Journalism 101: How To Interview Sensitive Sources with Tips From the Legendary Bob Woodward

Written by MasterClass

May 17, 2019 • 8 min read

One of the biggest challenges journalists face is interviewing sensitive or anonymous sources. Some sources hold information that is classified but deemed in the public interest. High-ranking government officials, national security staff, members of Congress, and corporate whistleblowers are all examples of sensitive sources. While delicate to deal with, these sources often yield vital information that leads to the exposure of huge coverups, misdealings, and other controversies. Think Deep Throat’s evidence in the Watergate investigation and Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing to The Washington Post and The Guardian from inside the National Security Agency.


What Are Sensitive Sources in Journalism?

Sensitive sources are sources who have information that is confidential, classified or has otherwise been kept a secret from the public. Their jobs or safety may be on the line if they talk to the press, so they may agree to speak only “off-the-record” or “on deep background.”

Definitions of these terms vary between news organizations, but in general, the terms are defined as follows:

  • On the record. The journalist can use all information freely and quote the source by name.
  • Off the record. The journalist cannot publish the information but may use it as a guide.
  • On background. The journalist can only publish the information under the conditions negotiated with the source, who will be anonymous and identified with a description of their position only.
  • On deep background. The journalist can only publish the information if they do not attribute it to a source at all, even on condition of anonymity.

What Are the Ethical Guidelines Around Using Unnamed Sources in Journalism?

News outlets have varying rules about how and whether they use anonymous sources, but they generally discourage it wherever possible. If a news organization publishes something attributed anonymously that transpires to be inaccurate, it can lead to legal problems and damage of credibility. The Society of Professional Journalists has two guidelines on the topic:

  1. Identify sources wherever possible. Knowing the identity of a source means that readers can decide for themselves whether they are reliable and fair. If they suspect that information is fabricated, they could lose respect for the news organization—and the media more broadly. If a source insists on anonymity, then the reporter should do everything they can to confirm the accuracy of their evidence.
  2. Consider sources’ motives, clarify the conditions of their participation and stick to any promises. Journalists should never agree not to attribute information to a source and then go back on their promise. At the same time, they should question why the source is coming forward, making sure that they believe the news value of their information warrants whatever benefit the source might receive from the information being made public.

How To Establish Contact and Build Trust With Sensitive Sources

Award-winning journalist Bob Woodward has the following tips for investigative journalists looking to establish trust with a sensitive source:

  • Establish ground rules. It’s important to establish ground rules when you are starting to talk to someone about being a source. Explain the difference between on the record, background, deep background, and off the record, and make sure you are both on the same page. What matters most is that you honor the deal you strike with your source, no matter what you call it.
  • Developing a relationship. In the process of developing sources, start at the bottom and ask people in junior positions about an important person or topic first. A mayor’s aide will likely be more willing than the mayor to talk with a reporter, and you’ll likely learn as much or more from a politico’s staffers than you will from the officeholder. In this process, you should work to prove that you’ll be fair with your reporting and will respect their confidentiality.
  • Information goes both ways. Another effective approach to getting a source to talk to you is to share what you already know, either with the source directly or by publishing it in the newspaper. Making the source aware that the story is incomplete can make him or her more willing to help you uncover the facts. As Woodward says, “I need your help” are the four most potent words in journalism.
  • Stay professional. While developing these human connections, you should be sincere about needing people’s help and sit down to give them time to tell their story. But remember that you are a journalist, not a source’s friend. That can be hard, but it is important in order to stay professional. Make sure that all your sources know you are a journalist, even as you develop personal relationships with them.
  • Protect your source. Once you’ve established the ground rules with a source, don’t let them change the rules retroactively. At the same time, you must take every step to protect your sources.

How To Interview Sensitive Sources: Preparing for the Interview

Regardless of whether the source you’re interviewing is sensitive, Woodward has a few pointers in the lead-up to the interview.

  • Ask people to talk, even when it’s hard. Woodward acknowledges the difficulties of asking to interview people, especially at the most sensitive moments in their lives. But at such moments, people often want to share their grief, to be listened to and heard.
  • Do your homework. Before an interview, do your homework on your source. This not only boosts your authority but demonstrates to your source that you see them as a human being. And if you don’t do your research—if you don’t know their story—that can be belittling.
  • Consider sending the question list ahead of time. But don’t feel limited by it. Some people think that you need to surprise the person you’re interviewing, but this is the last thing you want to do when dealing with sensitive sources.
  • Explain the process. At the start of the interview, explain the process to the source, especially if it’s new to them. Don’t set a time limit on the interview and clear your schedule so you can speak as long as you need to. Your stamina is the most important thing—never go to an interview exhausted.

How To Interview Sensitive Sources: Conducting the interview

When it comes time to do the interview, you should be upfront but respectful. Here are a few interview tips when talking to a sensitive source:

  • Assume your source will talk about everything. When conducting an interview, assume your source will freely divulge almost anything; never assume they won’t discuss certain topics. It’s also critical to control your body language. Keep your facial expression still but encouraging.
  • Ask interview questions chronologically, with some exceptions. During your interview, you will want to move chronologically through what happened. Not only does this help jog your source’s memory, but it also shows them that you’ve done your homework.
  • Stick to relevant questions and be upfront. It’s always important to be direct and ask the tough questions, but be sure to avoid hostility. And don’t be afraid to ask questions that could stir up your source’s emotions.
  • Mine the silence. Remember that silence is sometimes the most effective tactic. Let it “suck out” the truth.
  • Ask follow-up questions. More than anything, a great interviewer adapts to the conversation as it moves. Ask why, ask for clarity, ask why again, follow up until you get the information you need.
  • If tensions arise, be civil and hold your ground. Arguments can occur when you and your source have contrary information or a source doesn’t like a line of questioning. A calm demeanor can help defuse the situation.
  • Address lies respectfully. There are two kinds of lies—some are unintentional, others are purposeful. Rather than accusing your source of lying, simply state that you have contradictory information and continue. Putting your source on the defensive won’t help you find the truth. It’s better to gently redirect.
  • Be aware of charm. Woodward warns reporters to be aware of their interview subject’s unique communication skills. When Woodward interviewed former U.S. President Bill Clinton, he says he left the Oval Office feeling that it had been a significant interview. But when he reviewed the tapes, he discovered that Clinton had not said anything new. Woodward realized he’d been charmed by Clinton’s ability to create instant intimacy with intense eye contact.
Bob Woodward sitting in chair in front of DC


Case Study: Bob Woodward, Deep Throat, and the Watergate scandal

As one of the reporters on the Watergate scandal, legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward worked with perhaps the most famous anonymous source of all time, the FBI agent Deep Throat.

Woodward met Mark Felt, a.k.a Deep Throat, long before the Watergate investigation, while in the US Navy. When Woodward started his career as a reporter, Felt provided tips and clues on various news stories. After the Watergate break-in, Woodward asked Felt, who was by then associate director of the FBI, if he knew anything about “H. Hunt”—a White House worker whose name was written in two of the Watergate burglars’ address books. What happened next changed history.

  • Felt verified Hunt’s involvement and went on to share information many more times throughout the investigation.
  • Felt spoke with Woodward on deep background, meaning Woodward was not able to identify him as a source. Their communication was clandestine.
  • They met in a garage using a secret code involving a newspaper and flower pot, espionage tricks Felt had learned during World War II. Felt ultimately conveyed the true gravity of Watergate to Woodward. The burglary was part of a much larger effort by the Nixon reelection committee to sabotage Senator Edmund Muskie and get a weaker Democrat nominated. The situation was so severe, he told Woodward, that he feared Woodward and Bernstein’s lives might be at risk.
  • Woodward always made sure that Felt’s identity was completely protected, even as speculation about his identity circulated in Washington decade after decade. Over the years, Woodward gained the trust of other sources because of the protection he gave Felt.

Learn more about investigative journalism from Bob Woodward in his MasterClass.