By Jesse Nankin
Twenty-five New England journalists filed into a small auditorium on an unseasonably warm November afternoon. We came from all corners of New England—some dewy-eyed, others more seasoned, but all eager to learn more about how to harness the full potential of online resources and public records laws to help sustain today’s public service journalism.
Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, stepped up to the podium. Here stood a man who has worked in some of the most competitive newsrooms in the country and has been awarded the industry’s most prestigious honors. From an assistant to the Pentagon Papers reporting team at The New York Times in 1971 to heading up his own investigative reporting center, Rosenthal has been witness to journalism’s zenith and to its current identity crisis. His message to us: with some ingenuity, a willingness to collaborate with other media organizations and a strong grasp of the resources available, we can help breathe new life into investigative and watchdog journalism.
Rosenthal’s energy set the tone for three days of intensive workshops that touched on our rights under federal and state freedom of access laws; discussed new models of investigative reporting; and delved into the seemingly rapidly expanding world of online reporting databases and tools.
Along with Rosenthal were more than 30 skilled reporters and legal experts who served as faculty for the three days, including three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Walt Bogdanich of the New York Times, Doug Clifton, former executive editor of The Miami Herald and Cleveland Plain Dealer and Jennifer LaFleur, of ProPublica. For the complete line up, click here.
The conference, sponsored by the New England First Amendment Coalition and cosponsored by The Initiative for Investigative Reporting at Northeastern University, was the first annual New England First Amendment Institute. It was held from Nov. 13- Nov. 15, 2011. The idea: To inspire and inform and to pump fresh energy into journalism’s tireless fight for transparency and access to information.
Below are some of the takeaways.
Freedom of Information –Arming Yourself with the Law, the Parlance and a little Swagger
When it comes to requesting information, said Boston Globe reporter Sean Murphy, start with the assumption that you can have it and remember the following:
- Be professional
- Document everything and stay highly organized
- Be open to compromise
- Be persistent, be patient
Finally, Murphy tells us to be confident, walk with a swagger and reminds us to ‘get off the phone and hang out where the records are kept.’
So just what documents exist out there, and what is public? ProPublica’s Jennifer LaFleur suggests that reporters request document retention schedules from government agencies. And do your homework, she says! Know the language the agency uses and precisely how to describe the documents you are requesting.
As for those pricey fees that too often come attached to an agency’s response to a request: Ask the agency to itemize, and don’t be afraid to push back.
Mike Donoghue, Vermont’s resident FOI expert and a veteran reporter at the Burlington Free Press, had this to add:
- Know the nuances of the law
- Depersonalize, and say, ‘we’ve both got jobs to do and I am just doing mine.’
- Go up the line at the first refusal
- Use refusals as fodder for editorials
- Pay attention to where your public officials stand on open access, and write about it
Tips from the Legal Team
Not every media outlet—especially in today’s economic environment—has the luxury of having a legal team to give advice or to fight FOI battles. So several of New England’s FOI attorneys spent the morning at the Institute to educate on the federal and state laws, and to then answer our questions. Freedom of access laws vary by state, and a report that may be public in one state may be protected information in another. You can learn more about the laws in your states by visiting the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press or the New England First Amendment Center.
Their tips included:
- Think about how your FOI requests look to the other person—be specific and focused and keep your request narrow
- Be willing to cajole and negotiate: For example, if an agency refuses because the document contains private information, remind the agency that they can always redact the identifiable information and still provide the document
- Make contacts and get to know the people from whom you are requesting documents
- Always follow up—do not be afraid to challenge a refusal and get the denial in writing
- The first contact when requesting information should be by phone so that when you put it in writing, you get it right the first time.
Computer-Assisted Reporting and Working the Web to Your Advantage
Think you know every corner of the Internet—every database, every resource available to you? Think again! CAR experts Todd Wallack, from The Boston Globe, and Mark Horvit, the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, shared their favorite sites and experiences squeezing information from the World Wide Web.
Wallack had this fun fact for us: Check out pet license databases. Aside from learning the most popular pet name in a particular year, it can be a way to obtain contact information for individuals. Pet owners want to make sure Fido finds his way home so even cell phones may be available.
Google tools you may not know about: Google’s word frequency counter and Google advance, which among its many features, allows you to search by file type (e.g. .xls).
Filings made with the Securities and Exchange Commission are online and can be a wealth of data on a company or on individuals associated with a company. You can search for the business connections and interests of an individual running for town council, for example.
Also worth noting: “Form D” is filed before the initial public offering or IPO, and can tip a reporter off to a new hot start-up; annual reports (10-K) include everything from the income table, the balance sheet, some current litigations, properties owned, biographies on the major players, including key shareholders, and compensation; investor forms will disclose holdings and reveal insider transactions.
But don’t be intimidated or fooled by the language in these forms; use the glossaries to your advantage, Wallack suggests. For example, the “non-equity incentive plan compensation” on a summary compensation table is just a bonus (!!) in sheep’s clothing.
IRE’s Horvit recommends fishing with a focus and using as many as three separate search engines when researching a person or entity. Get a second and third opinion, he says. When you search Google, you are not searching the entire Internet, only the Google servers.
Horvit also directed us to several databases listed here and under the appropriate categories on Watchdog New England’s website:
Good for background research and finding publicly available records online:
Complete Planet (A compilation of more than 70,000 searchable databases and specialty search engines)
IPL2 –the Internet Public Library
BRB Publications –A portal to finding public records
Maplight.org –U.S. Congress Campaign Contributions and Voting Database
People, Addresses and Social Media Search Tools
Zabasearch.com –Address search
Pipl.com -People search
SocialMention.com –Real time social media search and analysis
Whostalkin.com –Social medial search tool
Samepoint Search –“Reputation Management Social Media Search”
IceRocket.com –Search blogs, Twitter and Facebook, among other media sites
PeekYou.com –People Search
LinkedIn –Use to find former employees at a company of interest, among other information
Domain Searches (find out who owns a domain name)
Quarkbase –Website information, analysis and research tool
Searching the “dead” Web
The “Wayback Machine” is an Internet archive. It can, for example, help a reporter catch political retractions, wavers or changes in stance.
MINERVA –Library of Congress Web Archives
CyberCemetery– Archives of former federal websites
Uncovering the Story
The conference was not all legalese and techie talk. The fellows were also regaled with “war stories” from some of journalism’s best and brightest. Within these stories lay hidden, timeless gems of strategy when pursuing a story.
Within this group was three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Steve Kurkjian, senior fellow at The Initiative for Investigative Reporting.
Here are some Kurkjian tidbits:
- Understand your source’s motivations
- Reach out to people who used to work at a place you are investigating but are no longer there; you can find them by searching old directories or culling through newspaper clips
- Use sources as beacons for where the documents exist
- Know the vernacular of the people you are probing for information
- Know the risks—legal or otherwise
- Establish a rapport with your sources—be empathetic and be a good listener.
Bulletproofing the Story
Our conference wrapped up with advice from IRE’s Horvit on making sure a story will stand up. First and foremost, Horvit suggests attacking your own hypotheses. Work as hard to disprove as you do to prove, he says, and be in tune with your own biases and those of the public. Secondly, background all of your key sources and seek out independent confirmation of facts (even for a feature/human interest story) to avoid unexpected embarrassment down the road.
Do not be afraid to use experts to help you understand documents and data.
Do not go alone to key interviews.
The baloney detection: Never write around what you don’t know; admit what you are unable to confirm.
Be fair: Let sources see your data, obey the “no surprise” rule and keep opinions to yourself. Knock out the adjectives and characterizations from your story.
The New England First Amendment Coalition currently has funding for two more years of the Institute, with hopes of securing more funds to continue hosting this excellent opportunity for the region’s journalists. Check back on their website or ours for information on how you can apply.