Business, Politics & Society

Finding Sources

Bob Woodward

Lesson time 8:30 min

Bob explains why sources decide to share information with journalists and teaches you how to assess who to talk to when investigating a story.

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Bob Woodward
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I think people want to be sources, first of all, because people like to talk. I think they want to get their side out. I think, in a sense, everyone is a secret sharer in the First Amendment, even if they have something to hide, they will often talk about a part of what happened. Sometimes they want to get dirt out on somebody, and you've got to listen to that, you've got to be careful about it, It's a tricky business, and you are dealing with people's lives and reputations. The reality is that reporters are always being used, because our job is to listen and if you have people who are CIA directors or presidents or the head of the school board in your community, these people want to do certain things-- they want to explain it. So every time we cover somebody's press conference or report, we're being used. That's fine. Our job is to communicate, but to communicate with skepticism, with inquiry. If there are things that are said that are not true, or things in the report that can be contradicted, it's our job to unearth them. Often, I will start with the morning and I'll look through notes and various things I've got, and I'll say, who do I really need to talk to first, second? And I'll start making lists. As a young reporter, old reporter, somebody at the student newspaper in high school or in college-- you get an assignment, you need to start making lists of people to talk to. And it shouldn't be three people or five people, it should be 20 people. So you have to work from, well who might have witnessed this? The guards. Well, who runs the jail? Who is that person? Can I talk to that person? Who are the supervisors on watch? You then build the matrix of people who might know whether this is true or this is untrue. What you want in the source is somebody who's a witness or a participant. In the journalism seminar I teach, one of the first assignments is to ask the question, after they read about Watergate and All the President's Men, about the reporting-- how would it be reported now in the internet age? And literally, some students think, oh, you would Google Nixon's secret fund and it would tell you the story-- that somehow the internet would radically convert and change the reporting procedures. When you examine it, Nixon's secret fund would not have been on the internet-- it was secret. The internet is an important, useful tool, but it's not a magic lantern where you can go and it's going to tell you everything. And as the students went through this in detail, they realized it's all about human sources, as Watergate was, from Mark Felt to the bookkeeper to the treasurer to people who observed the housecleaning in the Nixon campaign right after the burglars were arrested. They literally shredded $100 bills to get rid of them so the money could not be tracked. There was a massive concealment effort and cover-up from day one. Watergate...


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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.



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

Great insight into life as an investigative journalist as well as his biggest stories. Enjoyed it.

Very interesting and informative course, you will learn a lot. I know I did.

I am a Journalist in Training! :D I really enjoyed Bob Woodward's Class! :D I now have the skiils to take down Chump! :D Yay! :D Peace Light and Love! :D Hoc Ly! :D

It's taught me a lot about journalism and, more importantly, given me a lot of reading material and examples of journalism done well.


Comments

Pamela K.

None of the great stories are on the internet. (But you all know that!) PAT NIXON SPOKE TO WOODSTEIN!!! lol In all seriousness, I would bet $10,000 that Kissinger spoke to the boys.

Kimberly S.

So far so good. Thanks for reminding us to persist in finding out the truth of stories. I almost laughed at the idea that you could find out about any powerful person or anyone through the internet.

Luke H.

Probably one of the most crucial, most difficult lessons a journalist can learn.

Karan S.

The thing that gets me is the risk involved in recruiting the sources. In many places and many cases, recruiting the sources involves effectively revealing what are you working upon. The people on the other side may fall under three categories: for, neutral, and against. If it is the third category, then it really means revealing your intentions to people who would not want you to be working upon the story. Kind of like "blowing your cover". In some countries like Bangladesh, this could mean your life at stake.

Ulf J.

This lesson was really interesting and exciting - as usual. Very exciting is to eventually know which three people it used to assist Bob and Carl with backing materials when they wrote "The Final Days". It's after all more than 45 years since Watergate occurred, Guess which three can be ????

H G.

In some parts of the world finding good sources can be pretty dangerous. At times your work may expose some very powerful people and major cover ups (as you know). I am wondering how you balance and manage the risk both for yourself and your sources? Especially, given technology, privacy, cybersecurity, etc.,. What tools would help you and a source stay safe?

Sunny N.

Journalism is still a human profession--no fits-all formula, no AI, no search engine can replace the human elements--what a relief!

John S.

You have to have thick skin and be persistent. In cases where the most obvious source won’t willingly talk, have your list of sources (witnesses, participants, etc.) and begin on the outer circle. Contact them and begin gathering pieces of the puzzle. Peel back each layer like an onion. Ask each source for additional sources you might be able to contact. By the time you get into the inner circle, you can approach the source who may be unwilling to speak and offer an outline of what you already know. You could present the interview as an opportunity to give the person a voice. You’d be amazed at how he/she might react to the information you have.

Mia S.

"It's all about human sources. The lesson that pulses through all journalism is - go to people, 'I need your help, I'm trying to get this right, I'm trying to find out the facts' and you will get the kind of assistance that will surprise you. Sometimes you start an investigation with zero sources, and you have to develop them, and that's hard, especially if it's a sensitive area. Try to get people's private lines, phone numbers, under-the-radar emails, there are all kinds of things you can do. You can always find a way to get to people - it's often hard, and often people will say No, no no; you just have to persist and you need to be patient. I wish there was a formula, if you do 100 interviews or knock on 100 doors, 20 people are going to be responsive, or 10 or 5, and there's no formula. It's not passive; I always say, about lots of the sources that really helped me, they were not volunteers. It's amazing the number of people who are willing to help. They are not going to call you; you have to go recruit them."

Mia S.

"People want to be sources, first of all, because people like to talk. They want to get their side out. In a sense, everyone is a secret sharer in the First Amendment, even if they have something to hide, they will often talk about a part of what happened. Sometimes they want to get dirt out on somebody, and you've got to listen to that - you've got to be careful about it. It's a tricky business, and you are dealing with peoples' lives and reputations. The reality is that reporters are always being used, because our job is to listen and if you have people who are presidents or the head of the school board in your community, these people want to do certain things - they want to explain it. So every time we cover somebody's press conference or report, we're being used. Our job is to communicate, but to communicate with skepticism, with inquiry. If there are things that are said that are not true, or things in the report that can be contradicted, it's our job to unearth them. Who do I really need to talk to first? Second? And I'll start making lists of people to talk to. And it shouldn't be 3 or 5 people, it should be 20 people. You have to work from Well who might have witnessed this? Who is that person?You then build the matrix of people who might know whether this is true or this is untrue. What you want in a source is somebody who's a witness or a participant."