The Human Element of Investigations (part 4): Interviews requiring special approaches

This workshop is part of a four-module training plan addressing "the human element of investigations", namely the interaction between investigators / researchers and people who may become their sources of information. It provides participants with necessary skills to safely approach and interview sources in unknown or hostile places, as well as with methods to address people who are vulnerable or may become adversarial over the course of an investigation.

Workshop Overview

Topic: Planning and conducting interviews in unfamiliar, foreign, or hostile environments, or with adversarial or vulnerable sources.

Aims:

  • To provide participants with techniques, skills, and best practices when planning and conducting interviews in unfamiliar, foreign or hostile environments.
  • To provide skills, tips and best practices for interviewing and collaborating with adversarial or vulnerable sources.
  • To raise awareness of the main risks and safety considerations when reaching out to and gathering information from human sources in unfamiliar or hostile contexts.

Learning outcomes:

  • Plan a safe immersion and meeting with sources in foreign and unfamiliar places.
  • Conduct a risk assessment.
  • Understand how to move around in unfamiliar places.
  • Learn how to address vulnerable and adversarial sources and adapt to their context, behaviour, needs, and restrictions.
  • Consolidate self-care and self-awareness.

Mode of delivery: online / in-person workshops

Workshop duration (without breaks): 2 hours and 30 minutes

Number of participants: 6 to 24

Related workshops:

Related Exposing the Invisible: The Kit guides: 

Workshop activities and templates, to download:

Learning Activities

Opening (15 minutes)

Workshop introduction

Read Watch Listen | 5 minutes

Instructions

  • Grab attention by posing a question or commenting on a relevant picture. For instance:

    • What is a common element in all investigations?
  • Introduce yourself and the goals of the workshop.

  • Optional: introduce the source of the workshop material (Tactical Tech)

  • Inform participants of the workshop agenda.

  • Suggest ground rules for the workshop. Ask participants whether they would like to modify your suggestions or suggest other rules. Ensure that everybody understands and agrees with the ground rules. Specific suggestions about setting ground rules are available in the Facilitator Guide: section on "Delivering the Workshops".

  • Establish the dynamics for group work, explain if participants will need to work in the same teams during the interactive workshop activities.

Participants' introductions / Icebreaker

Produce | 10 minutes

  • Participants’ introductions are only necessary if you conduct this as a stand-alone session with a new group.
  • If the same group has attended other workshops from the “Human Element of Investigations”, you can skip to the topic-related questions below, run an energiser, or provide a summary of the previous sessions / workshops.

Instructions

  • Ask participants to introduce themselves, expressing their preferred pronoun if they wish (she/he/they) and respond to the following questions:

    • Have you taken part in any research or investigation in which you faced challenges with interviewees?
    • What were those challenges and how did you try to address them?
  • Introduce the topic to determine the importance of adjusting to people’s specific characters and contexts when interviewing them for investigations.

  • Alternatively, you can pick an icebreaker exercise that encourages participants to get creative by drawing answers or ideas on an online whiteboard or, if off-line, stand up and perform some tasks or discuss in groups:

    • e.g. interview a fellow participant for 2 minutes to learn more about their work or their place of origin, etc.
    • check the “Icebreakers” section in the ETI Facilitator’s Guide for inspiration.

Interviewing Vulnerable or Adversarial Sources (1 hour and 5 minutes)

Brainstorming

Produce | 5 minutes

Tools / Materials

Instructions

  • Ask participants to individually brainstorm answers to the questions below for 2-3 minutes, and list examples:

    • Who can be a vulnerable source?
    • Who can be an adversarial (or hostile) source?

Debriefing

  • Comment on participants’ findings and add additional examples if needed. For example:

    • Possible vulnerable sources:

      • LGBTQI+ communities
      • Minors
      • Survivors of trauma
      • Survivors of sexual violence
      • Victims of trafficking
    • Possible adversarial (or hostile) sources:

      • Hostile law enforcement
      • Presumed human trafficker acting defensive
      • Potentially corrupt individual
      • Anyone who assumes you may suspect them of wrongdoing
Task: Planning “field” work

Collaborate | 15 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • “Activity Templates – The Human Element: Interviews requiring special approaches” - section “Group Activity: Planning “field” work” (copies to fill out online or printed)
  • A slide / flip-chart paper with group task guidelines and key points to remember
  • Shared cloud folder and files / text edit platform (e.g. Framapad) for listing notes and observations (if online)
  • Whiteboard, flip-chart paper, sticky notes / post-its, pens (if offline)

Instructions

[10 minutes]

  • Divide participants into groups of 3-5 members.

  • Ask teams to assign a note-taker, time-keeper and presenter for the debriefing part (valid for each activity from here on); these roles should switch at times.

  • Assign one character who might require a special approach (a vulnerable or adversarial source) to each team (e.g. a child migrant, a witness to a crime, a member of an LGBTQI+ community under threat, a whistleblower, a convicted trafficker, a corporate shareholder accused of money laundering, a politician suspected of bribery, etc.)

  • Ask teams to answer these questions regarding their assigned character / interviewee:

    • How will you approach them?
    • Where will you arrange the interview meeting?
    • What other aspects should you consider before and during the meeting / interview?
    • How will you keep a safe record of the answers, data, or information you plan to collect?
  • For the group activity, you can prepare character cards with brief scenario descriptions in advance and assign a card to each group to save time. Try your best to adapt the scenarios and characters to the context / needs / challenges of your group. Allow groups to reject and switch certain characters if they find the suggested one distressing or traumatising.
  • If conducting this workshop as a follow-up to “The Human Element: Identifying and Reaching Out to Sources Safely”:

    • either keep the same groups as before or form new ones and maintain them across this workshop,
    • groups can keep their previous use cases and choose or be allocated interviewees and activities related to them, to save time.

[5 minutes] Debriefing

  • Ask each group to present their ideas in 2 minutes, while providing reasons for their decisions.

  • Comment and provide feedback to each team and ask other participants to share questions / suggestions.

Preparing questions and an interview plan

Produce | 20 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • “Activity Templates – The Human Element: Interviews requiring special approaches” - section “Group Activity: Preparing the interview” (copies to fill out online or printed)
  • A slide / flip-chart paper with group task guidelines and key points to remember
  • Shared cloud folder and files / text edit platform (e.g. Framapad) for listing notes and observations (if online)
  • Whiteboard, flip-chart paper, sticky notes / post-its, pens (if offline)

Instructions

  • Ask participants to return to their groups from the previous activity.

  • Each group's task is to:

    • prepare a questionnaire for their assigned - vulnerable or adversarial - interviewee from the previous activity,
    • order the questions,
    • explain their goals and how they will try to achieve them.
  • Remind participants of essential goals such as:

    • Breaking the ice
    • Provoking a reaction
    • Gathering background for a story
    • Fact-checking other evidence or information of alternate sources
    • Gathering evidence
    • Getting testimony and/or the human side of the story, etc..
  • Remind teams to assign a note-taker, time-keeper and volunteer(s) for the follow-up activity of the role-play (see next section).

This exercise will serve a double purpose:

  • to check and refresh the knowledge acquired from previous experience and/or training (for instance, if participants also took the “The Human Element of Investigations” workshop previously), and
  • to understand the particularities of vulnerable and adversarial sources.
Conducting the interview

Practice | 25 minutes

Adapt the time for this activity according to the number of groups in your workshop.

Tools / Materials

  • Materials and groups’ notes from previous activity
  • A slide / flip-chart paper with key points to remember after role-play (see Debriefing).

Instructions

[20 minutes] Role-play

  • Following the previous activity, ask each groups to test its designed interview by performing a role-play.

  • Invite a volunteer from another group to play the role of the interviewee based on the scenario / character provided to each group.

  • Give each group 5 minutes to run their interview while others observe and take notes for later feedback.

    • To save time, groups can test only some of their questions (e.g. an introductory question + 2/3 main ones they prefer)
  • When all the groups have finished, invite everyone to share their thoughts and remarks.

[5 minutes] Debriefing and Summary

  • Following the role-plays, comment on the types of questions and goals, why they work or don’t, and what they are useful for.

  • Keep the conversation focused on DO’s and DON’Ts, e.g.:

    • Do ask general questions to break ice
    • Don’t ask leading questions that could influence what interviewees may answer
    • Don’t ask closed questions if your purpose is to gather background details
  • Share a ready-made slide with essential advice / tips and connect them with relevant questions to highlight the different types of questions:

    • Open vs. closed
    • Factual and open-ended
    • Leading questions
    • Follow-up
    • Provocative
  • Highlight that vulnerable or adversarial sources always require special approaches.

  • Transition to discussing next sections.

RESOURCES:

  • To prepare the key points of the debriefing, use the guide “Interviews: the Human Element of Your Investigation” - sections “Preparing for Interviews” and “Interviews requiring special approach” (see Interviewing vulnerable sources and Dealing with adversarial interviewees), Exposing the Invisible: The Kit.

Special Approaches for Special Contexts (1 hour)

Dealing with survivors of trauma

Read Watch Listen | 15 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • Slides / flip-chart papers for presentation, prepared in advance.

Instructions

Prepare and give a short presentation highlighting the following points:

  • It is important to connect with the vulnerable sources through trusted people and/or organizations and by performing a risk assessment before and while reaching out:

  • If sources / interviewees are survivors of sexual assault they might feel more comfortable meeting in a place they know or they choose.

  • Allow them to be accompanied if they require it.

  • Sexual crime survivors generally prefer to talk to women. If you identify yourself as a man, consider asking a colleague’s help if you think the gender of the interviewer may make a difference.

  • Avoid triggers

    • Focus on the facts of their experiences to avoid reigniting trauma.

    • Be patient, they might not follow a straightforward line in their storytelling:

      • ask frequent follow up questions,
      • avoid questions that blame the victim or imply wrongdoing (for instance, you can share some examples and advice from the guide “Practice-oriented guidance for child-sensitive communication and interviewing" or other examples of your choice),
      • bring crayons or toys when meeting minors, these might help them to get more confident or talk casually while playing.
    • Show empathy:

      • let them feel you hear them,
      • do more listening than talking - this can’t be emphasized enough.
    • Don’t make comparisons, undermine, or belittle their experience.

  • Fact-check, always!

    • Being vulnerable does not imply the sources / interviewees are trustworthy.

    • The information must be fact-checked and you should be aware of their bias if they may have been coerced.

    • This may change over time. Do constant check-ins on their reliability if working with source over time.

  • Take care of yourself

    • Self-care and self-awareness for an investigator means that their wellbeing is as important as that of their sources.
  • Invite participants to ask questions or share any relevant experience and tips.

When presenting, mention other vulnerable sources such as coerced victims, minors, victims of trafficking, etc.. Adapt any tips and resources to the context of your participants.

RESOURCES:

To prepare the key points of the debriefing, use:

Dealing with adversarial sources / interviewees

Read Watch Listen | 15 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • Slides / flip-chart papers for presentation, prepared in advance.

Instructions

Prepare and give a short presentation highlighting the following points:

  • Certain sources who may be collaborative may turn adversarial over the course of your investigation, and vice-versa.

  • As an interviewer, you have to get into the right mindset and have self-awareness to avoid being taken advantage of.

  • Don’t hesitate to change any pre-planned questions if needed.

  • Start with open-ended questions and build upon them.

  • If time is limited, get to the point and ask the difficult questions early on in the interview:

    • ask tough questions without hesitation and be ready to back them up or repeat them if they are not answered,
    • be ready to deal with the potential backlash or a source refusing to talk.
  • Always be respectful and practice self-awareness, remind this to yourself during any challenging interview.

  • Observe body language and read reactions:

    • people who get angry provide information even when emotional.
  • Keep yourself safe:

    • adversarial sources may try to interfere in your investigation or with other sources (e.g. to intimidate a witness),
    • keep your safety and the safety of your investigation and sources a top priority.
  • Invite participants to ask questions or share any relevant experience and tips.

RESOURCES:

To prepare the key points of the debriefing, use:

Interviewing in foreign countries and other unfamiliar places

Discuss | 20 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • Slides / flip-chart papers with key points, prepared in advance.
  • Shared cloud folder and files / text edit platform (e.g. Framapad) for listing notes and observations (if online)
  • Whiteboard, flip-chart paper, sticky notes / post-its, pens (if offline)

Instructions

Facilitate a discussion with participants and sum-up relevant findings highlighting the following points:

  • Introduce the topic of travelling and the need to conduct a risk assessment of the place(s) one travels to.

  • Invite participants to brainstorm for up to 5 minutes on what to consider when going to unfamiliar places.

  • While they brainstorm and discuss, note their answers and add (if needed) aspects such as:

    • Arranging international travel:

      • Tickets
      • Accommodation
      • Ground transportation
      • Maps
      • Visa requirements
      • Luggage and clothes
      • Technical equipment
      • Getting through Customs
    • Permissions for local research, interviews (if legally required)

    • Cultural and religious considerations

    • Gender considerations that may affect your work

    • Local events / situations:

      • Political turmoil like ongoing protests
      • Elections that might trigger demonstrations
      • High levels of local crime
      • ...

At the end, provide additional tips such as:

  • Reaching out to interviewees through trusted local organizations might be helpful to break the ice as well as to provide a safer environment for both the source and the interviewer.

  • Language aspects:

    • This may require collaborating with local facilitators, translators, and guides.
    • They should be trusted people.
    • Consider preliminary interviews with sources to see if you may need a translator or any other support.
  • Background checks may be needed when working in unfamiliar places.

    • You may be background checked and you may need to background check others before establishing trust.
  • Consider how safe it is to share personal information or details about your research when dealing with people.

Checks and balances after the interview

Discuss | 10 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • Slides / flip-chart papers with key points, prepared in advance.
  • Shared cloud folder and files / text edit platform (e.g. Framapad) for listing notes and observations (if online)
  • Whiteboard, flip-chart paper, sticky notes / post-its, pens (if offline)

Instructions

Facilitate a discussion with participants and sum-up relevant findings highlighting the following points:

  • What do you do when interviews are over?

  • Ask participants to brainstorm things to consider and list answers while adding more tips, such as:

    • Fact-check.
    • Check the research cycle to asses whether the investigation is concluded or not.
    • Give the right of reply to your interviewees and sources.
    • Check you have permissions to use the material (interviews, images, names, etc.) and how the source will be named when you reveal or publish your investigation.
    • Stay in touch: interviewees may be a starting point to build your own agenda of sources and develop further investigations.
    • Conduct constant risk assessment at all levels: communications, data storage, publication, sharing information with others, collaborating, etc.
  • Invite participants to ask pending questions or share any relevant experience and tips.

Closure (10 minutes)

Wrap-up Activity: Takeaway Poster

Produce | 5 minutes

Tools/Materials

  • Shared drawing pad / slide / whiteboard (online)
  • Whiteboard / flip-chart paper, post-its, markers (offline)

Instructions

  • Ask participants to create a takeaway poster by sharing their answers to the following question in the shared whiteboard / drawing board:

    • What are your main takeaways from this workshop?
  • Give them a few minutes to write and/or draw their thoughts and read the thoughts of others.

Debriefing

  • Review and highlight some of the points on the shared board.
Conclusion

Read Watch Listen | 5 minutes

Instructions

  • Wrap up the workshop and sum up its contents. Mention if this workshop will be followed by other sessions from the “Human Element” series (e.g. “The Human Element: Managing Sources").

  • Run a quick review of the session to gather quick reactions. Each participants would say:

    • one thing they found very good about the session and
    • one thing they would improve for the next time
  • Encourage participants to ask questions or give some final tips.

  • Share contact information if relevant, and any follow-up details.

Further Resources

To use when preparing and to share with participants after the workshop

On the topic:

Other related resources:

While the resources below often refer to journalism they don’t only apply to journalists, but to anyone conducting research and investigations in the public interest.

Contact Us

Please reach out to us at Exposing the Invisible if you:

  • have any questions about this workshop plan and facilitation guidelines,
  • use this workshop plan and want to share feedback and suggestions that can help to improve them,
  • adapt the workshop plan to a specific context and want to share the results with us,
  • want to suggest new activities, tips or examples that can be added to this workshop,
  • want to share your expertise and collaborate with us on developing and testing new workshops.

Contact: eti@tacticaltech.org (GPG Key / fingerprint: BD30 C622 D030 FCF1 38EC C26D DD04 627E 1411 0C02).

Credits and Licensing

CC BY-SA 4.0

This content is produced by Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible project, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license

  • Workshop author: Nuria Tesón
  • Instructional design: A. Hayder, Laura Ranca
  • Editorial and content: Christy Lange, Laura Ranca
  • Graphic design: Yiorgos Bagakis
  • Website development: Laurent Dellere, Saqib Sohail
  • Project coordination and supervision: Christy Lange, Laura Ranca, Lieke Ploeger, Marek Tuszynski, Safa Ghnaim, Wael Eskandar

This resource has been developed as part of the Collaborative and Investigative Journalism Initiative (CIJI) co-funded by the European Commission under the Pilot Project: "Supporting investigative journalism and media freedom in the EU" (DG CONNECT).

This text reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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