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Business, Politics & Society

Developing Sources

Bob Woodward

Lesson time 9:19 min

From establishing ground rules to strategically sharing what you already know, Bob teaches what to keep in mind as you initiate contact with sources for a story.

Bob Woodward
Teaches Investigative Journalism
In 24 lessons, learn how to uncover the truth from the greatest journalist of our time.
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So many people now have theories, conspiracy theories, worries, and they want you to-- I remember somebody calling once and saying, I have a major story for you. Well, good. He said, it's bigger than Watergate. Oh, what? My father's social security check has been late two months in a row. Not a story. And if he'd said, oh, my father is the deputy director at the Social Security Administration, and he has a file cabinet full of documents how $10 million has been stolen, then I want to talk. And so it's about the efficiency of connecting to people and ascertaining, you know, where do they work? What is the basis of their knowledge? You want to be able to sit down and make it clear what you are, make it clear who he is, what he represents, what he might know. And you don't want to go on a wild goose chase. And it's got to be somebody who credibly has access to information. And that often has to do with their job or their associates. I remember in the 1970s, giving a talk at one of the think tanks in Washington. And afterwards, a man came up to me and said, do you have time to go have coffee? And I said, oh, well I've got to get back to the paper. I'm really sorry. Who are you? And he gave me his name. I said, well, what do you do? And he said, well, I work in the White House. I'm in charge of oversight of the CIA. I thought, you know, it turns out I do have time to have coffee. I should, instead of saying no, I should have found out who he was and where he worked. And we did go have coffee. I got to know him, and he helped me on almost countless number of stories. And so you always have to be available. My phone number is listed. I try to answer e-mails that suggest that there is a good story there. Ground rules are confusing to people. On the record is somebody up front, named, and their position. Background means loosely. You're not going to name them, but you might use it, and you might say, one well-placed source in the Pentagon said, or something like that. Deep background is technically supposed to be something you won't quote any source on, but you will use the information, find a way to inform your story. And it may be something quite specific. I like unnamed sources, because it puts the responsibility on the back of the reporter. You have to check it. You have to make sure it's fair. And you will see things in the newspaper like, so and so-- one official in the White House asked to speak anonymously so he could speak candidly. So what does that mean? When he speaks with his name, he's not speaking candidly? I think that's often the case. And we get a lot of stuff on the record that just is not candid or true. If you are willing to take the responsibility as a reporter and use an unnamed sauce and check, and double check, I think you're going to get better information, by ...

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Bob Woodward was just 29 when he changed a nation. His Watergate reporting with Carl Bernstein helped expose the corruption of the Nixon presidency. Two Pulitzer Prizes and nineteen best-selling books later, the legendary journalist is teaching his first-ever online class for anyone who wants to find the truth. Learn to investigate a story, interview sources, and understand how the news is written. The next history-making story might be yours.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Not only did I get an outstanding introduction to the investigative workflow in journalism... But I also got source information for my own articles... bonus! You guys are freaking awesome!

Incredibly interesting person. Thank you Bob for sharing your knowledge!

Bob Woodward, steady as she goes. The curriculum is finely tuned, the resource materials are exceptional and eye opening, indeed bracing. These are dangerous times; this course is an ally, a daemon of truth, an antidote to paralysis and ignorance, a tonic for courage before battle. God bless, Mr Woodward.

I have learned so much about how to find sources and then how to talk to them from these classes. I have also learned a lot about the Watergate story, which I had not known too much about before. Thank you so much Bob for saying what you say about Trump! Everything he does truly terrifies me.


Ken G.

I know from my own experience having seen stories on television and in news media that all too often journalists are NOT interested in ferreting out the truth. I reached out many times to journalists where i could have provided information and insight to help them with their investigation and i was wholly ignored. As far as validating sources i like the way John Dominic Crossan categorized his own research methodology as "multiple independent attestation" in validating facts.


Regardless of which field of work you are in, I feel that solid interpersonal skill is the one skill that is seriously underinvested and very much needed in our education.

Estela D.

I wonder how one develops the confidence to go talk to the sources. I know he talks about this in past lessons, but it always feels that is easier when you have a name that backs you up: the NYT, Washington Post, even less mainstream Media like Vice News. They may all be freelance journalists but just saying you've worked or written for these names, will help sources talk to you, instead of talking to a "no one" or newbie. At least that's how I feel about. Maybe is that I am just scared of failure.

Val M.

Strikingly useful lesson, even for talking to sources about a non-fiction event or person who you would like to learn more about/write about and not traditionally report on.

Geri S.

True, "I need your help" immediately creates a level playing field. Especially in this climate of mistrust of the media. I like to start with lists and also researching secondary sources and articles. I want to see what has been written about the subject and gather names or associations that may have some information I want to take further. It's interesting how these secondary sources have led me to some excellent primary sources.

Ulf J.

I do love his one-liners - in this case: I need your help. A person is very strong when he or she are able to say I need your help

Sunny N.

"I need your help"...strong and vulnerable at the same time. Human. No wonder it works.

John S.

Woodward reveals an important lesson about sources in this chapter: Valuable sources can be found at many levels, not just the top (CEO, President, etc.) in fact, the middle managers are most often more valuable than the senior people. In most of my experiences those in the middle are doing the heavy-lifting, in on meetings, knowledgeable and witness to decision-making processes.

Tiffany C.

I like the idea of the incremental reporting ("Did you see today's story?"), but I wonder how much you should share when you're starting the story. Going off of his example, you don't want to reveal to the mayor's aide that you have information linking the mayor to XYZ scandal because that aide is bound to report that info back to the mayor, and your story could dry up. So how far to do you go/how much do you reveal to get that aide to trust you?

Mia S.

"One way to overcome the roadblock and the resistance is, you've already got part of the story. And you go to somebody and you say, I know there is a document where... Somebody will say, Well you've got enough of the story, you may be able to write it, maybe I can talk about it or give some more detail or rationale for what the decision was. When you have part of the story, it's critical, and it's the role of incremental reporting. Sometimes you have to publish part of the story in the newspaper to smoke people out, to get people to come forward. I can remember a number of times going to people and saying, Did you see today's story about this? Well, it's incomplete. Can you help me take it further? You immediately establish that the transaction is, You don't have to talk to me, deal with me - but I need your point of view. Whether it's about coverups, whatever it is - people tend to, Ah, OK, somebody wants to listen. And I say, I need your help. Those are the four most potent words in journalism."