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Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Freelance Toolbox

A freelance investigator’s dilemma

By Julie Walmsley

In the last Freelance Toolbox column, I shared my teachable moments in pursuing digs as a freelancer as part of the issue’s Freedom of Information theme. The short version of the article is: learn from my costly mistakes. Do not submit a single word, or even discuss stories at length, without a cast-iron contract.

I covered some of an investigative freelancer’s unique issues, including ownership of documents and stories, minimizing details in a pitch to avoid getting poached, and where to get guidance, with input from SPJ’s Ethics Chair Andrew Seaman and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press Legal Director Gregg Leslie.

This time I’ll highlight two more situations you might encounter, again with Seaman’s ethical perspective.

Scenario 1: A competing reporter has documents you fought to get, and reports with them

In the last installment, I discussed obtaining documents for an outlet as a freelancer, and whether an editor has the right to use them when you weren’t paid for time doing the dig. But what about when another reporter obtains documents because your persistence with a difficult agency produced a document dump? You sweated it for months and then someone else just scrolls through Scribd or DocumentCloud.

You have a little bit of satisfaction in that they can’t report the story as expansively as you can, but documents do deepen coverage. It’s probably legal, and put colloquially, it’s just uncool. But are there any ethical guidelines for this?

Under Section 1 of the SPJ Code of Ethics, “Seek Truth and Report It,” there are three directives that address this. One advises disclosure of sources. The emphasis of that particular point is to reveal any potential interests a source would have in steering coverage, not to reveal a lazy reporter’s raid of your own personal library, but it’s a requirement. Another is to provide access to source material when appropriate. The source is indirectly the organization, but the documents were made available by the reporter.

Seaman: If documents are out in the open, any journalist should be able to come along and report from their information. The journalist who fought to get those documents open may not feel that great, but it’s how the system works. My best advice is for the journalist, who worked so hard to get the documents released, to be ready to report.

Scenario 2: You are sharing documents with a source, because you need them to contextualize the information, and you get close to being a research assistant rather than an objective observer

You’re working with an anonymous source inside a company or government. They’re planning their own leak, interviews or book in the future. In the short term, you’re asking them to review documents you obtain from court records, to identify people whose initials you see on threatening memos, and other material evidence germane to your reporting.

They ask to use that evidence, and you agree to let them, because it’s public information, although you paid fees to obtain the documents and haven’t published your own work yet. Over time, the two of you become more like collaborators, and you’re close to helping a source rather than remaining a detached observer. Have you veered into an unethical or illegal area?

This, again, is taken from my own experience. One directive in Section 3, “Act Independently,” somewhat addresses this. It reads, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”

That section deals more with areas where a journalist could inadvertently veer into a marketing role, or accept gifts and favors, including unfair access. In my case, my conflict is that I simply liked this individual, and my heart was wrenched by the workplace abuse he suffered. Over time, I was starting to root for him. Every journalist should want truth exposed, but I was close to becoming an unofficial research assistant.

Seaman: Journalists who have those concerns are likely correct that they’ve reached some sort of personal threshold. In those cases, it’s probably a good idea to step back, consult with an impartial observer and plot a path forward. In some cases that may mean no more sharing of documents.

The SPJ Freelance Community regularly discusses issues unique to independent journalists, via podcasts, Google Hangouts, chats and traditional networking.

SPJ’s ethics section online – spj.org/ethics.asp – has more specific examples in the case studies section. There are also links to other organizations’ guidance, and a list of current Ethics Committee members. The Ethics Hotline is 317-927-8000 ext. 208 or email ethics@spj.org.

Julie Walmsley is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist digging and diving around a few stories. On Twitter:

@JWalmsleyJourno

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