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Home > Publications > Quill > The art of access


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Wednesday, October 18, 2006
The art of access

Getting public records through the power of persuasion

By David Cullier

You’re on deadline, and you need a public document. The government clerk eyes you suspiciously and snarls “no,” and while you might sue the agency later, for now you would just like to get the record and get out.

Don’t go mental. Get mental.

Persuasion and psychology are keys to reporting. Eric Nalder, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, advocates the “art of the interview” to get sources to open their mouths. Likewise, the art of access gets public record custodians to open their files.

We can learn a lot from the “dark side.” Robert Cialdini, a marketing researcher from Arizona State University, has identified what he calls “weapons of influence.” The psychological techniques are used by advertisers, marketers, public relations professionals and government strategists to influence the public — and journalists. Turnabout is fair play.

Below, I adapted Cialdini’s weapons of influence for getting public records. Wield them efficiently and ethically for the public’s good.

Reciprocation

When you give something to someone, they feel obliged to reciprocate, often beyond what you gave them. That’s why businesses offer free samples.

Write a feature on the agency — something positive and newsworthy. Then later, when you request records, officials are more likely to comply.

Another reciprocation-based technique is the “rejection-then-retreat” tactic: Ask for a lot, and then cut it in half. “Can I see all documents you have regarding the budget? OK, how about starting with just the expense reports for the past five years?” You are giving up something, so they feel compelled to reciprocate.

Commitment and Consistency

Once people commit to something, they try to stick with it. Expanding on the “rejection-then-retreat” technique, once someone has agreed to provide a limited request, get a commitment for something bigger.

“Could I see what a police report looks like? Great. Can I see what a case file looks like? What does it look like in your computer system? Any chance I could get an electronic copy of reports in Excel for the past year? Shoot, it appears you have all the data for the past 10 years. How about copying that too?”

Social Proof

People are social animals who like to run with the pack. Peer pressure works. “Boy, all the other towns in the county provide this information. I wonder why it isn’t open here?” Put together a list of agencies in your state or in the country that provide the information. What official wants to appear abnormal or deviant?

Liking

As much as we hate to admit, people often make decisions based on how a requestor looks. Appearing shady raises suspicions and increases denials.

Therefore, dress and act like your sources. Talk about similar interests. Offer sincere compliments. Disassociate yourself from negative media and people who use information irresponsibly (e.g., spammers, identity thieves).

Authority

Authority can increase compliance. If you work for a small company, team with reporters from larger organizations. Cooperative requests increase pressure for release and serve everyone’s interests. However, it might depend on the public official: Big-city media sometimes have it tougher in small towns.

Titles convey authority. Have the request letter co-signed by the editor-in-chief or publisher. Government allies, such as the attorney general, can help.

Also, research has found that authority symbols, such as clothing, height, maleness and nice cars, increase persuasiveness. Unfortunately, that is something out of most journalists’ control, unless the publisher is open to buying a company Porsche in the name of FOI.

Scarcity

Advertisers play on fear by saying their sales are available “for a limited time only.” Likewise, make your request urgent and officials’ response time limited: “I don’t have time to wait until next week for you to check with the city attorney on this. My deadline is in six hours. I’m going to have to write a story for tomorrow morning’s paper explaining that your agency is being secretive. And darn it, I would hate for you to look like you are hiding something when I know you aren’t.”

These techniques might not work every time, but like any reporting tool, they can improve your odds of getting the information you need, when you need it.


David Cuillier, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona who researches access strategies and public attitudes toward FOI, is vice chairman of SPJ’s FOI Committee and a trainer for SPJ’s Newsroom Training Program. He can be reached at cuillier@email.arizona.edu

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