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How to interview vulnerable sources without exploiting them

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

The most powerful stories in journalism often feature the voices of people with little power. Telling interesting stories about people without big titles, impressive credentials or personal fame is a skill at which NPR excels.

Audience members sometimes write to the Public Editor's office seeking reassurance that the vulnerable voices they hear in NPR stories are not being exploited by reporters.

I've long advocated for a set of best practices in professional journalism acknowledging that some sources face significant risks when telling their private stories. They could become the target of harassment. They could be shunned by their communities. Some people could lose their jobs or face legal consequences. Others may experience shame or humiliation.

In my three years as NPR's Public Editor, I've learned that NPR journalists have developed an extensive, if informal, set of tools and techniques for working with people who aren't accustomed to working with journalists.

A couple of recent questions along these lines inspired me to interview several reporters to compile a list of best practices for interviewing vulnerable sources. That list appears at the bottom of this column. It will likely continue to grow.

The questions came in about a long-form story, "Permission to share," which appeared on the Up First podcast on Sunday, July 9. The story was about people coming to terms with the sharing of their private childhood experiences on the internet by their influencer parents.

The story was reported by freelance journalist Hanisha Harjani, who spent several months first building trust with sources and then conducting the interviews as part of their graduate thesis at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Because the story was about people who had their own stories told against their will, Harjani was particularly sensitive to the tension.

"It's really important for vulnerable sources to feel like they have control in this relationship and in this process," Harjani said. "Journalism can feel like this very big, authoritative thing."

Harjani's story features three sources, all of them vulnerable to different degrees. Harjani described to each source in detail what the story would look and sound like and waited for the sources to respond.

The main character in the story is Lou, now a young adult, who has struggled for years with fallout from being the subject of a mom blog.

Harjani interviewed Lou several times, both in person and on the phone. When Lou asked to back out of interviews, Harjani accepted that the story might fall through. Harjani had backup ideas for their student project, so they didn't apply any pressure.

Harjani checked with Lou before pitching the story to NPR. After the idea was accepted, Harjani worked with Lou to determine how Lou would be identified and what information would be included. Lou was concerned that people would track down old information and use it to locate them.

"Being patient and meeting people where they're at is how you build trust," Harjani said, offering a lesson from an earlier career as a science teacher.

The story starts with Heather Armstrong, who was known as the queen of the mommy bloggers in the early 2000s. We hear from Armstrong's daughter Leta, a 19-year-old college student who pushed back against her mom's claim that the blog caused no harm.

Heather Armstrong died by suicide several months after Harjani interviewed her and Leta.

Listeners wrote to our office with concerns that Leta Armstrong didn't get the necessary care.

Zach K wrote: For a 19-year-old woman struggling as a survivor [of] what sounds like childhood exploitation, this reporter discloses her FULL name and even the school she goes to. And it almost sounds like [the reporter is] giving the listener tips [on] how to search Reddit to track people.

Hilary Roxe wrote: I am astounded that you felt it was OK to quote interviews with a "mommy blogger" and with her child, recorded before the mother's (very publicly reported) suicide — in a story about online exploitation of children by their parents.

Harjani told me that they had been transparent and patient with Leta. Harjani told Leta the story was being pitched to national outlets. Because her mother was a prominent blogger and the blog was still public, it wasn't possible to cloak her identity.

"When I spoke to Leta, I was clear that she would be identifiable because her mom is identifiable," Harjani said. "I made it clear that she would be in conversation with her mom. When I did the interview with her, I said, 'These are some of the things your mom has told me, how do you feel about that?' So that it was clear to her the interview would be juxtaposed with her mom, and the opportunity for her to be anonymous was lost because her mom was so public."

After Harjani pitched the story to NPR, Heather Armstrong died. Harjani said they worked closely with professors at UC Berkeley to edit the story in a way that was sensitive to the death. Harjani and Leta exchanged emails after Harjani sent condolences. And when Up First accepted the story, Harjani reached out again to let her know. Harjani said they never heard back.

Harjani's approach with sources mirrors that of journalists at NPR who frequently seek to include the voices of private people in their stories.

NPR's Steve Drummond told me that his views evolved as his job changed. As a national editor, Drummond said he was "very much in favor of holding the line on granting anonymity, as our policy clearly states. In recent years, especially when dealing with minors, I've come to understand that the umbrella for protecting sources has grown bigger. I've found that I've swung much more in the other direction. The concerns are real."

Now as the leader of NPR's Education Desk, Drummond oversees the coverage of students, where sources are much more likely to merit special consideration.

Stories about education that lack the voices of students are missing a key perspective. Yet, getting student voices into stories often requires accommodations that reporters don't routinely afford sources. They might use only a first name, or a middle name. Students may not be identified by their specific geography, so strangers can't find them. And reporters are more cautious about including information that might be personally harmful to the source's reputation.

"People who agree to something at age 16 can turn around at age 19 and feel like you exploited them," Drummond said.

NPR business reporter Stacey Vanek Smith has a knack for getting private people to talk about money and finances for national stories. As a correspondent for Planet Money and co-host of The Indicator, she's keenly aware that making money interesting often means finding a regular person to share their experiences.

She often uses TikTok and other social media platforms to find people talking about the topics she covers, whether it's debt, travel or tipping. The people who agree to talk sometimes share Smith's desire to help the public understand a complicated business or financial issue. But they don't always know what NPR is, or realize that people they know will likely hear the story.

Smith remembers clearly a source from early in her tenure at NPR who had agreed to discuss her debt for a story about the housing crisis. After the story was published, Smith "got an email from her saying, 'I'm so humiliated. My friends heard that piece, my family heard that piece, like they all know,'" Smith said. "I still feel sick when I think about that."

At that point, she recognized that reporters have an extra ethical obligation when working with people who don't routinely give interviews.

"I just realized at that moment what a sort of sacred trust it is and how it was my job to protect her," she said. "I had betrayed her trust in a sort of subtle way. The tone of the piece ended up being critical."

These days Smith uses a host of techniques to navigate the tension between her desire to get the most interesting material from her sources and her obligation to avoid harming those sources when possible.

The prebroadcast fact-check is one of the most powerful tools she's discovered. She will often email the source and describe the details about them that she is including and characterize the quotes. If the source indicates they feel vulnerable, she works with them to find alternative ways to get important information into the story.

Smith has also developed her instinct for identifying and reacting to sensitive information during an interview. When she hears something that she wants to use, but it's a private detail, she will ask a follow-up question that helps the source word the information in a way they would be comfortable sharing in a public setting.

"If you're a skilled interviewer, you're good at getting people to open up. Sometimes people go a little haywire and tell you way too much," she said. "But let's say it's relevant to the piece, I might ask, 'How would you characterize that if you were talking to your boss?'"

It's a general principle in ethics to understand a power imbalance in a relationship and assign more responsibility to the party with more power. For journalists, the power differential shifts with different sources. Reporters are at a power disadvantage when interviewing a politician, a public figure or a famous person, because that source is often the gatekeeper of the information they need. But when interviewing a person who isn't as familiar with the journalism process, the power advantage and the accompanying responsibility shifts to the journalist.

Even reporters who embrace this added responsibility will tell you it's more art than science, because different people have different comfort levels with private information.

NPR investigative reporter Joe Shapiro has an entire portfolio of stories that feature vulnerable people, including people in prison, parents who've lost custody of their children to the state and people with disabilities. He said he's acutely aware of his duty to be careful.

"I have an obligation to these people because they're not public figures, government officials or the politicians that I once covered. They're sharing stories with me that are often painful or difficult. And they are taking a risk sometimes to expose themselves to tell these stories," he said. "How do I show respect? I try to be as transparent as possible. First of all, I make sure they know what NPR is. Most people I talk to don't know what NPR is."

Shapiro tells people that in addition to the story being on the radio, there will be a text version on the internet that will live forever. He explains what goes into a radio story, and that he needs different scenes, so he might follow a source to different locations, or even ask the source to go to a certain place.

And he prepares sources for the fact that he might speak to them for hours but use only minutes of the interview.

Shapiro cautions against being overly paternalistic. Yes, it's important to make sure that sources are making good decisions, he said. But treating people with respect includes giving them agency to make their own decisions. In his experience, that's particularly true of people with disabilities.

"The first thing you learn when reporting on people with disabilities is that they don't want you to treat them like a child," he said.

When I asked him how he knows if someone is putting themselves at risk, he told me he takes his sources' concerns seriously. Shapiro once delayed a story about prison conditions when it became apparent that his sources were likely to experience retaliation from guards.

NPR has made it a priority for the voices in news stories to reflect the diversity of the country. It is impossible to do that without including the stories of people who are unfamiliar with how both NPR and journalism operate.

Just last week, NPR standards editor Tony Cavin put out a reminder to the newsroom that all decisions for cloaking the identity of a source must be approved by managing editors, to ensure that full or partial anonymity is reserved for sources who truly risk harm. Of course, that's a subjective judgment. Sources are vulnerable for different reasons. I am advocating for generosity and empathy as news organizations invite diverse voices into their storytelling.

It's time for all of journalism to create a more formal set of guidelines that promote transparency and protect vulnerable sources from unnecessary or disproportionate harm. As the Public Editor, all I can do is make recommendations to NPR. It's about all I can do from my perch at the journalism-focused Poynter Institute as an ethics adviser to professional newsrooms, as well.

Journalists often fear that sources will back out of a story. Investing in a transparent and trusting relationship that gives sources as much information as possible about the journalism process makes that less likely. And it often makes the story better.

Here, then, is a starter kit of best practices for working with vulnerable sources. If you have suggestions or ideas, please contact me at either my NPR or my Poynter email. I'll update these suggestions as needed.

Journalist's tool kit for working with vulnerable sources

It's vital for journalists to seek out and interview people from all walks of life. Reporters also need to recognize their ethical duty to protect sources who lack the knowledge they need to protect themselves. This set of best practices is a curated list of tools that will help journalists incorporate the voices of vulnerable people, while minimizing harm at the same time.

Making contact

  • Start with an informal conversation that is off the record. Describe the story, how long it might take to report and what type of questions you are likely to ask. Explain how background and off-the-record guidelines work, so they know their options if they want to keep information private, but feel it is important for the reporter to be aware of something. 
  • Show the source a similar story, so they have a concrete idea of what you do.
  • Describe the nature of your news organization and tell the source that their friends, family and employers are likely to see the story. Explain all the places the story will appear, including if it will live forever on your newsroom's website. 
  • Answer all the questions the source may have, and be available to answer more questions that come up. When possible, give the source time — several days or even several weeks — to decide whether they want to take part in the story.
  • Ongoing participation

  • Meet in person when possible.
  • Let the source know they can decline to answer questions. Be respectful if a source wants to keep information out of the story. Be open to discussing alternatives if a source wants to take information off the record before a story is published.  
  • When a source reveals information that could cause personal harm or embarrassment, give them a chance to rephrase or reframe the information if it's relevant to the story.
  • Continue to explain the reporting process, including how you will fact-check the source's information and that you may have to interview other people involved in the story.
  • Explain that you will likely only use a small fraction of all the information you gather.
  • Be extra patient when your subject matter involves trauma. 
  • The source's best interests

  • Assess whether your source is able to advocate for themself. While you can take extra care with a vulnerable source, as a journalist your primary loyalty is to your audience and to the story you are trying to tell. You cannot also be primarily responsible for looking out for your source's best interest. 
  • If your source does not seem able to advocate for themself, encourage them to rely on another trusted person. When that's not possible, discuss with your editor whether your source is truly capable of consenting to participate in the story.
  • Identification

  • Work with your editor to offer private individuals a range of options for how they will be identified. Consider initials, middle names or other ways to afford the source a level of privacy. 
  • When a source is at risk of personal harm from retaliation or other punitive responses to the story, use your newsroom's standards to offer complete anonymity if possible. Explain to the audience why the source is anonymous.
  • When offering complete anonymity, comb the story for any details that will undermine that promise and remove them from the story.
  • However you mutually agree to identify the source, explain that some people close to the story may still be able to deduce the source's identity. 
  • Before publication

  • Be sure the source knows when the story is planned to be published and where it will appear. 
  • Tell them how the story is likely to be featured on various social platforms.
  • As a way of fact-checking, go over every detail about the source that will be included in the story and explain the context. 
  • Discuss with editors if comments will be enabled on the story and, if so, who will moderate them. 
  • After publication

  • As soon as the story is publicly available, let them know how they can see or hear it.
  • Offer a sincere thank you.
  • Check back in 24 to 48 hours after publication or airing and see how they feel. Even when you've taken care, some sources may have regrets. You may not be able to make that better, but listening to those regrets may make you a better reporter.
  • Be available and responsive if the source experiences any repercussions. A follow-up story may be warranted. 
  • Correct any errors quickly.
  • This column was edited by Kayla Randall and Jennifer Orsi, and copy edited by Merrill Perlman.

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    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country's leading voices on media ethics. Since 2002, she has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute, a global nonprofit dedicated to excellence in journalism, where she now serves as its senior vice president. She is also the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter, which advances the quality of journalism and improves fact-based expression by training journalists and working with news organizations to hone and adopt meaningful and transparent ethics practices. Under McBride's leadership, the center serves as the journalism industry's ombudsman — a place where journalists, ethicists and citizens convene to elevate American discourse and battle disinformation and bias.