Interviewing official sources

The voice of authority

Official sources represent social institutions and associations. They usually hold positions in these organizations and speak on behalf of institutions. For example, a member of the board of directors, a chief executive officer, a public relations officer or a senior manager may be a company’s official source on matters relating to that company; a government minister, civil servant or departmental spokesperson is an official source for a government department; a trade unionist is an official source on a matter involving workers’ rights; a police spokesperson is an official source for the police.

Information from official sources carries a lot of weight, because official sources have – or are believed by the public to have – both power and knowledge. An official source is generally a senior person in an institution and therefore someone who should know about the topic being reported, as well as about the positions, agendas and views of the institutions they represent.

Official sources are the voices of authority and legitimacy. The more senior an official source, the more likely they are to be believed. This presents both opportunities and challenges for journalists.

Confusion alert

Journalists sometimes confuse experts with official sources. An expert on workers’ rights, religion, or education is not an official source unless s/he represents a particular institution or association. Similarly, an individual who witnesses a human rights violation may know a lot about the story, but is not an official source because s/he is not representing an institution, but speaking as an individual.

Interviewing official sources

Because official sources have power, they inspire awe and deference. Journalists are sometimes fearful of challenging them. In some cases, it is right to be afraid:  when challenged, powerful people may take revenge. Many journalists who have challenged official sources have suffered intimidation – arrest, assault and threats; some have been murdered. Where journalists challenge powerful institutions on their human rights records, they are raising the threat of investigation and people in the institution may face arrest and prosecution. So there is a lot at stake for powerful institutions when confronted about human rights.

However, an important role of journalism is to hold the powerful to account, so it is important to challenge official sources when there is justification for doing so.

Three broad groups of official sources

Official sources who want to be interviewed

These official sources will be quite easy to interview; they want to share information, and the interview will be relaxed and friendly. However, it is important to remember that they represent the official line , and it is still important to verify the information and challenge their statements by asking well-researched follow-up questions.

Official sources who do not want to be interviewed

These are official sources who have something to hide. They are much more difficult to interview, and you must be well-prepared and strong.

Official sources who want to remain anonymous

This is a complex and difficult group, and you will have to be very careful. Ask yourself – why do they want to remain anonymous? What are their agendas? The most likely reason is self-protection, but there may be other interests and agendas at play. Treat them as you would any other anonymous source. Ask them: “Is there anyone who would be prepared to go on the record with this information?” If there is, be sure to interview that person. See guidelines for using anonymous sources .

Key points about official sources

  • They represent social institutions.
  • They have power and knowledge.
  • The more senior the official source, the more likely s/he is to be believed.
  • Official sources will usually give you the official line – which is only one side of the story.
  • An official source is just one of the sources for your story – you cannot rely only on official sources.

Tips for interviewing official sources

Be prepared

Good preparation is the golden rule for all interviews. It is absolutely essential when you are interviewing official sources. It is best to cultivate relationships with official sources before an issue comes up. Of course, this is not always possible.  

Before the interview, conduct as much background research as possible, about both the source as a person and the issue being addressed.

  • What kind of a person is the source?
  • What is his/her position in the organization?
  • What has s/he said before about the issue?
  • What is the official line?
  • What facts do you know about the story?
  • Which can you be sure of?
  • What are you less clear about?

You can only challenge an official source if you know your facts; if you make a mistake, you will look like a novice and the official source may dismiss further questions. If you are not prepared, you may be misled by your source and risk reporting half-truths and carefully “sanitized” information as facts.

Sometimes you may only have a few minutes to prepare. If this is the case, ask yourself: What do I know about the situation? Jot down notes and plan a line of questions based on what you know.

Decide your news line or angle in advance

Decide what you want the outcome of the interview to be – your news line – and pursue it. But be open to the unexpected. If something emerges during the interview, be prepared to change course.

Prepare your strategy; draft an interview guide

What kind of interviewee is the official source? Friendly? Hostile? What interests are at play? The answers to these questions will help you decide your approach and the order of your questions.

Draft a list of questions in the order you want to ask them – but remember, listen to the answers. Do not stick rigidly to your guide; think on your feet and ask follow-up questions or follow new lines of questioning as they emerge.

Your interview guide should have a logical structure that is partly determined by the topic; partly by the nature of the interviewee.

If the source is willing to be interviewed and you feel confident that you will get the information that you want easily, your plan and question guide can be relaxed.

But if you believe the official source does not want to speak to you, or will try to confuse you with spin or just toe the official line, the order of questions is very important. A good way of putting a difficult or reluctant interviewee off their guard is to start by asking for information that you know they feel comfortable with, then switch to more difficult and probing questions.

If you have time, discuss and test your interview strategy and guide with your news editor or colleagues.

Take your notes to the interview

You will have done some background research and made notes. Bring them with you and make sure they are organized so that you can quickly refer to them if you need to challenge something your source says. Make sure your question guide and your notes work well together. For example:

Questions to Minister of Police Notes
Topic – torture and death in detention
  • What is the government’s position on torture in detention?
  • How does this fit with the government’s report on injury in detention?
  • Nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International report deaths in detention. Are these reports accurate…

11/07/2011 Minister of Police said ‘extraordinary pressure was justified’ in interrogation.

Government 2011 Report found 23 instances of physical injury among detainees.

15/09/2011 Amnesty International reported 6 deaths in detention.

Topic – police brutality in general
  • How many cases of police brutality have been reported directly to your office so far this year?
  • What is your department doing about these cases?
  • There have been accusations of a culture of impunity in our country – what is the government’s response to these charges?

Government 2011 report cites 98 reports of police brutality.

16/09/2011 Human Rights Watch reports culture of impunity operating in country.

Chief Justice warns police in court.

Be sceptical, challenging and probing, but always be polite

Journalists hold the powerful to account and serve the public’s right to information, and therefore have a responsibility to challenge powerful institutions and people. But this does not mean being rude. Always respect your sources; be direct, but not argumentative or aggressive.

Be provocative if necessary. Do not be afraid of confronting the interviewee with other points of view. This is also a way of ensuring the other side of the story is reflected in the interview. For example:

“You say that the police attacks on the demonstrators were justified. But the opposition National Party says they were completely unprovoked. What is your response to the National Party’s point of view?”

Stay in control of the interview

You are the interviewer, therefore you are in control. Official sources may try to use their power and knowledge to take control of the interview. Guard against this. If you lose control, the interviewee has won, and you will not be able to fulfil your role as a journalist. The public will hear only public relations , spin and the official line.

Do not let the interviewee ask the questions. If this happens, politely assert your position: “Thank you, but I am conducting the interview here.” And then immediately ask another question.

Remind yourself to be strong

As you go into the interview, remind yourself to be brave and strong. You are going to have to ask difficult questions. Be prepared to do this.

Look – and be – confident

Good preparation will give you confidence. As with any interview, you must also look confident and professional. Dress properly and be sure you have the right equipment (tape recorders; cameras) and be sure the equipment works. If you have a camera crew or any other team members, be sure that they are also professionally dressed, and well-briefed about the interviewee and the interview.

Be human

If the official source says something that shocks or surprises you, do not be afraid of showing your feelings. This will add to the interaction between you and the source, and it will help inform your audience. This is especially important for TV and radio journalists: your reactions will help shed light on the issue.

Keep your emotions in check

Official sources may tell outright lies. Challenge and probe; try to expose the lie, but do not show anger. Do not be aggressive, argumentative or rude.

Challenge the official line

Watch out for public relations, spin and disinformation , and challenge these when you recognize them. The best way to challenge them is to assert what you know. For example: “But according to the government’s own White Paper on Access for the Disabled, only 23% of hospitals have wheelchair access.” Or, you could quote other sources. For example: “But Sir, only two weeks ago the Minister of Defense said that the army was involved in the northern part of the country.…” The more you know about the issue, the more likely you will be able to ask challenging questions and get official sources to move away from the official line.

Concentrate and be quick on your feet

While you listen to answers, think about your next question or which direction you want to go next.

Rely on your instincts

If you believe what you are hearing is not true, trust your instincts. Challenge and probe.

Ask for opinions as well as information

Official sources are likely to be more comfortable with information and facts. One way of challenging is to ask for their personal opinions. They may resist, but they may also be discomforted and give information they did not intend to.

Know where you are going

Avoid asking questions when you are absolutely uncertain what the answer might be. You do not want to be caught by surprise, or put on the back foot. Official sources sometimes introduce new information into interviews in order to change difficult lines of questioning. Watch out for this.