Interviewing white-collar criminals: 6 tips from Harvard Business School’s Eugene Soltes

 
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Harvard Business School professor Eugene Soltes won international acclaim for his groundbreaking book that looks at what drove dozens of wealthy, successful businessmen to become white-collar criminals. The book is based on years of interviews and correspondence with nearly 50 former executives, including notorious Wall Street fraudster Bernie Madoff, who is serving a 150-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to running a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.

Journalist’s Resource recently asked Soltes what he learned about conducting interviews — including interviewing convicted criminals from behind bars — while doing research for Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal, published in late 2016.

Soltes shared some tips on building trust and developing a rapport with prisoners and other sources through short, infrequent conversations and written correspondence.  He was only able to talk to Madoff, for example, in 15-minute chunks — one telephone call per week from the medium-security federal prison in North Carolina where he is being held.

While newsroom deadlines often do not allow journalists to take years to work on a project, Soltes’ guidance applies to virtually any type of news story. Below are six great takeaways:

 

  1. Don’t lead with personal questions and questions that probe into the meatiest details of a convict’s crimes. Focus first on developing trust.  

Soltes says he sought frequent, casual interactions with the people he wanted to get to know. At first, they would discuss topics such as financial news andbooks they each had read. After a few months of these conversations, people began to open up, sharing personal stories and volunteering information about their careers, activities and feelings. Soltes says this approach prioritizes “acknowledging and giving a whole lot of respect to the person more broadly and, in most instances, their positive achievements and what they’ve done in their career … acknowledging all parts of their life and the individual.”

“There were people that, in the first conversation, would be very blunt, very open and were able to jump straight to the matter,” Soltes says. “There were other people — if I ever felt like I connected with them, it was a year later. … Some of the people, it would be over the course of a month or over the course of two months. But to really dive down into these matters in less than a week is really unrealistic. In most instances, it’s a couple of months before one is actually developing a rapport.”

 

  1. Have a plan for whether and how you’ll use sensitive information that sources might divulge once they trust you.

Several of the white-collar criminals Soltes interviewed shared information with him that conflicted with sworn statements they had given in court. While Soltes mentions the conflict in his book, he chose not to name those who did this or elaborate on what they shared. “It’s something, the most significant thing,that made me think that they became very comfortable in our conversations — and, in some ways, I think, too comfortable, because they were saying things that were, frankly, not appropriate and could have potential ramifications … They were willing to trust me and to take the time to tell their tale in their view and, in return, I respected that relationship.”

 

  1. If you want prisoners to talk to you, write them a letter.

Finding a prisoner is not difficult. “You just look up their address online,” Soltes says. If the person is in a federal prison, find him or her by using the Bureau of Prisons’ inmate locator. You can search by first and last name or, if you have it, other identifying information such as the inmate’s Bureau of Prisons Register Number. Once you identify the correct person, click on the link to the facility where he or she is being held and, there, you will find information on how and where to mail a letter. (Editor’s note: State prison systems operate similar databases.)

Harvard Business School professor Eugene Soltes
(Photo by Russ Campbell)

“You just write the person,” Soltes says. “How I approached people: I wrote a letter that expressed my interest in speaking with them and my respect for their more constructive contributions — a brief note that, in many ways, was designed not to present my view or opinion, but to spur their curiosity in wanting to see what I was actually interested in. I would always write — and some people might disagree with this — I would always express something constructive and positive about their career.”

 

  1. When interviewing individuals who are incarcerated, choose phone calls over in-person meetings. You can develop a rapport more quickly through four 15-minute phone calls than one hour-long, in-person conversation.

Inmates typically can make short, weekly phone calls. In federal prisons, every call is limited to 15 minutes. While in-person visits are longer, Soltes says phone calls are more useful for building relationships because they are more frequent and also allow some time for reflection between discussions.

“I actually found that prison interviews were not nearly as constructive, because you’re kind of getting one shot and the next shot might not come until months later,” Soltes says. “With e-mail and phone [interviews], you can actually start a dialogue.”

“In prison, if you’re doing something in person, you have a date and time and — if you’re lucky — you have maybe two hours. But you’re not going to establish a relationship with someone. And completing everything you want in two hours — that’s just unrealistic. Even over a couple of weeks of going back and forth for 15 minutes [by phone], doing regular 15-minute phone calls, you have an opportunity to build a sense of rapport with someone in a much more effective manner. … This is something where I think the 15 minutes is more … You want some time for reflection.”

 

  1. Establish a system of checking your biases to limit the impact your relationships with sources could have on your work.

Soltes says he sometimes worried about showing favor toward sources he had gotten to know well over the course of several years. To guard against this, he asked people he knew – including his wife, who is a medical doctor and, therefore, not involved in the finance industry — to read what he had written. “I think this is one of the hardest issues to navigate,” Soltes says. “I tried to be aware that I would never know what these unconscious biases would be doing to my work … My best judge — my wife — actually tends to hold some different views about many of these [white-collar crime] cases, as she read much of my writing and would be a harsh critic in some of these cases. I’d give it to people I know hold very different views of these matters and have them read drafts. I wanted them to see if I was presenting the information in an unbiased way.”

 

  1. If you’re describing someone’s feelings, opinions or mindset, consider letting that person review what you have written to make sure it represents them accurately.

While journalists generally avoid sharing pre-published work, Soltes says it allows sources to clarify or point out errors in the way you’ve characterized them. He shared his writing with the people he interviewed for his book. “In this case, I was not just trying to describe the facts. In my case, I was trying to subjectively describe how they viewed matters both past and present,” he explains. “I wanted them to express in a clear and articulate manner how they viewed the world. I didn’t see the downside to making sure what I was writing reflects that.”

 

 

 

Looking for more journalism tips from academic experts? Check out our tip sheet featuring privacy engineer Dipayan Ghosh, who offers guidance on covering data security and privacy issues. In another recent tip sheet, Dan Schrag, the director of Harvard’s Center for the Environment, makes five suggestions for improving coverage of climate change and the environment.

Last updated: December 7, 2018

 

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