Interviews with the Interviewers: Part 4-Interviewing the Whistleblowers

By Luechtefeld, Lori | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, July/August 2003 | Go to article overview

Interviews with the Interviewers: Part 4-Interviewing the Whistleblowers


Luechtefeld, Lori, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Some journalists have a natural gift for interviewing. Others spend entire careers mastering the skills. During 2003, The IRE Journal is presenting the series "Interviews with the Interviewers." We have talked with some of the most renowned interviewers in the field of investigative reporting. Focusing on a different style of interview each issue, we share their experiences, techniques and advice with you. This is the fourth installment.

Mike McGraw has seen some dirty documents. Not just suspicious, mind you, but downright filthy. Wadded up. Coffee stained. Altogether icky.

One particular set came to him from a source, a whistleblower who was helping him with an investigation. He ignored the sad state of the documents until his curiosity got the better of him, and he asked his source where he was receiving his documents.

"He'd been Dumpster diving," McGraw says. "Ethically, we had a problem with that." McGraw says he should have asked sooner.

Whistleblowers are unlike any other source to a journalist. Interviewing them often requires a higher level of caution and awareness on the part of a journalist because the relationship is unique. A whistleblower can be anyone from a concerned citizen to a certifiably obsessed individual, yet neither is necessarily better than the other. Because it is the whistleblower often seeking out the journalist, reporters must then not only investigate an issue, but also the source.

Picking and choosing

Investigative journalists, especially those with well-established reputations in their communities, are often approached with more story leads than can possibly be followed, which forces them to choose whom to work with and whom to disregard.

"I'll talk to anybody," Pat Stith of The (Raleigh) News & Observer says. "If they seem to be missing cards out of their deck, I'll call them back anyway. If I won't work the story, I'll tell them right away."

Stith gives four reasons for talking to everybody: 1) he's paid to do it; 2) occasionally his first impression of a person fools him; 3) whistleblowers often lead to other story ideas; and 4) the person calling him knows other people. Talking to one person gives him a chance to establish a good reputation among countless other people, he says.

James Neff of The Seattle Times asks himself the following questions when deciding with which whistleblowers to work: If everything they say is true, is it a news story? How can I prove it through reporting techniques? Do they have or can they get the documents? Based on the answers to these questions, he picks the ones he can take to the next step.

Backgrounding the source

When a whistleblower's tip proves newsworthy and workable, a journalist still must be cautious in dealing with a source.

"Sometimes whistleblowers are crazy," says Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute. "That doesn't make them wrong."

"Editors will warn you to not interview someone with an ax to grind," McGraw says, but he adds that he thinks that is bad advice. Journalists can rely on whistleblowers, even those with personal motives, to help drill holes in impregnable areas by obtaining documents, or by putting the journalist in touch with other sources. However, McGraw adds that journalists have a responsibility to the public to test what malcontents tell them.

"At some point in the relationship, you have to ask them a question that you know the answer to," says Bruce Selcraig, an investigative freelancer for national magazines. "You have to be leery of a whistleblower who never says 'I don't know.' Particular types want to overwhelm you with their knowledge. The perfect-answer man should send up flares."

Selcraig recommends checking into their motivations as much as possible. At the least, a journalist should run a Google search on everybody.

Eric Nalder, of the San Jose Mercury News, agrees that the motivations of whistleblowers need to be checked, but he urges journalists to be certain to investigate whistleblowers in a way that won't endanger them. …

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