Sourcing in Investigative Journalism: how to build strategic connections during a global pandemic

This webinar is a conversation between Aisha Kehoe Down and James Wright on the art of sourcing in investigative journalism, and the difficulties and opportunities that arise from building sources in the digital age. It will focus on a recent investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, “Marlboro’s Man: Philip Morris’s Representative In Burkina Faso is a known cigarette smuggler,” an investigation which examined smuggling and illicit financial flows in Africa, as well as the behavior of large multinational corporations on the continent. Using this investigation as a springboard, it delves into questions like, how do we strategically analyze institutions and organizations to get contacts? And, what tactics should we use in questioning and approaching different sources? This conversation also includes how to manage security concerns.

Key points by Ioanna Georgia Eskiadi

Sources in investigative journalism are the most important component. A journalist needs to know how to build and keep strategic connections. This has been especially difficult during a global pandemic, but there are always different and alternative ways for a journalist to work towards and reach sources. When building strategic connections, it’s important to know how to analyse institutions and organizations, what tactics you should use in questioning and approaching different sources, and how to manage security concerns.

Building and keeping sources is an important process that draws attention to both strategies and targeted moves. Investigative journalists initially can find their sources through news articles, if the sources have already been quoted, they may talk again. It is necessary to remember to create a solid introduction for yourself prior to making connections. Another method is cold-calling, or sending a LinkedIn message, where you explain your goals, your research, and your investigations. Messages on social media platforms are an easy way to reach your sources. It’s crucial to approach these sources and persuade them to speak with you further. The pandemic has made things harder, but one thing has made easier is finding sources, because no one is meeting in-person and it’s less abnormal for people to meet a journalist through an online platform.

In regards to strategic infiltration, imagine you are an outsider looking for weak points. Each company is a complex ecosystem of spreadsheets, wounded egos, crazy people and normal guys trying to do their jobs. So, you get to fumble around in the dark, but searching for weak points does not mean that everyone is going to be defensive and have an ego. When you investigate an organization or a company, depending on the field, learn the euphemisms and language of the trade, you want to sound like a fellow professional. By doing this, you will be spoken to as if you are someone in the business. If you want to gain their trust, you need to do an investigation and discuss how they see understand, and care about the market. You can have many conversations that will teach you how to think like people on the inside because when you start to talk to whistle-blower or to a person outside, they will better understand you.

Unfortunately, given the circumstances, when you build relationships, face-to-face is always better than over the phone. Prior to your meeting, run a background check and make sure you know everything about the source before you approach them. You need to be inevitable, insistent, and politely let them know that you are not going away. If the source is reluctant or new to you, don’t start with something scary. Ask for little things to warm them up. Come back later and ask for something else. Over time, they’ll relax and feel they can give you things without worrying about news coming back to bite them. Also, negotiate terms up-front about the anonymity, describing these terms in a way that protects the source, and allows follow up with other sources about the information. In general, make them feel comfortable. In order to keep relationships, don’t ghost them. Sources, especially whistle-blowers, always want immediate results and don’t understand that investigations take time. Touch back often, keep them in the loop, assure them that you’re still on the case. Also, be careful in what you say to a source, even if you trust them. If you bad-mouth the subject of your investigation, they might be subpoenaed to testify in a libel case and have to discuss it. Avoid talking about other sources in detail in front of a source and don’t name them without their permission. Never surprise a source, let them know how they’ll be quoted beforehand.

Lastly, make your source a collaborator and ask them what they think. Don’t go into an interview with foregone conclusions and be open to someone changing your worldview,. Be clear on why you’re doing the story and why it is valuable. In our cynical media landscape, sources will want and deserve an explanation of why things matter. Enjoy meeting new people and enjoy their stories.

The discussion


  • Aisha Kehoe Down, Investigative Journalist, OCCRP, Jordan
  • James Wright, Investigative Editor, OCCRP, USA

Speakers Bios
Aisha Kehoe Down is an investigative journalist at OCCRP focused on the tobacco industry, and the links between organized crime, corruption, and large multinational companies. Previously, she worked at The Cambodia Daily and the Ukraine Business Journal.

James Wright is deputy editor in chief for investigations at OCCRP. Prior to joining OCCRP, he was investigations editor at the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. During the 2016–17 academic year, he was a Knight Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where he researched the influence of political mega-donors on American foreign policy. As deputy editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2015, James led an investigation that exposed casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s secret purchase of the paper and covert efforts to undermine the Nevada judiciary. Previously, he was a reporter and editor specializing in investigative reporting and coverage of government and politics at metropolitan newspapers in Denver, San Diego, Seattle, and Albany, New York as well as a media management consultant in Algiers, Algeria. Among other awards, he has received the Northwestern University James Foley Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism; the national Society of Professional Journalists Ethics in Journalism Award; the John B. Oakes Award for environmental writing; the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Champion of Justice Award; and a regional Emmy award.

This event is co-organized by Digital Communication Network (South East Europe HUB) and World Learning and is part of DCNSEE’s Ideas in Action — Digital Engagement, a series of virtual events launched in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.

DCN is supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Citizen Exchanges. Digital Communication Network created in 2015, is a 7.000 member strong collaborative network that connects professionals from a variety of fields and different regions of the world, committed to have an impact in the new information space.