, for example, someone in denial may be unable to tell you they were raped or witnessed the rape of others.

Asking the right questions determines whether you have story or not. But even though gathering all the information is fundamental of an investigative story, it is as much more important to write about it comprehensively for your audience. The next chapter will discuss how to select and sort the information you collected into a compelling story.