The Human Element of Investigations: (3) Managing Sources

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. As the final module in the series, it provides an introduction to managing contacts for investigations, including how to develop, interact with and maintain safe and effective collaboration with human sources to enrich investigations.

Workshop Overview

Topic: The Human Element of Investigations: how to identify, nurture, and maintain human sources safely.


  • This workshop provides an introduction to building contacts for investigations, including how to develop, interact with and maintain human sources, and how to enrich investigations with more effective cooperation from sources.

Learning outcomes:

  • Understand what a human source is and where to find them.
  • Learn to identify potential sources.
  • Plan and maintain a database of sources.
  • Learn to maintain long-lasting, healthy, and safe interactions with sources.
  • Conduct safety and risk assessments: checks and balances.

Mode of delivery: online / in-person workshops

Workshop duration (without breaks): 2 hours 50 minutes

Number of participants: 6 to 24

Related workshops:

Related Exposing the Invisible: The Kit guides: 

Workshop preparation materials, to download:


  • When more workshops are combined and used with the same audience/groups, we recommend that participants continue using their case studies from previous group activities for the sake of continuity.
  • If this workshop is combined with “The Human Element of Investigations: Identifying and Reaching Out to Sources Safely”, you will need to eliminate duplicate sessions such as the Introduction and Risk Assessment discussions. The information covered in “The Human Element of Investigations: Identifying and Reaching Out to Sources Safely” applies to ad hoc interviewees as much as it does to long-term sources. Therefore, we suggest using the same exercises to highlight the difference between human sources to interview and human sources for long-term professional relations.

Learning Activities

Opening (15 minutes)

Skip the trainer and participants introductions in this Opening if you are conducting this session with the same group after the Introductory one on “The Human Element of Investigations: Identifying and Reaching Out to Sources and Interviewees Safely”. Instead, you can run an energiser activity or provide a summary of the previous session / workshop.

Workshop introductions

Read Watch Listen | 5 minutes


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


  • Facilitate a quick round of participants’ introductions by asking them to answer a couple of questions (communicate something) about themselves, their work, their workshop expectations.

  • 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.

Identifying and Managing Sources (1 hour and 25 minutes)

The Importance of the Human Element

Discuss | 5 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • Slides / flip-chart papers with questions and key points to remember.


  • Ask participants:

    • “Why is dealing with people important for the investigation?” and elicit a few answers.
  • Comment on the answers, highlighting important points.

  • Make the distinction between sources and interviewees. Key questions include:

    • How long will your relationship with that group or person last?
    • How long and how often will you talk to them related to your investigation(s)?
    • Will you be in touch when your investigation is over?
    • Will they be one-time interviewees or longer-term sources?
Identifying potential sources

Collaborate | 25 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • “Activity Templates – The Human Element: Managing Sources”, section “Group Activity: Identifying potential sources & Reaching Out” (copies to fill out online or printed)
  • Shared cloud folder and files / text edit platform (e.g. Framapad) for listing observations / alternatively, shared online whiteboards such as Miro or Mural (if online.)
  • Slides / flip-chart papers with questions and key points to remember.
  • Individual sheets of paper, sticky notes / post-its, pens (if offline.)

[15 minutes] Group task

  • Divide participants into smaller 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.

  • Ask each group to do the following:

    1. Suggest an investigation / research topic and write it down.
    2. Identify short-term sources (interviewees) and long-term sources according to the previous explanation. Write down suggestions and answer the following questions:

      • What is the source’s role in the investigation?
      • What is their position relative to the investigation? (witness, accused, victim…)
      • What information, data or evidence verification can they provide?
      • Do you expect them to become long-term sources? Why yes/no?
  • Ask groups to focus on longer-term sources in particular, for this exercise.

[10 minutes] Debriefing

  • Ask a representative of each group to briefly present the group’s work, 1-2 minutes each.

  • After each group’s presentation, ask the rest of the participants to answer the following questions:

    1. Can you think of other interviewees / short or long-term sources to be identified?
    2. What other distinctions can be made?

Suggested Topic - in case you prefer to provide a case rather than ask participants to come up with one in this exercise:

“Alarming number of new forest fires in the Amazon”

  • Amnesty International releases a statement with their investigation into illegal cattle farms fuelling Amazon destruction.

  • The final questions from the previous session help to distinguish between sources and interviewees and will serve to kick off the current exercise on how to identify and reach out to human sources.

  • If the group is too large for everybody to participate, divide in teams (3-5 members) for the task.

  • Another option (adaptable for online or in-person events) is to prepare cards with the different characters and sources with information about them such as: primary source, witness, vulnerable source, etc. (e.g. "Card 1: environmental scientist", "Card 2: local activist" / "Description card: primary source", "Description card: witness" ...), mix them up and:

    • Ask participants to order / match the character cards and their relevant information, write down further details they could ask from these source, and suggest new sources. 
    • On the wall or screen, participants write down the different source types and their role in the investigation.
Reaching out to potential sources

Collaborate | 25 minutes

Tools / Materials


[10 minutes] Group task

  • Ask participants to return to their groups (same as before).

  • Once the type of human sources have been identified, where can we find them?

  • Following up on their previous work on investigation example(s), ask groups to discuss how they will reach out to the sources they have listed:

    • e.g., whether they require an activist with knowledge of the topic, a lawyer who knows a victim, trace possible witnesses on social media groups or other platforms, etc.
  • Teams collect suggestions in the template provided or on a board / flip-chart (if offline) and will present findings in the following session.

[15 minutes] Debriefing and Discussion

  • Check the groups’ notes or ask each team to present their ideas in 1 minute.

  • Highlight ways of reaching out to sources:

    • Online and offline venues
    • Social media
    • Subscribing to newsletters
    • Attending conferences and meetings
    • Following blogs
    • Checking official websites
    • Contacting groups of specialists (some might be closed groups, consider how to get access)
  • Ask participants how they would get in touch with sources in any of the above (listed) situations.

  • Take note of the different ideas and raise concerns about security with the following questions:

    • Are any of those human resources under surveillance?
    • Are they likely to pose risks to the investigator? (e.g. sources affiliated with dangerous people may leak information about the investigator and their work.)
    • Did the group consider encrypted and safe communications?
  • Introduce security considerations when reaching out to sources via the listed options.

    • Example: considerations when subscribing to or following social media accounts and activists’ blogs; risks when deciding to meet a source in their home town, etc.
  • If the workshop focuses on a real investigation or a real need of participants, create a customized list of human sources and where to find them. Use real cases with caution and respect for privacy and safety of participants and their potential sources. Never write or store real names of sources, especially if vulnerable.

  • If this workshop is combined with the workshop about managing sources, inform participants that you will devote more time to learning how to organize source identification and management, to ensure that work processes are sustainable.

  • Use the "Safety First Guide” and the “Safety First Workshop” for background information and refer to additional resources and further reading when discussing how to identify and verify sources. See recommendations below.


RESOURCES - to consult when preparing the session and to share with participants for further reading:

  • Toolkits and tutorials

  • Social Media tools and forums

    • Twitter Advanced Search
    • Nitter It - allows you to get access to accounts that have you blocked and doesn’t require a Twitter account
    • WebMii – aggregates people profiles on social media, searchable by name
    • Social Searcher – social media profiles and online presence searchable by topic
    • Picuki – a tool to search Instagram content
    • Followerwonk – allows you to search Twitter biographies and find mutual followers of different accounts, very helpful to identify possible connections and identify risks.
    • LinkedIn – valuable resource to find people connected to companies and other institutions and organizations you might be interested in. (Use 'Private Mode' to make sure your searches and page views are not disclosed)
    • Glassdoor – a platform hosting forums and reviews of companies by current and former staff, helpful to get an idea of possible sources to contact in companies.
Creating a database of sources

Produce | 25 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • “Activity Templates – The Human Element: Managing Sources”, section “Group Activity: A database of sources”
  • Shared cloud folder and files or a text / table editing platform (e.g. Framapad for text / Framacalc for tables) / alternatively, shared online whiteboards such as Miro or Mural (if online.)
  • Slides / flip-chart papers with questions and key points to remember.
  • Individual sheets of paper, sticky notes / post-its, pens (if offline.)


[15 minutes] Group task

  • Participants return to their groups.

  • Ask groups to take the sources they have identified and order them meaningfully.

  • They can create sheets with the information they think they need to consider and gather about the source.

    • They can use the templates provided or make their own.

[10 minutes] Debriefing

  • Ask teams to present their input and contact sheets, 1 minute per team

  • Highlight diverse ways to organize information meaningfully:

    • Topic-specific contact list of environmentalists, lawyers, political activists, human rights researchers, officials, etc.
    • Names and occupations
    • Organizations
    • Locations by countries
  • Highlight the value of cross-referencing data gathered about and from sources and ways to preserve and update lists of sources as an investigation progresses as well as beyond the investigation.

Safety Recommendations

Read Watch Listen | 5 minutes

Tools / Materials

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


Prepare and give a short presentation to remind about:

  • Safety recommendations for storage devices

  • Encrypted communications

  • Anonymizing / codifying identities of sources to avoid exposure, and protection of contacts for sensitive sources and those at risk.

RESOURCES - when preparing this presentation, use recommendations and examples from:

Approaching Human Sources (1 hour and 5 minutes)

Identifying physical and digital threats

Discuss | 35 minutes

Tools / Materials


  • Briefly summarize previous activities referring to the investigation and human sources identified and invite participants to reflect on potential risks.

  • Encourage participants to realize the threats they might face related to research methods, devices, communications, and information storage.

  • Emphasize the distinction between “threat” and “risk” – you can add this on a slide or board and leave it visible for participants during the next activities:

    • a threat relates to a perceived vulnerability in a sector of work/life (be it digital or physical)
    • a risk is the chance that a threat actually happens, e.g. someone takes advantage of your vulnerability
    • anticipating threats is part of the process of risk assessment.

[10 minutes] Group task 1

  • Ask participants to return to their groups.

  • Ask each group to discuss the following question and list their findings:

    • “What sorts of risks may be implied when interviewing and maintaining long-term connections with sources for this and other investigations?”
  • Encourage participants to identify physical and digital risks as well as how they are interconnected** and how they may evolve over time.

[5 minutes] Debriefing

  • Ask one or two groups to share their findings, 1 minute each.

  • Comment on their ideas and emphasize potential risks, such as:

    • Interception of communications
    • Access by police, adversarial sources to our computer
    • Exposure of confidential and vulnerable sources

[10 minutes] Group task 2

  • Participants return to their groups.

  • Based on the risks identified, ask groups to brainstorm how to mitigate risks considering the following factors:

    • Order information is collected
    • Disclosing confidential or sensitive information
    • Inherited risk like working with someone who is at risk and can transfer that risk to the investigator / interviewer.

[10 minutes] Debriefing

  • When the time is up, ask one or two groups (or all, time pending) to share their findings, 1 minute each.

  • Share references and recommendations of how to address, prevent, and mitigate risks identified by the group.

  • Emphasize the need for continuous risk assessment and safety awareness because events are uncontrollable and people are unpredictable.

  • Participants might only consider risks for themselves, and sometimes less for their sources or the people they will collaborate with. Encourage them to avoid this.
  • Participants might also think separately about digital and physical risks. Signal that they are closely connected and that a digital threat might pose physical risks and impact their field work, and vice-versa.


Building trust and establishing boundaries

Discuss | 35 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • Slides / flip-chart papers with questions and key points to remember / brief presentation.


[5 minutes] Discussion

  • Emphasize that building trust and establishing and maintaining boundaries is essential when dealing with long-term sources.

  • In the plenary group/room, ask participants to share their thoughts on this question:

    • “How do you nurture your professional relationships?”

[5 minutes] Presentation

  • Prepare and give a short presentation about key practices when building a longer-term professional connection with sources:

    • Keep contact with the “rule of the three calls” and check-ins for non-research purposes,
    • Plan informal meetings
    • Invite sources to work-related events they might be interested in. Consider if being seen with a particular source might pose a risk (as per previous risk assessment).
    • Give and receive trust to protect yourself and your sources. Sharing previous work may be helpful in order to gain the trust of your sources.

[5 minutes] Discussion

  • Ask participants to share and discuss experiences or guess potential challenges that may occur.

[5 minutes] Presentation

  • Briefly present and emphasize problems such as:

    • Mutual trust disappears
    • Sources step into the personal realm
    • Power balance
    • Blackmailing (emotional or other)

[10 minutes] Group discussion

  • Ask participants to return to their small groups (same as before) and to discuss and propose ways to mitigate challenges in their relationships with sources.

  • They can use the template provided and write them in two columns:

    • Problems
    • Mitigation/Solutions

[5 minutes] Debriefing

  • Back in the plenary room/group, ask a few volunteers to share their group’s problems and solutions

  • Wrap up by commenting on their findings and mentioning a set of healthy practices such as:

    • to mitigate eventual unwanted advances from a source, use a work phone versus a personal phone or bring a colleague to meetings, etc.


Closure (10 minutes)

Wrap-up Activity: Takeaway Poster

Produce | 5 minutes


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


  • 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 today's workshop?
  • Give participants a few minutes to write and/or draw their thoughts and read the thoughts of others.


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

Read Watch Listen | 5 minutes


  • Wrap up the workshop and sum up its contents. Mention if this workshop will be continued by other sessions from the “Human Element” series (e.g. “The Human Element: Identifying and Reaching Out to Sources Safely” and/or “The Human Element: Conducting Interviews”).

  • 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: (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
  • 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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