The Human Element of Investigations: (1) Identifying and Reaching Out to Sources Safely

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. In this module participants will learn how to identify and reach out to sources and interviewees in a safe manner, and how to assess and mitigate potential risks.

Workshop Overview

Topic: The human element of investigations: how to identify and reach out to sources and interviewees in a safe manner, and how to assess and mitigate potential risks for the investigator and their sources.


  • To provide participants with the methods, skills, and best practices needed to safely identify, reach out to, and maintain contact with people during investigations.
  • To raise awareness on the main risks and safety considerations when reaching out to and gathering information from human sources.

Learning outcomes:

  • Gain awareness of the dependence on human resources to undertake an investigation and gather evidence and testimonies.
  • Understand the difference between interviewees and sources.
  • Define goals to choose interviewees wisely and safely.
  • Identify interviewees and sources based on the needs and context of your investigation and research.
  • Identify types of interviewees and sources.
  • Understand how to manage human sources in the long-term and maintain professional relationships with them. 
  • Identify and mitigate risks: elaborate a risk assessment and take measures.
  • Learn techniques, tools, and resources to keep yourself, your interviewees, and your work safe.

Mode of delivery: online / in-person workshops

Workshop duration (without breaks): 3 hours

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


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

    • What is a common element in all investigations?
    • Using Salvador Dali’s Hidden Faces, ask participants to find hidden elements in the picture, etc. (see examples of images and ideas in the Appendix.)
  • 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 Reaching Out to Interviewees and Sources (55 minutes)

Why do we need other people?

Discuss | 5 minutes


  • Ask participants: “Why is dealing with people important to an 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 interviewees and sources

Collaborate | 25 minutes

Tools / Materials


[15 minutes] Group task

  • 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.

  • Ask each group to:

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

      • What are the interviewees’ roles in the investigation?
      • What is their position relative to the investigation? (e.g. witness, accused, victim …)
      • What information, data or evidence verification can they provide?

[10 minutes] Debriefing

  • Invite a representative of each group to briefly present the group’s findings, 1-2 minutes each.
  • After each group’s presentation, ask everyone to answer the following questions:

    • Can you think of other interviewees and sources to be identified?
    • 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 interviewees and 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.

Risk Assessment When Approaching Human Sources (1 hour and 40 minutes)

Identifying physical and digital threats

Discuss | 20 minutes

Tools / Materials


[5 minutes]

  • 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

  • Ask participants to return to their groups and discuss the question:

    • “What sort of risks may imply interviewing people for this and other investigations?”
  • Encourage them to identify physical and digital risks as well as how they are interconnected.

  • Groups list their findings in a the template provided or on a board/flip-chart paper, etc.

[5 minutes] Debriefing

  • Each group (or 1-2 volunteers, time pending) shares their answers in 1 minute.

  • Comment on their ideas, and emphasize potential risks:

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

Discuss | 20 minutes

Tools / Materials


[10 minutes] Group task

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

    • Order in which the information is collected,
    • Disclosing confidential or sensitive information,
    • Inherited risk, such as working with someone who is at risk and can transfer that risk to interviewer.

[10 minutes] Debriefing

  • Each group shares their main ideas in 1 minute.

  • Comment on their ideas and provide 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.
    • Interviewing safely requires constant security check-ins with a team of collaborators and/or another trusted person, because events are uncontrollable and people are unpredictable.
  • Participants might only consider threats and risks for themselves, and sometimes less for their interviewees, 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.



Safe travels: physical and digital risks

Read Watch Listen | 10 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • Slides / flip-chart papers for presentation, prepared in advance.
  • Background reading to prepare a presentation: Guide “Interviews: the Human Element of Your Investigation” / section on “Interviews Requiring Special Approach”, from Exposing the Invisible: The Kit. 


  • Prepare and give a short presentation about security and risk assessment when travelling to and moving around in a foreign place.

  • Try to apply this presentation to contexts and cases that may be relevant to your participants (based on your pre-workshop needs assessment.)

Creating a risk assessment template

Collaborate | 20 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • An existing Risk Assessment Template from the resources below or one that you create yourself based on participants context / needs (if you have such details from a pre-workshop needs assessment phase).
  • [optional] A slide / flip-chart paper with group task guidelines and key points to remember
  • Same as before


[10 minutes] Group task

  • Ask participants to return to their groups and fill out a risk assessment template for their case / investigation.

  • Provide them with an existing template from the resources below or create your own as needed.

[10 minutes] Debriefing

  • Each group shares their template file with the others or presents main ideas in 1 minute.

  • Review and discuss among groups.


Elaborating a proof of life document

Read Watch Listen | 10 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • An existing Proof of Life Document Template from the resource below or one that you create yourself
  • A slide / flip-chart paper with group task guidelines and key points to remember
  • Same as before


  • Explain what a “Proof of Life” document is.

  • Ask participants to read and fill out a mock proof of life template individually or in groups (time pending).

  • Allow 2-3 minutes for questions and answers.


Self-care and self-awareness

Discuss | 20 minutes

Tools / Materials

  • Slides / flip-chart papers with discussion guidelines and key points to remember
  • Same as before


[10 minutes]

  • Make a brief presentation and, at the same time, facilitate discussion about:

    • Identifying triggers and coping with stress and anxiety
    • Setting boundaries
    • Considering gender and cultural-religious particularities

[10 minutes]

  • Ask participants if there is anything they would like to add based on their own experience and context.

  • Encourage open discussion about such issues and ask them to also share any lessons learned if they are comfortable doing so.

  • Acknowledge that some participants may have experienced stress and/or trauma in their work but may not feel safe or comfortable sharing any experiences during this discussion. Respect their choices.


Recommended background reading for preparation

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. “Conducting interviews safely” and/or “How to identify, nurture, and maintain human sources safely”).

  • Run a quick review of the session to gather quick reactions. Each participant 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

On the topic:

Other related resources:

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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