Trusting a witness to contribute to investigative research

When meeting a witness for the first time, the investigative journalist first has to assess the trustworthiness of the witness. The journalist may know the history and therefore may be able to judge this. But if he/she does not know the witness or the story before, the witness has to be asked many questions to assess his/her trustworthiness.

“It is when somebody comes in to your office with a powerful story, then the first obligation is to test that person. Is that person really telling you the truth or not? So you want to treat that person not as a hostile witness, you want to treat that person as an unapproved witness. You cannot advance the case that this witness is giving you, which may be a matter of public concern. “I witnessed this man murdering three people”, that is what he is come in with and told you. You got to know whether he is ever said that before, whether he is ever been cut out lying to anybody, whether he had every reason to be there or not. What is the evidence that he can produce? Have other people seen the event, etcetera. You are asking him a lot of questions to make sure that what he is telling you is true.”

Even when the witness brings a photograph or a recording that make it easier to believe a story, it is necessary to ask questions because those things can easily be faked. The average citizen is not going to make phony photographs or phony recordings on the whole, but governments can do it.

“Observers are complicated; witnesses are particularly complicated”, says MacFadyen. While observing, while witnessing, human emotions always play a role. As a person, one trusts one person on some specific issues and a/another on others. As an investigative journalist this can create dilemmas. There are situations where to protect one human being on a human level; the observer doesn't become a witness. A witness for journalists is someone who will testify to what he/she has seen. The anonymous observer in less effective and trustworthy because they cannot be identified to say what actually happened and we need to know what actually happened.

“A scientist I know who won the Nobel Prize in microbiology who discovered some facts about genetics that if they were used or put into the market place they would have a terrible effect on some people. Some people would be grossly disadvantaged in their lives and hurt, actually hurt, as a result of his disclosure. As a result of that fear he won't tell anybody what he has discovered. So science is being compromised by him, for the best reasons you can possibly imagine but he doesn't want to be participating in hurting people badly which he knows his discovery could cause. In that case I suppose on a personal level I'm completely sympathetic with that refusal to disclose. In the interest of science, the history of human discovery, it is a potential disaster.”