Interviews - The Human Element of Your Investigation: Preparing and conducting investigative interviews, safely.

Gain the techniques, skills and good practices you need to safely identify, interview and maintain contact with people during your investigations in order to gather and strengthen evidence.


  1. Breaking ice through a simple game of identifying the human element in photos/cartoons/videos.

  2. Introduction: to the topic: When ‘human element’ and interviews are needed/vital. Brief presentation of the trainers and participants.

  3. Identifying and reaching out to interviewees/sources.

  4. DISCUSSION. Identifying risks and mitigating them.

  5. The QUESTIONNAIRE. Out in the field: the interview. Learning to ask and act.

Related Exposing the Invisible guides to use a background reading materials:


This workshop may relate to or be combined with other subjects such as:


Suggested 1 day training or multiple shorter sessions spread across 2 or 3 days, for example:

  • 3 hours in the morning divided in 2x1h 30’ or 3x1hour sessions (10-15 minutes coffee break in between)

  • Lunch break

  • 3 hours in the afternoon divided in 2x 1h30’ session or 3x1hour sessions. (10-15 minutes coffee break in between)


Min. 4 to max. 14 to ensure that people can work in teams of two or four for exercises.



  • Awareness of the need/dependence on human resources to undertake an investigation gather evidence/testimonies and the differences between them.

  • Understand and asses risks during your interaction with interviewees and sources along the course of an investigation and learn the differences between them. (risk assessment is a repeated cycle)

  • Understand that different types of interviews/interviewees require different approaches.

  • Types of questions

  • Holistic approach to sources/interviewees.

  • Source managing.


  • Be able to identify interviewees/sources based on needs and context of your investigation/research

    • Define goals to choose wisely and safely your interviewees.

    • Identify types of interviewees/sources. (Practical exercise)

  • Identifying and mitigating risks: elaborate a Risk assessment (gender approach)

    • Techniques, tools, and resources to keep yourself, your interviewees and your work safe.
  • How to conduct an interview.

  • Elaboration of a questionnaire.


ONLINE/OFFLINE materials may vary:

  • Post-it (2 colors)

  • Pen (2 colors)

  • Board

  • Laptop/projector (there will be several options in which the trainer/s may decide wether is feasible or not to use projections. If online, videos can be just screened shared during videocall.

  • CARDS: role play for interviews/questions/security (risk assessment, is there already some material related to this that can be used???)

  • Quizzes

Detailed outline


  1. Breaking ice 10’

  2. Introduction: to the topic: When ‘human element’ and interviews are needed/vital. Brief presentation of the trainers and participants. 15’

  3. Identifying and reaching out to interviewees/sources. 35’

    1. Identifying (20’) (10’ working groups and 10’ sharing input)

    2. Finding and reaching out to human resources (15 minutes)

1. Breaking ice (time needed: 10 minutes)

Proposed exercises that can be done online/offline.

Introduce the trainer/s briefly and ask participants:

  • What is the common element of any given investigation? Let’s discover it through some images:

    • Proposed exercise 1: What images can you identify in these paintings? Hidden faces: through different artworks attendants find human faces hidden (among other objects) in well known paintings. Dalí’s hidden faces from the 40’s has a good amount of examples.

    • Proposed exercise 2: What do you see in this forest? Hidden objects puzzle. Household Cavalry image of a forest where 6 soldiers are hiding (quite challenging).

    • Countering real images we present a fake image of Mt Susitna in Alaska purportedly depicting a (fake) sleeping woman. Even where there isn’t people, there are people. In this case manipulating an image.

    • We create our own puzzle with hidden objects related to evidence/ tools used during an investigation (we can recreate cartoons or manipulate pictures: What do you need to undertake an investigation? (we can propose one or two really different in which tools are different but what is common is that they require of human resources for interviews as witness, background, etc): i.e. laptop, phone, notebook, recorder, camera, and people: politician, scientist, jars and lab tools if environmental related investigation…

    • Present a collection of images (they might be cartoon or photography, video?…) or image and headlines combined where they should find out similarities, what is common to all of them? For instance: A satellite orbiting (the exercise works well online/offline).

2. INTRODUCTION (time needed: 15 minutes)

The trainer/s introduce the topic following the previous exercise to determine the importance of dealing with people during the course of an investigation.

(may use Out in the field… material from the KIT to explain the need of getting off our desks).

Consider the level of the group and if they want to apply the skills to a certain area of investigation (if so the workshop’s exercises/games... visual material should be tailored to their needs.

Ask participants to introduce themselves (express their preferred pronoun if applies) and respond to the following questions:

  • Has the group, or any of the participants, taken part in an investigation?

  • Why is/was dealing with people important for the investigation?

  • What did they obtain from them?

The trainer/s take/s note of (or ask them to write down) the sort of information/evidence/data/ testimony/background collected from human sources that the participants propose on sticky notes (or in a list in a shared screen) and keep it so you can use it in the next slot’s exercise as a starting point.

Make the distinction, for the sake of clarity, between Sources and interviewees (interview subjects). When applies, explain that you will delve into source at a later stage of the training.

  • How long will your relationship with that person/people will last? How long or how often you consult with them? Will you be in touch when your investigation is over?


Identifying 20 minutes (allows for 10 minutes working groups and 10 minutes sharing input).

The question that wraps up the previous slot and helps to distinguish between sources and interviewees will serve to kick off the current slot of the training: how to identify and get in touch with human resources. Ask the participants to suggest an investigation (or trainers suggest one from the ones mentioned earlier, if any) and write it on the board, then ask them to identify human sources for interviews and long term sources according to the previous explanation.

  • They write each one on a sticky note.

(if the group is too big for everybody to participate we can split in working teams and ask them to debate and identify potential interviewees/source for an investigation (or different that they may select or we can propose).

We have already identify two types of human resources depending on the relationship we establish in terms of time (how long our interaction with them last: for this investigation; for longer term information/evidence collection).

  • Following the same investigation what other interviewees / sources can you identify?

  • What other distinctions can we make? Let’s look back at the sticky notes and order them. Trainer/s write columns for attendants to write a list:

    • What is their role in the investigation?

    • What is their position relative to the investigation?

    • What information/data/evidence will they provide you with?

The trainer take note on a flip board (shared screen) of the input of the participants that at some point may mention: witnesses, perpetrators, victims, politicians, scientists, lawyers… Another option is to have cards of the different characters/sources with information about them: Primary source/witness/vulnerable… on the back and that can be hung or stuck or pinned on a board so we can have a more visual exercise.

Attendants put in order the sticky notes/or shared screen/character cards with the content of the previous exercise and suggest new ones.

  • On the wall/screen write down or stick (post-its) with different types and their use for your investigation.

Finding and reaching out to human resources (15 minutes)

Once we have identified the type of human resources

  • Where can we find them?

Following the previous work around the investigation ask the participants to discuss in small groups and find out how they will identify them. i. e. they need an activist with knowledge of the topic or a lawyer…

Some things that may be mentioned:

  • Online and offline venues

  • Social media

  • Subscribing to newsletter

  • Attending conferences and meetings

  • Following blogs

  • Official websites

  • Groups of specialists (some might be secret)

If this training is combined with the workshop about managing sources we will tell the attendants that we will devote time and delve on how to organize them meaningfully so they last longer later on.

LIST RESOURCES and where to find them (customized for the group).

The trainer/s want/s to introduce the security concerns that will imply reaching out to them or even subscribing or following social media accounts and/or activists blogs.

We wrap up the slot with a question on how to get in touch.

  • Once we have identify the people that we want to reach out to how do you get in touch with them?

After taking note of the different ideas we raise concerns about security if they haven’t mention any secure way.

  • Are any of those human resources under surveillance? Or, are they likely to pose some risks to the investigator (e.g. be affiliated with dangerous people, leak information about the investigator and the topic etc)?

  • Did the group consider encrypted/safe communications?

    Possible resources to know of/use/share when discussing about how to identify and verify sources:

4. DISCUSSION. RISK ASSESSMENT (when approaching human sources)

1h50’ session.

  1. identifying physical and digital threats: (30 minutes).

  2. Safe travels: physical and digital risks. (20 minutes)

  3. elaborating a proof of life. (10 minutes)

  4. self-care and self-awareness (30 minutes)

  5. filling a risk assessment template: (20 minutes)

a) Identify physical and digital threats and how they are connected

Visualize the investigation the group want to undertake, consider the sources they have identified and what they will use it for (we will be able to work on the same case in the next slot about the interview). If we have been working in smaller teams with two or three different investigations it will be useful to continue working around those.

Following up the investigation and human sources identified invite the participants to reflect on potential risks. The trainer should be prepared to identify physical and digital risks as well as how they are interconnected (as in, do not think of them in isolation) while listing the input of the participants spurring them into realizing by themselves the risks they might face related to devices, personal communications. Use this basic guide on thinking about safety for investigations – Safety First.

What sort of risks may imply interviewing people? For this/that investigation?

Give the participants time to discuss in groups (10 minutes), using different colors either in the sticky-notes or pens.

Potential risks identified could be:

  • interception of communications

  • access by police, adversarial sources to our computer

LIST participant’s input, then go through the risks identified before and give the participants time to brainstorm in groups and debate how to mitigate these risks. (10 minutes).

  • order in which you collect information

  • beware of disclosing confidential or sensitive information

  • Inherited risk (working with someone who si at risk may transfer that risk to you, and the other way around)

The participants most likely will consider risk for themselves but not for the people they will be interviewing or the people they will collaborate with. Bring it to their attention.

The participants might also fall into the trap of thinking separately about digital and physical risks. Bring it to their attention that they are closely connected and that a digital threat might have physical effects and vice-versa.

The trainers should give references and recommendations of how to address, prevent, mitigate the (digital or physical) risks identified by the group if they didn’t. (10 minutes)

Safety concerns and risk assessment are never over: the trainers will introduce them to the research cycle.

The trainer/s explain that interviewing safely requires constant security check ups that we must repeat ceaselessly along the investigation because events are uncontrollable and people are unpredictable.

Plan – develop a good understanding of the objectives, logistics and risks of your interview.

Act – the actual interview.

Analyze – assess and reflect on interview results.


Starts over. Plan-Act-Analyze-Reflect-Starts over.

b) Safe travels: physical and digital risks. (20 minutes)

Security and risk assessment when traveling: physical and digital risks. 20 minutes

  • airports.

  • moving around in a foreign context.

c) Self-care and self-awareness 30 minutes: identifying triggers /coping with stress and anxiety 20 minutes /setting boundaries /gender and cultural-religious particularities

  • Elaborating a proof of life. 10 minutes

  • FILLING A RISK ASSESMENT TEMPLATE 20 minutes: Risk assessment template


Communication plan template

Digital risk template



3 hours (1h+1h+1h) + Wrap up 10 minutes: what to do when the interview is over?

In the long format we take 2 hours for general interviews and 1 hour for Adversarial and vulnerable sources. I recommend to have this as a solo training on interviewing techniques for those already familiarize with dealing with sources but wanting to get more skilled on questioning and collecting evidence/data/information effectively and safely, therefor the long format should address risk assessment and self-care recommendations for interviewers (anxiety control… avoiding bias etc).

Learning to ask questions (1 hour)

In order to put everybody back on track after the break the trainer/s start refreshing briefly what they have learned so far about the types of sources, where to find them and how to get in touch with them. (5 minutes). Quiz.

Now it is time to plan the meeting and work on the interview. Let’s start with the questions. 55 minutes

EXERCISE: Working groups (30 minutes): Let the teams continue the investigation scenario(s) they were working on in previous exercises and ask them to choose the character/s (e.g. source, witness, victim, suspected perpetrator etc.) they are going to interview based on what they have learned previously: No more than 3 (each one depending on the role they play in the investigation, their relationship with the investigation, the information they can provide). If we have character cards (what would be ideal) we can have similar characters for different teams so their mistakes or success will help them to learn. If the group is big we can assign 1 character to make better use of the time.

  • Elaborate a (reasoned) questionnaire for each interviewee. Order the questions meaningfully with your team and define your goals: (20 minutes)

  • The teams share the goals and order the questions for each character, explaining briefly (when necessary) what their goals are and how they try to achieve them (10 minutes) with that question. Goals may be

    • breaking ice

    • provoke a reaction?

    • Gather background for a story

    • fact check other evidence or information of alternate sources

    • Gathering evidence itself

    • Getting testimony and/or the human side of the story

ROLE PLAY: The trainer/s play the role of the character. Teams throw their questions (20 minutes).

The trainer/s play/s the role of the interviewees and sources and use the notes of the questions that the group formulated previously (reacting according to the specifications of his/her character on the card, if we are using them and) making remarks about the types of questions and the goals and why they would work or not and what they are useful for or not. Keep it as a thought provoking conversation in which attendants can speak their mind and give their opinion.

Keep the conversation spinning around DOs and DON’Ts.

i. e. Ask a general question to break ice; don’t ask leading questions; don’t ask closed questions if your purpose is to gather background… etc. Always based on the samples. (role play cards).

Find examples of these questions in real interviews.

It would be useful to write these on sticky notes and post them next to every question.

  • Open vs closed

  • Factual- open ended

  • Leading questions

  • Follow up

  • Provocative

The trainer/s highlight/s the fact that certain vulnerable or adversarial sources require especial approaches and the way we ask them or what we ask them sometimes differs. May give examples and tips.


Logistics: 1 hour (includes risk assessment)

Now that you are ready for your interview you need to work on the logistics related to the interview: venues for the meeting; recording tools... Acknowledge again the need of planning ahead and recommend to follow the research cycle to address and mitigate potential risks. Do not hesitate to reiterate this as often as possible.

i. Working teams & types of interviews (35’)

Working teams take 15 minutes to design the interview with a chosen character. Again, it is better if the trainer/s have different proposals (situation/different scenarios cards) and the teams work on them separately and then share their findings.

The trainer gives them these questions to work on:

  • Detail the process of the interview ahead of it and while is happening:

    • How will you interview them?

    • If you meet them, where will you arrange the meeting?

    • What other things should you consider before and during the encounter.

    • Reason your answers

The teams give feedback (20 minutes) about the previous questions reasoning their actions and decisions. We list them in the board/screen If they don’t mention any of these the trainer should bring them to their attention and explain that whenever possible we will meet the source or insist in video calls.

  • Types of interviews:

    • Face to face

    • (video) Calls

    • Email

ii. Keeping record of the evidence & legal concerns (15’)

Risk assessment reminder about communication, venues, storage of evidences and data and personal protection will be remembered at this stage.

  • Time and place. (risk considerations referred to communications/ physical safety).

    • Traveling: Special approach interviews will be address separately, if not, mention that these require special planning.

After the group shared their input invite them to brainstorm how/where will they collect, keep record of the evidence, data or information? (recording? Photos? Video?). 5 minutes (remember safe storage)

  • Tools to document the interview.

    • Audio recording

    • Video calls and phone recording

    • Photo/video

Did they ask the source if they agree? Did they inform them? Bring to their attention the importance of informed consent to be obtained from the interviewee, legal concerns, security and privacy? (10 minutes)

  • How will you identify the source of the information.

    • Getting consent: signed forms.
  • Will you reveal their identities?

    • On the record

    • Off the record

    • Anonymous

CHECKS AND BALANCES (10’) after the interview

What do you do when the interview/s are over? Brainstorming

Some things that should be considered and the trainer will mention if they are not mentioned?

  • Fact-checking

  • Research cycle: Asses needs, think your investigation over.

  • Give the right of reply

  • Check you have permissions and how the source will be named (if it is named) when you reveal or publish your investigation.

  • Stay in touch. Present interviewees may be a starting point to building your own agenda of sources and develop further investigations..

  • RISK ASSESMENT. Communications, storage, publication, sharing with others, collaborating…

How was the interview? Did you achieve what you wanted? If not, why? Success vs failure

The trainer/s throw/s some provoking questions:

  • Did the teams consider how long the interview would last? Was it too long and the source grow tired? Take the chance to mention specifications about time: giving value to your source’s time and avoiding to tire them with repeated questions… and to your own time…

  • Where you in the right mindset (self-care, self-awareness).

  • Did you make any mistake approaching your source? Cultural, gender… Refer you will elaborate more on this in the next slot: exploring especial approaches.

  • Learning to give up: Some sources would probe useless despite your plan, would change their mind or don’t provide what you though they would. Or maybe you screwed up: It’s okay to let go of them even during the interview if you believe you did your best.



1- DALÍ: HIDDEN FACES (we can find other examples, these are just a lead/sample).

2- Find hidden soldiers

3- Mt Susitna in Alaska

4- Fake sleeping lady (Mt. Susitna)

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