Tips for reporting meaningful stories without the guarantees of a free press

While the United States has enshrined press freedom in the first amendment to the Constitution, U.S. journalists are noticing the disappearance of information from federal government websites, varying levels of obstruction to their access to public information, and attacks from public officials.

Journalists in countries that have always had limited press freedoms are familiar with these threats and obstacles. Yet they produce quality journalism in spite of them.

So we asked, what are some practical lessons American journalists could learn from their international colleagues?

We spoke to Majdoleen Hassan, an investigative journalist from Jordan, who now works as the Arabic editor for Global Investigative Journalists Network. Previously she was the managing editor of Amman Net. She reported stories on human rights, government transparency and corruption, and aid and development in Jordan.

She has these tips for American journalists as they attempt to traverse avenues of information that may be blocked.

This column was inspired by this book celebrating the investigative work of African journalists.

Do a lot of face-to-face source work

“Unlike practicing journalism in first world countries, we don’t have databases, we don’t have official records,” Majdoleen says. “The main obstacles are how to reach data and how to find sources.”

She starts with any basic information she can gather. If it’s about a company, she’ll scour the company’s website for “modest” information. If it’s about aid and development in a particular country where records are limited, she’ll search on the donor nation or organization’s site, like the World Bank or USAID. Once she’s exhausted the publicly available information, she’ll start doing background interviews with potential sources.

“Sometimes I interview the source two or three or four times to gain his trust. And after that I ask him, ‘OK, do you have this information, or do you know who would have this information?’” Majdoleen says. “And this person will link me to another source, and another source, and another source.”

The preliminary research and conversations help Majdoleen frame the investigation, figure out the information she’s missing, and how to obtain that information.

Sometimes, Majdoleen says, whistleblowers and sources seek her out in the course of the investigation, because they find out about her reporting and want to contribute. But she warns that for any source, you should understand their motivations for talking to you, and corroborate what they are saying, to ensure it is accurate.

Be smart about digital security

A basic expectation for journalists, whether in the U.S. or abroad, is that you’re educated in digital security, like encrypted communications. [Related: Read our digital security basics here.]

Use Signal for your texts and voice calls, and password protect and encrypt your devices. That way sources can see you’re taking their security seriously.

“You should make [your sources] feel you are trustworthy,” Majdoleen says.

Never give up your sources

In addition to abiding by best practices for digital security, Majdoleen does this by showing sources the kind of work she has done in the past, to establish her credibility as a journalist.

And Majdoleen actually has been pressured in the past to give up her sources, and she did not. “The government pressured me to give up my sources and I refused,” Majdoleen says. “I have a documented case.”

Pave the way for others

Majdoleen says you shouldn’t self-censor because of roadblocks or fear of reprisals. The fact that no one attempted a story is the reason it’s hard in the present for you to pursue that story. It requires some bravery, but you should try to pave the road for those around you.

“The golden rule in doing investigations in closed countries, and countries [that] have tough restrictions against journalists, is you can raise the bar,” Majdoleen says.

Remember, you’re not alone

Majd worked with an international journalism organization in Washington D.C. to publish a story she was working on about a Jordanian NGO affiliated with the royal family. She says when the NGO found out she was investigating their use of foreign aid, officials threatened her Jordanian news organization with a lawsuit, and the news organization declined to publish her piece.

“I believe in … international collaboration between journalists in repressive countries and journalists and organizations in the West. Because those journalists and organizations can back our journalists,” she says.

This was the case for Majdoleen, when she supervised a story about abuse in Jordanian centers for children with disabilities. She decided to partner with the BBC’s Arabic service so the story would get more reach.

And Majdoleen says that she learns from a community of international journalists who work in even more repressive circumstances than the ones she encountered in Jordan.

“I always complain that maybe investigative reporting in Arab countries is really tough. But then I look at people in Russia … where they have more and harder conditions than me, and they are able to do investigations,” Majdoleen says.

Editor’s note: The newsletter version incorrectly stated that Majdoleen reported the story about abuse in Jordanian centers for children with disabilities. She supervised the project.